November 29, 2013
(Pabst Brewing Company)
(Pabst Brewing Company)

I’m so glad earnestness is over.

For a while there, I was worried. Everywhere you looked, people were passing around content that they insisted was going to Restore Your Faith In Humanity and Change Your Life. Mainly it was on Facebook, but for a moment or two it even penetrated to Twitter, which we had fancied immune. Everywhere, people who had spent the better part of their lives Cultivating Ironic Distance, were sharing videos that were going to Make Us Believe All Over Again.

I thought irony wasn’t going to make it. It lay there, pale and wheezing in its flannel, a last PBR clutched in one convulsive hand. All around, earnestness was spreading, multiplying, going viral. We leaned over the bed to hear its final remarks. “UpWorthy,” the spectre gasped. “It — must — be — stopped.”

Upworthy may always be with us. It may continue to draw in hits with its Curiosity Gap and cheery socially-conscious layout. No site that produces 51 jocular slides of techniques for building virality will give up the ghost quickly. But now we’ve got an antidote. I’m just surprised it took us this long to come up with one.

First the site went viral. Now the parodies are spreading, viral themselves. There was UpWorthIt. There was the UpWorthy Headline Generator. Now FunnyOrDie has its own parody.

For a while, it cut through our ironic distance with its earnest, clickable headlines. But now it’s getting the parody treatment, and the curiosity gap is widening again.

Irony is still with us, to our tremendous relief.

Every so often, we get this impulse. It’s like those mysterious Stirrings the people got in “The Giver” — probably natural, but to be fought at all costs. The ’60s were just absolutely full of earnest people, and look what happened to them. Wars, riots, Woodstock — and then, worst of all, they became our parents.

Usually, unfortunately, this sudden bout of unlooked-for earnestness falls around election season. It strikes you one morning out of the blue. You wake up the dim feeling that Hey Maybe My Vote Really Does Count. The next thing you know you’re charging off to the polls holding vague noun-verbs aloft, feeling more patriotic than you have in almost a decade. Only afterwards does the disappointment creep in.

That’s the trouble with being earnest. You can be disappointed.

No, give me my irony, where it’s safe. We know what happens when you drop the mask for a second. You can fail. You can look foolish. You can flop. Better to look idiotic on purpose than foolish by accident. As long as you’re not really trying, you can never fail. Fail, with everyone watching? Unthinkable. And everyone’s always watching, thanks to the way we’ve set things up, living our lives half online. With the Internet, you live and die by your persona. No generation has ever been so scrutinized in all our interactions — the place where we have casual conversations with friends is graven into the public record for our employers. If “know thyself” was on the door to the ancient world (where was this door, anyway?) then “curate thyself” hangs over ours. You have to. If we were meant to put everything out there, unfiltered, all the time, the Maker wouldn’t have given us an untag button. Never show the quick, nervous, squishy bits behind the mask. You might get hurt. We need our masks — what’s a persona, after all, but a mask?

So anything that pierces the mask has to go — or at least, be defanged.

It didn’t hurt, when the backlash came, that UpWorthy came with clay feet pre-installed. Even its insistent earnestness, the kind of heart-in-hand, look-at-this-won’t-you hopeful wheedling that makes you shy away from people on the street with clipboards, had a cynical clickbait core. The message was earnest — get socially relevant content to as many people as possible. The method? As calculated as it comes. The links we found ourselves clicking on were like one of those bodies on the cover of magazines — attractive, but terrifying, the same way any precise and cynical calculus of what you find appealing is terrifying: because it is so often right. It’s the same backlash you feel after you’ve read six articles about the Kardashians in succession. “Why did I click on that?” you ask. It’s the real morning-after question. “What loser would click on that? Am I really so easy to read as all that?”

It’s the brainchild of minds from MoveOn.org and the Onion — the perfect cocktail. Cynical earnestness, a clickbait trap for the mouse, transcendence in six minutes or less — it’s the most brilliant oxymoron not to collapse under its own contradictions since the listicle. Until we noticed, and it lost a little of its potency.

But not all of it. This earnestness still comes on us in fits, now and again. It’s a chronic disease. But now the backlash is here to spare us. It’s much easier to convince someone not to believe.

Until the next bout.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.