Don’t understand the hype over Julia Fox and ‘Goblin Mode’? You’re not supposed to

The hyper-personalisation of news makes it harder for us to understand anything – just look at the hot takes around Will Smith or Julia Fox

Hussein Kesvani
Wednesday 30 March 2022 19:02 BST
News organisations can no longer convince readers what’s important to them
News organisations can no longer convince readers what’s important to them (Getty)

When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars, it was a reminder that even among the most accomplished of celebrities, the violent impulses of toxic masculinity are still present. Also, it’s yet another vivid illustration of the threat comedians face on a daily basis. Let’s not forget the slap was only possible thanks to the woke, cancel-culture obsessed left who hate free speech and jokes. Though, Will Smith is also a victim of cancel culture, by the same woke mob who are now in Chris Rock’s corner (at least, according to Piers Morgan). Nevertheless, the infamous slap must also, crucially, be seen outside of a culture-war lens and in the realm of foreign policy, where the “Will Smith doctrine” is actively being employed by none other than Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

These are just a handful of takes that emerged in the first 24 hours (believe me, you don’t want to see the takes on red pill/men’s rights websites). Even though Smith has now publicly apologised, “the slap” has been stripped entirely of its context, existing purely as viral content, ready to be memed, opined on and – in the case of some British MPs – turned into election campaign material.

It’s no longer about Will Smith, nor Chris Rock, nor the absurdity of elite celebrity events in the midst of a global pandemic and an economy with the greatest disparity between the rich and the poor in living memory. It is currently the most popular news topic on the New York Times website, the number one trending topic on Youtube, and the leading story across multiple BBC news outlets.

Yet, I imagine I’m not the only one struggling to figure out how significant the event actually is, let alone the importance of the subsequent discourse and hot takes.

A part of this confusion lies in the importance we attribute to tech platforms. Tech companies like to think their products are simply ways of enhancing our everyday lives. But sites like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok act as a hybrid of news sources, aggregators and message boards – all of which reward users that are heavily invested in the platform (by consuming and producing content), and those able to bring different online communities and subsets into one place.

So, while there may have been clearer distinctions between news and entertainment in the past, social media doesn’t make these distinctions. Celebrity feuds are just as important as civil wars, gossip just as important as financial asset speculation. This arrangement creates an online experience that can be fun and exciting, where one might encounter articles, posts and people with perspectives valuable in understanding the world.

The downside is that – by their very design – platform technologies don’t assign values or designations to the information they host. Which means we are inundated with an abundance of disorganised information, packaged in a way that demands an immediate reaction rather than considered reflection. Without any clear idea of how to organise or interpret these endless streams of information, it’s little wonder so much of our daily news is perceived by many – even for those working in the media industry – as little different from Netflix-style entertainment.

This also means that news organisations – dependent on platforms to distribute information to the masses – can no longer convince readers what’s important to them and their lives. Thus, over-hyped trends, and even news that’s entirely made up, can dominate news cycles regardless of their value.

Take, for example, the entirely fake news that Uncut Gems actor Julia Fox is going into “Goblin Mode” after her break-up from Kanye West. This funny fake story, published in the same vein as satire pieces from The Onion or Clickhole, led to a surge of viral posts and memes across social media platforms. They, in turn, led to literally dozens of explainers on what “Goblin Mode” actually meant, and what it said about society (ranging from people not going to work, to men gaslighting women). Even when Fox wrote on Instagram that she had no idea what “Goblin Mode” was, it was far too late. The term had been decontextualised, ingrained into the news-turned-entertainment cycle and churned out as content, ready for people to appropriate however they wished.

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To some people, these might seem like celebrity events not worth the attention. But the platforms we use every day – the ones that have likely led you to this article – make it near impossible to compartmentalise events, or understand them independently of each other.

The funnelling of all information through these platforms, which demand instant reactions in order to fulfil their basic functions, renders us unable to understand our own proximity to current events, while encouraging us to hyper-personalise events that have little to do with lives. As Vice’s Gita Jackson puts it, events like “the slap” operate as a Rorschach test: in which “take-havers imagine themselves as the protagonists of reality”.

In other words, the hyper-personalisation of everything – the infamous Main Character Syndrome – through social media makes it harder for us to interpret news and information. The platforms encourage that – they want our immediate reactions – so we are incentivised to personalise everything. Hence, we get takes that are like, “the slap says x about male mental health” or “what it means to be in goblin mode”.

And as news and content becomes more personalised, and the number of “viral moments” expands exponentially, so do the hot takes that keep the system running.

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