As I sit studiously at my desk seeing if I can crush this Coca-Cola can using only my face and left shoulder, I am thinking about the role of the journalist in a largely virtual society built on and governed by convenient myths, and I am thinking very hard about it. It is at this moment, a moment in which I have dented the can but not crushed it, that my brother arrives.
“What’s with that look on your face?” he asks, and I am a journalist who is unlike the others, who would rather tell the truth than seek worldly power, so I tell him the truth without artifice. “I’m trying to crush a Coke can using only my shoulder and face,” I mumble incomprehensibly out of the right side of my mouth.
“What? You’re trying to crush cocaine?”
“No. Coke can.”
“Oh. You’ll cut yourself.”
It is only the left side of my body that is preoccupied with the Coke can and figuring out how much leverage to apply, however. This leaves me free to click around the internet looking for some convenient myths to tear down in a public setting. And if this requires grandstanding on my part, or rhetorical showboating, or some sort of imagined altruistic martyrdom, then so be it.
Finally, after 30 seconds or so, I find a convenient myth. The myth in question is that celebrities meeting non-celebrities constitutes a news item, i.e. interesting viral content. On that front, it ranks slightly below out-of-context GIFs of TV shows you don’t watch.
Here’s how this strain of content is created and disseminated. A college kid, usually in an expensive city with lots of cultural capital, is in a public place that celebrities are likely to frequent. The college kid then accosts the celebrity with a stammering request for a “selfie,” usually throwing in a line about how awesome the celebrity’s work is. Occasionally, the celebrity will then say yes as a means of crowd control or to preemptively diffuse awkwardness. If the celebrity wants to be memorable enough to get called “down to earth,” he or she will then ask for the college kid’s name and issue a compliment. Regardless, the college kid will be dumbstruck and flighty and soon leave.
Between 45 seconds and one minute later, the picture is then posted on Reddit, a prominent social media advertising network that editors make interns use to “mine content.” The picture will immediately make the front page if it has a headline like “[celebrity] was at [popular event or seemingly innocuous location] and [couldn’t have been nicer/did a shot with me/was epic].” The editor will then see the traffic this is getting, and it will enter the news cycle just like it was acceptable content.
But it’s almost never acceptable content; it lacks a hook, even a cheap one. I use as an example the story’s most recent incarnation. Somebody met John Travolta at a gym and took a picture with him. It got major traction on Reddit and then the entire internet picked it up. Theoretically, it was notable because John Travolta was at a gym at 3 o’clock in the morning, and because it was not a gym in West Hollywood, but a gym in Ocala, Florida. That all sounds notable at first glance, and it sounds like there should be a hook there somewhere, but there isn’t. John Travolta lives in Ocala because it was a good place to park his huge airplanes. As for why he was at a gym in the dead of night, there is no novelty in pretending gossip about his sexuality is privileged information. Also, anecdotally, I work out at night because I could never figure out how to exercise and have dignity at the same time.
This is poor content. But this template will continue to propagate, probably with Bill Murray or Bill Nye The Science Guy. But I’m not a judgmental person. People need their content. So what would it take to make a John Travolta selfie newsworthy? What hook does it need?
The answer is straightforward. Celebrity sightings and their novelty are a matter of surprise and setting. It is not surprising to learn John Travolta was at a gym near his airport. But it would be surprising, a massive news item even, if the setting changed.
See, if John Travolta was lifting weights in a junkyard in Chowchilla, California, it would be damning circumstantial evidence that he had just committed a felony or was planning an elaborate assassination. That’d be a worthwhile hook. Everybody should know about it if a celebrity is lifting weights in a Chowchilla junkyard. That’s a political insurrection or a seismic upset to the international drug trade just waiting to happen. Setting completely reframes the story.
Maybe if John Travolta was lifting weights inside an abandoned salt mine, that would be a publishable news item. Nobody lifts weights in a salt mine. One would immediately draw the conclusion that he is reigniting the Cold War and selling nuclear bombs to some Eastern European country that only retired CIA agents know about. Take away the gym angle and all bets are off.
Similarly, if John Travolta was lifting weights in an Indiana corn field at 3 a.m., you would be right to assume he was planning to destroy the moon via sorcery. You would also be right to assume he had access to extraordinarily evil books that Biblical scholars insist were destroyed with the Library of Alexandria. If John Travolta was caught lifting weights in an Indiana corn field, it should immediately make the cover of Newsweek. But John Travolta lifting weights near his airport is just ephemera, and anyone who devoted an actual article to it, and expended meaningful creative energy dwelling on it, should be deeply ashamed of myself.