Why did the harrowing personal essay take over the Internet

The ‘strap’ for the Slate article on the rise of the first-person journalism genre asks the question: Why did the harrowing personal essay take over the Internet? But it does not actually answer the question.

Writer Laura Bennet points out the positive social and political shifts of the rise of first person journalism. That there is  “more of a market for underrepresented viewpoints than ever”. They seem to dramatize at the level of genre the relationship between the personal and the political. These are fantastic developments in the contemporary character of mass and niche media. Bennet also indicates the strong negatives:

  • The “first-person economy […] incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
  • Works of first person journalism “seem to be professional dead ends, journalistically speaking […] [r]ather than feats of self-branding”.
  • Pitches all end up sounding like they “were all written in the same voice: ‘immature, sort of boastful.'”
  • They’re predominately popular in a highly gendered part of the market: “many of the outlets that are most hungry for quick freelancer copy, and have the lowest barriers to entry for publication, are still women’s interest sites”. This is of course not ‘bad’. The implication is that first person journalism is a genre that has a very limited market.

But these do not explain why first person journalism has emerged as one of the popular genres of content online. Bennet draws a connection to the personal disclosure mode of Web 1.0’s practices of blogging. That might be true of very early examples of first person journalism online (2005-2009) but seems less true for subsequent generations of writers who simply bypassed the ‘blogging’ era of the internet.

Although they may be using the rhetorical forms of early blog-based first person journalism, the discursive function of the genre I suggest has more in common with celebrity discourse. As David Marshall argues, “celebrities have become the discursive talking points for the political dimensions of a host of formerly private and personal concern” (2009: 27). For example, an analysis of the representation of Slovenian political celebrities taking part in weekly interviews published in mass-market women’s magazine Jana, Luthar (2010) describes a process of personalisation which “involves the construction and representation of famous people and celebrities as individualized human types as the major component of popular discourse” (2010: 696). Luthar is concerned with the discursive articulation of a national Slovenian identity through personal identity characteristics, primarily gender. But we can see how first person journalism is a more general personalisation of what media and communications scholars call ‘public discourse’.

Celebrity discourse is one way to personalise public discourse and the genre of first person journalism is another. (To get more technical, the personalisation of public discourse around social issues through traumatic experience is one way to anchor audiences to affectively resonant ‘issue publics’ and produce click-based audiences as a commodity in the post-broadcast attention economy.) It in part explains why young writers think they are promoting themselves as ‘writers’ when they write and seek publication for works of first person journalism. They think that if their story allows them to  become the center of an issue-based public organised around their experience, then this reflects well on their aspirations for being journalists or media personalities. In effect they become minor issue-based celebrities because of their experience. Instead, I’d emphasise Bennet’s point about the way the ‘click economy’ consumes such aspirants is very useful advice.

Refugees and the Discourse of Compassion

The image of Aylan Kurdi washed ashore has had a dramatic impact on the character of the refugee debate in Australia and elsewhere. Most responses from across the political spectrum have recognised the need for greater compassion in rethinking policy. Radical conservatives like Australian politician Cory Bernardi or media commentator Andrew Bolt have isolated themselves to a few limited talking points as I discuss below. What is clear is that the image of the little boy being picked up delicately by the soldier has managed to change the character of the debate so that instead of debating whether or not these people are ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ they have become subject to our compassion.

In media studies we call this a shift in the ‘discourse’, which means that there has been change in the normal social expectations that people have about what can and can not be said. Bernardi has clearly misunderstood the broader context of this shift and is still attempting to address a tiny minority of radical conservatives. The political talking points are now about the appropriate measure of response rather than whether or not those escaping trauma are refugees.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was attempting  to express his political party’s old policy position in terms of the new discourse as recently as four days ago. He stated that:

We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis, but obviously this is a very grave situation in the Middle East.

This is an attempt to frame the current policy in such a way that it responds to the overwhelming demand for compassion. The response to Abbott’s claim was swift. Refugee advocates had used legalistic mechanisms to try to force reluctant Australian governments to take more refugees. Abbott was responding to this version of the refugee discourse. Less than 1% of 14.4 million refugees of concern to UNHCR around the world are submitted for resettlement. Abbott had failed to respond to the new discourse of compassion, which was not couched in a legalistic discourse.

The Australian government has today responded to the current refugee crisis by increasing the intake of refugees and funding contributing to the overall global cause. Abbott has changed the way he talks about the refugees, he has shifted from a legalistic discourse to a discourse of compassion. Note the change in the way he talks about those working to escape trauma for example (from various reports):

This is a very significant increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake and it’s a generous response to the current emergency.

Our focus for these new 12,000 permanent resettlement places will be those people most in need of permanent protection – women, children and families from persecuted minorities who have sought temporary refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that there is an unprecedented crisis. It is, as he said earlier this afternoon, probably the most serious humanitarian crisis that we have seen, the greatest mass movement of people that we have seen since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India.

I can inform the House that it is the government’s firm intention to take a significant number of people from Syria this year. We will give people refuge; that is the firm intention of this government.

It is a response that is now framed in the discourse of compassion.

Media Events as Focusing Events

The power of a single image to cut through and develop into a much bigger media event was explored by McKenzie Wark in his book Virtual Geography (here is a super-condensed version). Wark develops a notion of weird global media events based on what he calls media vectors. Wark’s basic point is that as images circulate across media vectors they  develop into a media event. This is different to the other established definition of a media event organised around ‘mega-events’ that are produced and made for broadcast television (Dayan & Katz 1991). The vector-based media events are far more common now in our era of social media and the power of social media to draw our attention to sinsular images.

Aylan Kurdi’s image becoming a media event is an example of what John Kingdon calls a ‘focusing event’ in the terrain of public policy making. Focusing events are those experiences or occurences that force politicians to attend to them. Kingdon suggests there are two types of focusing events. The first is premised on personal experiences made by policy makers. The second is the impact of powerful symbols. In this case it is an example of both, as expressed by Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones:

You forget how light children are, you forget how small they actually are as they grow. And it’s one of those things that you just saw this poor, lifeless little – lifeless little tot and that really does chill you straight through.

From Borders to Traumas

A clear way the discourse of refugees has shifted is in the terms of the way the crisis is defined. The legalistic way to approach refugees is to define them in terms of national borders and whether or not refugees are fleeing a geopolitical conflict. Radical conservative Cory Bernardi does this, as does conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt. In a recent column, Bolt expresses this conservative talking point about borders in terms of the pursuit of dental health services:

So … what exactly was he “fleeing” when he paid a people smuggler thousands of dollars to bring his family — without safety vests — to Greece, to join that irresistible army of illegal immigrants now smashing through Europe’s borders?

Tima Kurdi explained… “The situation is that Abdullah does not have any teeth…

“So I been trying to help him fix his teeth. But is gonna cost me 14,000 and up to do it …

“Actually my dad, he come up with the idea, he said to me, ‘I think if they go to Europe for his case and for our future, I think he should do that, and then we’ll see if he can fix his teeth’.

“And that’s what I did three weeks ago.” She sent her brother the money for people smugglers.

Now, it is terrible to have no teeth. Awful to be poor. A misery to have your children denied chances.

But can the West really take in not just real refugees, but the Third World’s poor as well, including those in search of better dentistry?

Kurdi’s teeth were damaged because abuse and torture at the hands of both ‘sides’ of the Syrian conflict.

Originally born in Damascus, Mr Kurdi moved to the Kurdish city of Kobane after the uprising against President Bashar-al Assad began in 2011. He says he has suffered at the hands of every side in Syria’s brutal civil war. At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolution, he was tortured by Syrian state security services, while during the Islamic State takeover of Kobane, he was arrested by Isil fanatics and beaten again, this time losing eight of his teeth.

He said he then applied for asylum in Canada, where his sister Fatima lives, but had his case rejected. It was then that he decided to try to take the family to Europe. His attempt last week was his third, the first two having ended with the family being caught and turned back by coast guard vessels.

Radical conservatives are choosing to understand the tragedy of the Kurdi family in terms of the previous legalistic discourse of refugees fleeing across borders from a specific conflict in a geopolitical location. They are choosing to believe that the Kurdi family’s trauma somehow ended once they entered Turkey. The discourse of compassion is organised around the trauma of refugees, not their geopolitical location. The aim of refugee policy should be to reduce the terrible trauma that refugees experience, not perpetuate it.

Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub

Students in my graduate unit Philosophies of Communication Technologies and Change (part of our Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement) are producing simple lists of tweets.

Some students are using Outwit Hub to generate these lists as this is what I have used since 2012. I have created a guide “Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub worksheet” for my students but others may also find it useful.

Scraping the results from a Twitter ‘advanced search’ allows you create an archive of tweets without the limitations of the API. It is only useful for relatively small sets that have less than 3,200 tweets per day as you can query Twitter for all tweets for a given hashtag per day.

The lists of tweets shall be used for the purpose of carrying out sophisticated analyses of the ‘circulation of discourse’:

Writing to a public helps to make a world, insofar as the object of address is brought into being partly by postulating and characterizing it. This performative ability depends, however, on that object’s being not entirely fictitious–not postulated merely, but recognized as a real path for the circulation of discourse. That path is then treated as a social entity. (Warner 2002: 64)

The character of this discourse will depend on the stakeholder publics they (or their organisations) wish to engage with and so on.