I love my fake internet friends, especially when we hate-read an article together. Retweeting and groaning in unison, we are warm and united, an angry mob pitchforking an awful thinkpiece or personal essay. It's easy to feel isolated on the web, where self-definition risks exclusion and sincerity is a punchline. But hate-reading lets us safely relate to others, only revealing a bit of ourselves: something we dislike. We don't really know each other, and no one shows up when we're pie-faced and happy, but our social networks come out and play for the flogging of an op-ed writer. I'll surf and send for days, sharing prolifically, but unable to answer, "Have you read anything good lately?" Of course not. I've been busy tearing down the pillars of the media establishment, thumbing my nose at some hapless scribbler of "actually"s and "but"s.
When you hate-read an article, you broadcast it, tweeting and Facebooking, putting its sad arguments on blast, ridiculing the writing with your friends. Hate-reading isn't some simple and stupid internet game. It's a dense and irregular communion that speaks to the strained effort of connecting with our online communities. Every published piece is a hate-read in waiting, and any misstep in language or logic, a reasonable motivation, an opportunity to reach out.
But there are many varieties of the hate-read experience.
Superficially, you have the linguistic hate-read. You hate-read the piece for its structure and word choice. The article is filled with pretentious language and contorted arguments, an Internet blogginghead hitherto-ing and alas-ing through thin ideas. You hate-read this kind of piece to attack the author's ego. "Who is this cut-rate Knausgaard struggling to eat a peach?" He's just a word-warrior, trying to stretch a 50-word idea into the kind of longform that supports multiple interstitial illustrations and several important headings.
Worse and more common are the pieces that earn their hate-reading through tortured concepts or offensive premises. " I'm sick of feeling ashamed for being privileged" is never a good look. There's a daunting burden of proof when you claim brunch is ruining America. Even Christopher Hitchens, witty demiurge of the intellectual fedorascape, couldn't spare an impossible pitch from ridicule, chucking "why women aren't funny" right into the hate-read meat grinder. These are your bread-and-butter hate-reads. You hate-read these pieces to drown out idiocy, signaling your taste level, that you share your internet friends' points of view.
Hate-reading is a ritual, almost religious, unfolding from a simple intuition and a blog post into a blessed union of angry, social souls.
After an author produces enough of the above species of hate-read, they sublimate into the assumptive hate-read. Everyone hates their work, sight-unseen. We can hate-read these authors and their opinions without reading at all. Pick a columnist at random from one of the two or three newspapers that still exist. They could publish wingdings under a hieroglyphic headline and still amass 30 comments reading "omfg I can't believe they did it again."
But, despite its neat taxonomy, hate-reading is more of a social art than a mindless routine. Hate-reading is about the experience of the hate-read, not just the content of the critique. Hate-reading is a ritual, almost religious, unfolding from a simple intuition and a blog post into a blessed union of angry, social souls.
A hate-read starts with inevitability. You know that you are going to hate-read a piece before you finish the lede. The initial sour notes—oh, God, that byline, that title—anticipate your bile. The here-it-comes is acidic, drowning out charitable reading and, eventually, the words themselves. From the first sentence, you know that you will skip and skim, strip-mining the piece for rant material. Careful comprehension would delay your pissed-off commentary. The social circle jerk demands a tight feedback loop.
A hate-read finds its teeth when it runs into its first outrageous quote: the straightest, whitest man gurgling about his unique perception of race, a New York socialite lamenting the struggles of being blessed, a famous New England novelist feigning perspective and tinkling out some flaccid foreign policy prescription. You drag your cursor across the dungy paragraph, and your hands are shaking, electrified by the knowledge that this could be the crap sermon your social choir has been waiting for. You're a screengrab and a "lolwut" away from a big tent retweet revival.
A hate-read reaches its climax once you've hit the send or share or tweet button. The nervous energy starts bubbling, primed to pop at the first fav or reshare or confirmation that your friends, selected because they share your prejudices and biases, indeed share your prejudices and biases. They jump in with their what-a-buffoon-s and literally-the-worst-s. You get to be the yawping center of the critical crowd, united in boo-chortling at the sad sack who tried to put words on the web.
The curdled cream spoils to the top and the tortured piece lands at number one on the most-emailed, lifted and buzz-forward lists.
But a hate-read doesn't culminate in the mob violence that it courts. The conclusion of a hate-read is the analytics bump, inflated numbers and torqued virtual meters, the back-slaps around the stats screen. The curdled cream spoils to the top and the tortured piece lands at number one on the most-emailed, lifted and buzz-forward lists. He's on fire! Our readers can't get enough. The writer is sent back to the bottom of his long-empty barrel and begged to scrape out a thousand more words on millennials and Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Mad Men.
So why do we hate-read? Why is it so pleasurable? A simple answer is that the pieces that inspire our anger will be more widely shared than those that leave us feeling cold. Research shows that a hate-read tweet or Facebook post will be popular. It will reward us with the engagement of our peers. Katherine Milkman and Jonah Berger, Wharton professors studying the motivations for social behaviors like internet sharing, argue that the most emotion-inspiring content is shared the most frequently. "… content that evokes high-arousal emotions (i.e., awe, anger, and anxiety), regardless of their valence, is more viral."
But an expectation for successful sharing doesn't fully explain the bliss of a hate-read, the intense communal aspect of group criticism. Milkman suggested to me that hate-reading is popular, "perhaps, because the internet is inherently a lonely experience and things that rile us up make it more natural to reach out and create communities in that lonely space."
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Hate-reading works through the magic of strong emotion mashed-up with personal detachment, bonding with clever friends in the budget fellowship of safe, shared disdain. Hate-reads balance the intensity of angry emotions with the depersonalized luxury of not committing too much. In order to hate, you don't have to show what you are, you just have to show what you aren't. Internet anger is easily relatable, linking its devotees in the fuzzy borders of its imprecision. In the via negativa of net disgust, hate-readers are united in contempt without risking the risable spotlight on their positive beliefs. There's joy in resigning the particulars of your worldview, in becoming another chirping voice in the chorus of internet indignation. Hate-reads stop being writing at all and become elements of sacrament as we chant and wail in the liturgy of shared, digital emotion. This is my dadbod, broken for you. This is my Benghazi, spilt for you.
This self-forgetting follows a similar pattern to the sharing of guilty pleasures and disavowed passions, the I-know-better-buts that we share, distancing ourselves from the content we consume. "Everyone knows this is silly, but what color IS the dress?" Whether hate-reading a thinkpiece on the intersectionality of Marmaduke or retweeting (with caveat) a quiz for teenagers—which Disney title-sequence is most like your life !?—our social networks reward strongly emotional content that we don't have to claim.
We pay for the ease of simple online connection with the wages of self-violence. Online networks thrive on fungibility. We have to become cartoons of widespread and basic beliefs to find widespread and basic acceptance. We shove our avatars away from the mess of personhood, leaving our virtual friends with the lightness of sketchy rages and disowned opinions. It's easier to relate to a few bullet points than an entire personality. We are just the this-is-bad-s that we parrot, communal tokens instead of complicated humans.
Hate-reading is a social bargain, trading a measure of self for the shared experience of anger. Surely, there is a hate-read to be written about the detrimental effects of hate-reading. It will probably be composed by a men's rights activist, who claims that hate-reading is "censure" or "censor" or "in clear, de facto, defiance of the first amendment." But, I'm not interested in the network casualties of hate-reading. I want to know what the personal effects are of being a hate-reader.
Hate-reading isn't bad, but it is Faustian. It's a powerful leveling tool against the bully pulpit of "famous men" and "staff writers" to publish and reproduce the power structures that gave them their platform. But it's self-alienating. I'm worn out after hate-readings. I don't have much original thought to give back. Lost to mob discontent, I have to claw back to my own ideas. When I find them, they feel unimpressive. How will these thoughts possibly arouse the kind of reactions that my hate-reading easily won? What do I even think? I can't recognize my thoughts or keep them apart from the thoughts cast in the negative space of my friends' expectations and favorable opinions. Even worse, my thoughts, my ideas, if I do find them, will probably go into a piece that will be hate-read.
Like this one.
Erik Hinton is on Twitter.