23 February 2017

Milo Yiannopoulous and the outrage economy


It’s like catching a play in a small room above a pub, and then having it turn into the next Hamilton. Or seeing someone you knew at university end up as a billionaire – or a serial killer.

Like many other British journalists, I’ve spent the past week or so struggling with the concept that Milo Yiannopoulos – yes, that Milo Yiannopoulos – may well be the most famous person I know. And trying to work out quite what that says about our desperate, degraded age.

I was an editor on the Telegraph comment desk at the time The Milo Yiannopoulos Experience rolled into town. Technically, he was part of the same team, but I didn’t pay that much attention to what he was up to. My job was the print side: commissioning columns, crafting headlines, chiselling out 300-word unsigned leader page articles on the benefits of rail privatisation, or the lamentable events in Bangladesh.

The young Milo was part of the digital side of things – one of a growing army of online bomb-throwers, at the Telegraph and elsewhere, who lived off clicks and outrage and attention.

Former colleagues remember him bounding about the place like an over-entitled puppy with a Louis Vuitton briefcase, getting into endless fights and feuds and squabbles. His was a now-familiar world of plotting and paranoia, vendettas and victimisation, in which he was out to get everyone and everyone was out to get him.

He was denied a blog, then given a blog, then had it taken away because of rude things he wrote in the middle of the night about someone who was rude to him on Twitter. Then as now, he didn’t seem to have much time for women, or rules, or people who told him what he couldn’t do.

He would disappear from one job at the paper and then pop up in another – his sheer confidence and conviction appealing to executives who didn’t quite understand what this internet thing was, but felt they had to be part of it.

He eventually got booted out, to a collective sigh of relief, and went off to found a tech blog, The Kernel, from which reports filtered back of – well, of Milo being Milo.

Charles Arthur, of the Guardian, tormented him for months by reporting on the financial troubles and the unpaid contributors and the attempts to bully and blackmail those who crossed him. Milo threatened to publish a salacious picture of one of those who complained, informing her: “You’ve already made yourself permanently unemployable in London with your hysterical, brainless tweeting, by behaving like a common prostitute and after starting a war with me.”

Over the last few years, various people have tried to explain what happened after that, how Milo went from being one among many pushy young narcissists with a fluent prose style and a chip on his shoulder to being “Milo”.

And the simplest answer is that Milo made things fun. His newsletter at the Kernel, The Nutshell, was a bitchy delight. And the pleasure he took in shaking up Britain’s po-faced and rather pompous tech scene was infectious, even if the accuracy was always secondary to the outrage caused.

The lesson Milo learnt over those years, I think, was about efficiency – how to get the maximum provocation with the minimum effort. But it was also about market positioning. Put bluntly, he moved into areas that were full of people who weren’t as smart as he was – or at least as witty and glamorous and instantly articulate.

When, after the Kernel folded, he reappeared on Twitter as the champion of GamerGate, it felt like he was doing it for a laugh – he didn’t even play video games. But it became apparent that he’d found his people.

He would be the King of the Trolls, the spokesmen for those adolescent males who felt the world was being taken away from them by the libtards and feminazis. It was the first step on the road that led him to be carried aloft through college campuses on a golden throne.

He’d always had that air of the Apprentice contestant – that queasy combination of ambition and desperation. But now he seemed like the Celebrity Apprentice to Donald Trump himself (or perhaps the padawan to Trump’s Sith Lord). Indeed, many who rejoiced in his fall this week seemed to do so partly as a substitute for being able to topple Trump himself.

Yet the reason for writing about Milo is not because of Milo himself: it’s because of what he represents.

It’s been obvious for a while that attention is the fuel on which the internet economy runs. Facebook measures its success in terms of the minutes and hours of our day it can capture; media organisations (including CapX) compete to place their wares before us.

As I argued in my recent book, The Great Acceleration, an age of infinite choice pushes media content in two directions: either to be as gripping as possible or as flashy. Ours is simultaneously an age of long reads and quick hits, of immersion and distraction.

Milo, and indeed Trump, could have been precision-engineered to cater to that latter impulse.

In my book, I write about how the balance of incentives online is such that often, nobody really bothers to check before publishing – how it doesn’t actually matter whether there’s a boy inside the balloon, or how you’re going to pay for the wall.

One of the most interesting things about Trump’s presidential campaign, for example, wasn’t the way in which it dominated the media agenda – but that every day, it dominated the agenda with a different story. His campaigning style was to throw grenades out of a moving vehicle: by the time they exploded, he’d already started priming the next.

It’s the same with Milo. It didn’t matter whether birth control really made women “unattractive and crazy”. By the time the outrage over that particular sally had built to a head, he’d already moved on to the next. What happened to the donations to his charitable scholarship for privileged white men? Who cares!

Milo could sell the sizzle without even needing the steak. All he needed to do was be interesting, diverting, attention-grabbing – and at that, there’s no one better.

Yes, it was horrible and insulting and unpleasant. But it was also news as entertainment, as spectacle, as pomposity-pricking, liberal-baiting meta-joke. He wasn’t a journalist: he was a rock star, and his colleagues at Breitbart covered him as such.

But what enabled this, above all, was the internet’s tendency to split us into tribes. This is what Mark Zuckerberg’s recent open letter to the world missed. The internet is not building a global community, but a series of occasionally overlapping, often viscerally antagonistic micro-communities.

Even as Milo was busy going supernova, Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times was writing about what he called “the outrage economy”. Behind the Milos and Trumps and Katie Hopkinses, he wrote, were legions of would-be successors who were “ready to be even more horrible and hated because there is money to be made”.

But being horrible and hated by the mainstream media wasn’t the point. Yes, its attention and derision are useful. But they are useful primarily as a means of generating affection and adulation from those who wouldn’t quite dare to say what you say, or aren’t quite clever enough to do it.

Milo was, famously, kicked off Twitter for setting his personal horde of myrmidons on the actress Leslie Jones. He has now lost his book deal. But he still has 1.8 million followers on Facebook (up 4.6 per cent within the week) – where he is already posting provocative stories and promising the launch of an all-new, all-Milo media enterprise.

For those who see politics as a business of policies and positions, of principles and priorities, the result is a strange and confusing world. Is Milo a conservative, or a libertarian?

But that’s to mix up cause and effect. The personality comes first; the positions follow later. And just as with your favourite boyband, it’s not about the lyrics anyway – it’s about the way it makes you feel.

Milo’s gone, but Milo will be back, or someone very much like him. And we’ll gasp and groan and tut and moan, and endless op-eds will be written about this outrage or that, and how we shouldn’t give this horrible person the oxygen of publicity (while secretly watching with glee as the clicks rack up).

Yet what we also need to bear in mind is that what Milo has is still a niche – one of those micro-communities that he’s built and cultivated with enormous panache.

The collapse of the old media gatekeepers, and the enthusiastic support of Breitbart, have enabled him to amass an enormous following. But in terms of Facebook support, he’s still outclassed by the Heritage Foundation. And other conservative think tanks, whose output is as heavyweight as Milo’s is featherweight, similarly boast support in the six or seven figures.

As for Breitbart, Milo’s now former employer, it is liked by just over three million people on Facebook. That’s impressive. But it’s less than, say, the astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. And far, far less than “I Fucking Love Science”, or indeed Barack Obama.

Yes, the mass has broken down into the niche. And that’s a problem in terms of filter bubbles and all the rest of it. But it also means that many people can and will go through their lives without really having to encounter or engage with the more distasteful aspects of our culture.

If you’d told me, back when I was sitting on that desk writing those leader columns, what the future held – a world of Snapchat and Pepe the Frog memes and Milo as boy-king of the deplorables – I’d have been convinced we were heading for the end times.

But the Milos, blessedly, are not the world. All the evidence on our media consumption habits, the sites we like and the books we read, shows that you can get people’s attention with substance as well as sensation, steak as well as sizzle. Some of them, it turns out, might even prefer it.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX