Like any parody or remix, critical cultural commentary is itself a form of recontextualization — and in this moment of ‘the internet thinkpiece,’ it is a particularly popular and pervasive one.
We’re seeing an explosion of content produced at the rapid pace of internet journalism, but with the trappings of academic cultural analysis. Facebook serves up BuzzFeed and HuffPo headlines featuring terms like “privilege” and “appropriation,” promising thoughtful commentary about music released just hours earlier. Last week, Prince’s death and Beyonce’s Lemonade occasioned a flurry of articles analyzing these artists’ performance of race and gender, for example.
The often pejorative term “thinkpiece” has long referred to journalism where rumination trumps reporting. Still carrying dismissive connotations, today the term points to digital content characterized by clickable headlines, timely topics, polarizing perspectives, and thin research. Defined by what they lack, it’s easy to deride thinkpieces as bad journalism, amateur editorializing, or unscholarly appropriation of academic concepts. But can we also take them seriously as an emerging space for critical engagement with contemporary culture?
Looking to the internet thinkpiece to provide reasoned critical dialogue may prove disappointing. At best, the mechanisms of internet content circulation ensure that these articles, if they’re read at all, are read only by those who agree with them. At worst, they’re additional noise that makes thinking harder.
But maybe it’s not just about “reading” and “thinking.” The practice of posting, sharing, and liking is itself significant, even when we never get past the headlines. Each post is a resource for building community, policing values (‘If you don’t like this, unfriend me!’), sharing news, expressing grief, advancing agendas, and performing identity (‘I care about gender equality; posting this article about Beyonce allows me to show that’).
It’s also free labor we do for the brands and platforms that host this content. We’re driving traffic. We’re generating copious data for advertisers about our interests. And we’re publicizing even those texts we mean to critique.
Thinking about thinkpieces helps us appreciate how blurry the lines are between culture and critique, between academic criticism and popular commentary, between text and practice, between writing and posting, between critical reflection and commodified content, between thinking and clicking. We must work not only to extend the space for critical reflection about popular culture, but to rethink, endlessly, our idea of what that looks like.