In some sense or another, this article is indubitably meta-, and suspiciously self-referential at points. In other senses, this is written in reaction to the trend of rising insta-hot-takes that has been permeating the social media sphere for recent years. I’ve compiled a set of relevant ‘sins’ of hot takes, and – should you, too, be amused by them – would strongly encourage you to engage in the exceptional activity of hot-take-spotting the next time you’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatnot. The caveats are apparent: i) this article probably violates some – if not all – of them and ii) these ‘sins’, despite my nomenclature, are probably often necessary and important features of public catharsis and collective healing. Caveats aside, here goes the list:
- The Other
We get it. You’re writing this piece to establish and critique the Other, and frame your commentary as coming from an independent and externally objective viewpoint. You’re defending the “Constitutional principles of American democracy” and advocating that we allow Donald Trump in the UK to “have a conversation with him and educate him into a better man” (even though chances are that he’ll point at your placards of protests and snort, “Fake News!”). But what you’re really doing is borrowing the moral high ground of the “Constitution” and “Educate the sinner” tropes to frame away the voices of those who find Trump’s presence abhorrent. To you, they exist as the Other – the petulant (against your maturity), the snowflakes (against your resilience), and the myopic (against your visionary quixotic quest of “negotiating with Trump” from behind iron fences 50 meters away from his expensive Presidential car a.k.a. “the Beast”). Alternatively, you may find yourself justifying the punching of Richard Spencer and framing all those who oppose the violence used upon him as “Neo-Nazis and fascist apologists” – the cruel and barbaric Other to your moral righteousness, the reactionary to your progressiveness, and a collective, homogeneous group that is worthy of moralistic dismissal. Online hot-takes not only develop the concept of the Other within their analysis – their critique is often predicated upon galvanising and reinforcing views already established within particular sociological groups; it is established on the basis of the dialectic between the Self and Other, with the Other’s discourse artificially strawmanned and essentialised into an easy target for unnuanced abuse.
- Your Source Only Matters in so far as You Know Them.
It is an unquestionable fact that 99 per cent of online statistics quoted in a majority of hot takes are either false or borrowed from elsewhere (which would, by proxy, render them false too). In the age of cyberbalkanisation and increasing prominence of traditional and external media outlets on social media, it is unsurprising to see some users echoing the views and thoughts of writers in established outlets. What is surprising, however, is the likelihood of individuals to parrot the thoughts of not only reputable investigators, but also conspiracy theorists, pop stars, and radical politicians. There is often the claim that we have entered a “post-truth era” – but this analysis is a tad simplistic: the concept of “truth” has never lost its perceived importance and legitimacy; it is merely that our imagination of “truth” has changed substantially. Social media have transferred substantial volumes of power to traditionally underrepresented marginalised and local discourses (cf. Foucault), and exponentially amplified their abilities to contest important discursive claims and push through conceptions of the “hard truth”. Internet hot takes from the ordinary Joe and Mary are the end products of these discourses – it doesn’t matter that no sources are cited and no data is provided: in an age when truth is still valuable but defined fundamentally as a property of the truth-maker, that your hot take is sourced from pure gossip doesn’t prevent it from being recycled amongst your friendship group and clotted with likes, loves, and wows. Maybe even the occasional angry react, too.
- You Don’t Say!!!
“Donald Trump is now the President of the USA.”, “Violence is bad.”, “Theresa May needs to get the British act together and sort out Brexit.” These propositions range from being plausibly true to absolutely true (at least in this world) – and yet we’re still inundated, every day, with excellent variations of them. Now, don’t get me wrong: political awareness and engagement and fundamentally important attributes of democracy – but it genuinely doesn’t take 100 hot takes emphasising some mundanely obvious, blatantly conspicuous facts in order for people to know that the world is awfully messed up in the Status Quo. I’ll admit it – grandstanding on social media is an inherent and instrumental part of public catharsis, see above, and rationalisation of exogenous shocks. But there comes a point of excessive fatigue, when over-used critiques and slogan-based analysis become worn-out and tedious, as opposed to inspiring and invigorating. A general tip to all aspiring hot-take writers, myself included, if what you’re saying isn’t i) new or ii) adds important effects in reinforcing, buttressing, nuancing, or shaping anything that is i) – it may be worth giving it a miss. I know – we’re all on a learning curve here.
- Virtue Signalling
Discourse-making is an inherently in-group vs. out-group activity. Those who echo your discourse belong to your in-group; those who disapprove of your discourse fall within your out-group. As you write more and more posts, the trenches between the permanent in-group and permanent out-group are deepened, and you begin to shift your incentives from trying to convert the undecided onlookers (i.e. the mythical “moderates”) to keeping your discursive allies (i.e. your “fans”) close to you. A large number of hot takes is virtue signaling, in that not only do they (as in 1.) seek to undermine the Other: they seek to do so with the ultimate end goal of constructing a better image for the author – whether it be in expressing that the author holds unique epistemic access (“I know things you never will.”); that the author is particularly meritorious or praiseworthy for moral reasons (“My moral outrage reflects well upon my public persona.”), or that the author has distinctively individualistic and independent views, this piece is most definitely parodying itself at this point.
It is worth noting that the above ‘sins’ are not inherent: they only become intolerable and problematic when done in excess, with excessive self-aggrandising focus. We human beings do need an Other to feel emotionally connected to the content we pursue and read; overtly academic and well-cited articles may be rigorous, but lose out in layman accessibility and generic interest. Not everyone is an original thinker – so to demand innovative and creative insights from everyone is not only an unreasonable demand, but a futile one at its very core. And finally – virtue (and vice!) signaling allows us to manage and regulate our public identities by putting at least some identity-sculpting agency back in our hands. Yes – we’ve had enough of horrendous hot takes, but that doesn’t mean every hot take needs to be stellar, rigorously evidenced, and thoroughly nuanced. That’d render it a cold take.