This article is from Read Max, a newsletter about technology and culture by former Gawker and New York magazine editor Max Read.
What is “The Current Thing”? “The Current Thing” is a meme:
As you can probably gather, the meme is meant to skewer a perceived conformism, frivolousness, and distractibility among a certain subset of social media users, who (the meme suggests) blindly flit from news story to news story, issue to issue, changing their Facebook profile pics and Twitter display names to “support” whatever “Current Thing” dominates news and commentary. The current thing has been Ukraine, essential workers, the Women’s March, Notre Dame after it caught on fire, etc.
If you take the meme at face value, “The Current Thing” doesn’t line up cleanly with American partisan politics, or even with “elite” vs. “populist” politics. After all, the same dynamics that allow well-meaning liberals and leftists to fall prey to the worst strains of Current Thing–ism are also present for establishment conservatives and populist reactionaries. (There is at least one rendition of the meme that features various Trumpist shibboleths—a MAGA hat, a Blue Lives Matter flag, and so on.)
Nevertheless—surprise!—the meme is mostly used by certain self-appointed social critics on the political right to skewer an earnest liberal straw man.
It is particularly and unsurprisingly popular among a tech-aligned faction of the “intellectual dark web” that some magazine writer will need to give a clever name to: the tiresomely cynical Substack types for whom liberal political commitments only ever mask self-interested jockeying along social hierarchies. Whom am I thinking of here? Well, while the immediate vogue for the “Current Thing” meme among this crew can probably be traced to Elon Musk, who tweeted the above rendition of the meme in March, no one is working harder to make “The Current Thing” a thing right now than Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who has tweeted about “The Current Thing” (the concept, not whatever “the current thing” is) more than 100 times since mid-March.
From there, the meme will slowly leak into more popular mainstream-right punditry, and then into the Republican Party, until Ted Cruz sweatily asks a judicial nominee if they “support the current thing” and the Times writes some stilted, breathless article about the meme as disinformation.
Indeed, already, for a certain kind of person, “The Current Thing” is the current thing. Here’s a smattering of popular tweets from Tuesday morning, after a leaked draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was published in Politico:
How original and independent, these many observations! How clever of the gimlet-eyed crowd retweeting these thoughts!
Some of the more self-aware among this mass of bold and heterodox thinkers have adopted, in their characteristically ambivalent way, their own “opposite” meme.
As is often the case with the memes adopted by the would-be intellectuals of the tech right, Andreessen and his ilk have been treating this silly bit as a grand key to understanding American politics and discourse. Richard Hanania—one of those weird right-wing randos who appear on the scene out of nowhere every few months, suddenly raised to Twitter prominence for some occult algorithmic/dark-money reason that we will never get a good answer about—wrote a long newsletter in which he endorses opposing The Current Thing as a “heuristic”: “I would argue that a probabilistic approach suggests that we should be anti-current thing.” Andreessen, meanwhile, is captivated by it as a description of processes that he sees everywhere:
I’m going to dissent here and say that, while I agree the meme gestures toward a real phenomenon, I don’t think it’s a useful “heuristic,” a groundbreaking critique, or frankly even a novel observation. Anyone who has been half paying attention to the American media ecosystem can run you through the basic dynamics that generate Current-Thing-ism: News, processed through the logic of social media platforms, is subject to the same winner-takes-all dynamic as everything else; stories generate attentional feedback loops that expand fractally across feeds and homepages until they feel inescapable, before they’re buried under a snowballing new Thing; social media is rife with glib gestures of “support” that tend to feel more like an extension of the identity-performance imperative of platforms than like meaningful engagements with world affairs, let alone sincere demonstrations of solidarity.
It’s almost too obvious to say, but to address this state of affairs with a self-regarding meme is, like everything on social media, ultimately self-defeating: an attempt to condemn shallow groupthink with a widely shared JPEG; a supposed critique of empty performance, designed mostly to demonstrate to followers one’s own cleverness; a purportedly groundbreaking heuristic that amounts to “populists tweet like this, while elites tweet like this.”
What, then, explains the popularity of the meme? Most social media platforms are basically just extremely badly designed and poorly moderated message boards that everyone is on, including the president, the editor in chief of the New York Times, the world’s richest man, etc.; and further, many of the social dynamics and cultural mores of influential websites like Twitter (trolling, shitposting, arguing about tipping, etc.) are more clearly viewed in a proper genealogical context as long-established online cultural practices that date back to internet forums.
One such practice is “accusing other posters of being boring and predictable sheeple.” On most message boards, and consequently on Twitter, there is almost nothing regarded as more embarrassing than holding the cultural preferences or political opinions that someone might expect you to hold based on your demographic identity, especially if you are a member of the white-collar, college-educated middle class. Since the dawn of the internet, forum posters have been striving to find new ways to call each other (and nonposters) obvious, basic, and easily led—in presumable contrast to the alluringly independent person doing the insulting. The figure of the “normie” finds its origins in this kind of differentiation, as does the more recent “NPC wojak” (who features often in The Current Thing).
“I Support The Current Thing” seems like an obvious expression of this long-standing forum practice—certainly more than it does an innovative framework for understanding the dynamics of “tech, business, and finance.” In this sense, the opposite of Supporting The Current Thing isn’t Opposing The Current Thing, but being unpredictable, heterodox, and independent. Andreessen, who despite having scaled the commanding heights of capital remains in his heart a Hacker News commenter, likes to brag about his intellectual unpredictability:
This kind of thing has always been extremely common on internet forums. One consequence of the platform economy has been to economically incentivize it, by making heterodoxy and independence (muddled though it always is) a market differentiator for would-be Substack and YouTube gurus, as Anna Wiener suggested in her review of Max Chafkin’s Peter Thiel biography:
In the sheer variety and range of his references and inspirations, Thiel has something in common with other twenty-first-century intellectual influencers: Rod Dreher, Tyler Cowen, Jordan Peterson, Scott Alexander. Each comes with his own cache of ideas, theories, and frameworks, out of which emerges an intellectual identity. Outside the constraints of a typical academic syllabus, study unfurls on the teacher’s idiosyncratic terms, and preferences are easily confused with polymathy. In many ways, this style of intellectual life is a natural outgrowth of the Internet, with its rabbit holes, endless threads, and broken links. This intellectual style is also of a piece with the emergent newsletter economy, in which readers can subscribe to an opinionated interpreter—a personal guide.
What better way to entice potential subscribers and followers than by demonstrating your own independence of thought and openness of mind? In practice, of course, the kind of extreme intellectual unpredictability Andreessen touts as a badge of his independence amounts to intellectual incoherence. But if your oracular social media brand and trend-bucking style of Thought Leadership bring more limited partners and founders to your investment firm, who cares?