Last year around this time, the internet briefly worried/hoped that the New York Times innovation report would lead the paper to become more like Buzzfeed. That didn’t happen—or did it? The Gray Lady has not become obsessed with viral stories or replaced page A1 with its Twitter feed, but it did run a Sunday op-ed titled What You Learn in Your 40s. It’s nice. Its premise is also remarkably similar to this Buzzfeed listicle, or this one, as well as this one and these. The difference is that the Times essay is built around a tone of humorous reflection rather than GIFs from Friends, and it’s about being 40 instead of 20.
Hustlin’ Justin Denman sent me this article from CBC News about how flower beards are a thing. As is often the case with trend reporting, it’s not clear what kind of “thing” we’re talking about. Writer Lauren O’Neil wisely and/or cynically begins from a position of skepticism, toward not just flower arrangement but beards themselves:
Often associated with hipster culture (though you’d be hard-pressed to find a young beardo who’d admit that,) large beards have become so much of a trend in some cities that they’ve actually inspired counter-trends. Earlier this year, GQ declared the facial hairstyle “officially uncool” after the New York Times wrote about how “The Brooklyn Beard” was going mainstream in one of its oft-mocked trend pieces. “Now that the New York Times has officially declared beards to be a trend, that trend is, by necessity, over,” wrote Scott Christian.
Having dismissed the validity of big-media style pieces, O’Neil says that GQ was wrong, too, because “Instagram, Twitter, and many a city sidewalk” prove that beards with and without flowers are totally a thing. Welcome to the postmodern era of trend reporting.
The problem with reporting on pop culture is that you’re really only reporting on your personal pop culture experience. If you see, for example, an article in New York Magazine about the new chick-lit book Brooklyn Girls,* you are forced to decide whether the “Brooklyn girl” is a real trend or just something Yael Kohen used to pitch a feature to her editor. This question is impossible to answer. Presumably there is a set number of people out there who are familiar with the concept of the Brooklyn girl and believe it describes real humans, but that number is unknowable. The trend writer is therefore forced to either risk reporting a specious trend as actual, a la the New York Times, or to present the new trend as a fake trend, ironically undercutting it even as she perpetuates it. Guess which option Jezebel chose?
Earlier this week, we discussed the possibility that the trend piece is becoming a new subgenre of newspaper writing, which I intend to start calling Speculative Journalism: stories that could be, but for which there is no actual evidence. As if to confirm our suspicions,* Mark Oppenheimer published this piece in Slate, in which he worries that the increasing popularity of the Kindle will make it impossible to flirt with strangers based on what books they are reading. “As the Kindle and Nook march on,” he writes, “people’s reading choices will increasingly be hidden from view. We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them, or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.” Oppenheimer’s position is obviously somewhat tongue-in-check. That doesn’t stop it from also being head-in-ass, though, as Erik Hayden and Eleanor Barkhorn pointed out in separate Atlantic articles. Thus began a war of words, and by “words” I mean specifically the words “digital age” and “social networking,” sandwiched within a series of hilariously inept arguments that culminate in yesterday’s wounded defense from Oppenheimer.
The New York Times once again stretches its credulity to stretch ours with this article about student plagiarism, whose central thesis seems to be that kids today don’t understand the concept of authorship. Props to Mike Sebba for the link. The article contains the usual professorial stories about hilariously obvious student copying, including this classic font-shift tell:
The tip-off to one student’s copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.
First of all, way to hand the problem off to the writing tutor, professor who does not want to have to go to academic court. Second, the article considers this and other anecdotal instances of egregious ripoff—plus the omnipresent recent surveys, in which the number of respondents who say that copying from websites constitutes “serious cheating” declined from 34% to 29%—and concludes that modern college students don’t understand the concept of plagiarism. Guess why? If you said “the Internet,” then congratulations—you’re ready to write trend pieces for the New York Times. Here’s your Zune.