The Atlantic is one of the last high-minded news outlets that carries the lofty reputation of being “respectable,” but with a heavy focus on its web presence in the past few years, its reach has slowly hyperextended past its intended audience. In fact, an Atlantic article titled “She’s Still Dying on Facebook” is circulating all sorts of popular social networks because people don’t know any better. Because while that article may present itself as a heartfelt digital obituary turned cultural commentary,
in reality it’s nothing but tragedy porn.
Well-lit, high-production tragedy porn that is going to get mistaken for deep, quality writing because it’s got The Atlantic branded onto its hindquarters when deep down it’s a mediocre, “I-writing“-filled notebook entry that happens to be about a really shitty thing that happened to someone so we have to feel bad because, comparatively speaking, we’re all so #blessed.
In a little over 2,000 words, writer Julie Buntin describes how, via Facebook posts, she watched her “mad to live” childhood friend Lea spiral out of control, and how Lea’s subsequent death from liver failure was forced back into her consciousness thanks to archived Facebook messages. And the worst part about it all is that she somehow finds a way to make that tale of lost friendship and drugs and death and regret and social media’s inescapable eerie presence in our lives incredibly, mind-numbingly boring. Though the words sound mellifluous when strung together, the piece as a whole has nothing to say. It’s a journal entry masquerading as an Atlantic article.
But low and behold, content-be-damned, Facebook has spoken and now Julie Buntin has got a viral hit on her hands.
You see, Buntin’s story is one we all know — as Buntin herself admits, her intimate childhood moments with Lea were the kind of generic “anthems of small-town girls” that are innately familiar — and there’s nothing in it that’s going to make you feel or think about anything in a new way. But the thing is, when shooting for potential virality, that’s a good thing; it’s easier for mass audiences to inject themselves into the story (thus making them 67% more likely to Share it on Facebook). And when it comes to this type of writing, that’s all people want.
(“Oh, this story reminds me of my friend that died too. Let me tell you about them now…” – generic commenter)
But this isn’t Buntin’s fault, it’s The Atlantic‘s.
Yes they have finally found a way to be profitable in recent years, but that’s a result of being ahead of the curve when it comes to emerging technology, not by selling out the brand with vacuous click-bait like “She’s Still Dying on Facebook.”
If you were an Atlantic editor at all worthy of your modest paycheck, you’d do your best not to scoff audibly at the humblebrag about Ms. Buntin giving her college commencement speech casually dropped in the eleventh paragraph, but then you’d label it with the negatively-connoted tag of “confessional media” and send it back where it came from.
Read the following paragraph (you’re going to get quizzed on it in a second):
“But part of me anticipated the person who writes this now, by which I mean that even as we chased a night of cocaine with Xanax and Lifetime movies, I already knew that this was the stuff of my wayward youth, and that I’d outgrow it. We promised to be friends forever, but then I went away to college in New York City and she moved to Costa Rica with her boyfriend of the moment. After that, I watched her downward spiral from afar — or more precisely, from close-up, only separated by a computer screen.”
Alleging with absolute certainty that you knew the kind of person you would become? Check.
Drug use casually mentioned? Check.
The phrase “my wayward youth” used unironically ironically? Check.
Someone moving to New York City? Check.
A really hacky play on words about being far apart but being separated by only a computer screen? Checkity check check.
However, while Lea was no Thoreau and Buntin is no Emerson, once the decision to delve into tragedy porn has been made, it doesn’t really matter. The words don’t matter. The details don’t matter. A girl’s childhood best friend who lost her way died very young, the decline was captured on Facebook, and now the social media platform exists as a digital limbo between life and death.
It really is as simple and redundant as regular porn. Girl gets on top. Guy gets on top. Guy gets behind girl. We know how it goes, and it doesn’t matter how terrible the execution is because people will get off anyway.
“It’s not my fault I ended up reading this literary sludge, it was on The Atlantic!”
Last week, everyone was obsessed with two specific parents who intentionally left their child to die in a hot car (a fucked up thing to do). But after a relaxing holiday weekend, does anyone really care about this anymore? Did a majority of people who were so very upset over this issue care to do more than click ‘Share’ or type “How could someone do this?!” in a comment box to even begin with? No. Because after you’re done getting off to porn, you forget about it.
And if The Atlantic keeps trying to pass this kind of stuff off as Atlantic-worthy writing, then we’re going to forget about them too. Or at least put them on the same level as sites like The Daily Banter.
Sure, everyone has that someone we wish we were more something to, and reading articles like Buntin’s may be one of the few times where irrationally validating one’s thoughts based on the words of a like-minded stranger might not be totally harmful or pointless, but that doesn’t mean that we have to laud this piece and that doesn’t mean it deserves to be in The Atlantic.
Respect the feelings shared, and feel free to empathize with a woman who has had to overcome a significant loss in her life, but both audiences and The Atlantic editors need to recognize the literary equivalent of the Photography 101 truth:
“Just because a photo is in black and white, doesn’t mean it’s good.”