Trend Piece Trips Over Its Own Formal Conventions, Loses Heart Halfway Through

Today's Sunday Styles leads with a story by Alex Williams called "Rise of the Takedown," which claims that "heckling" is no longer considered the business of hooligans—that it has become, thanks to YouTube and other important cultural factors, a mainstream mode of criticism and personal expression.

Now, normally we wouldn't go to the trouble of letting the air out of a Swiss-cheese-and-sausage trend piece—everyone knows by now that these things are basically not real—but in this particular case, we feel compelled to chime in. After all, despite yesterday's brief, tween-inspired moment of positivity, the tradition of heckling is a pretty important one for the Gawker brand (and—respect your elders—maybe even vice versa!). It's not so much that Williams gets it wrong in this article, but that she doesn't even try to feign any curiosity in her his claim.


His main thesis comes in paragraph four. It says that heckling, as a social phenomenon, has recently changed—that before, hecklers were marginal figures, "often drunks or crackpots, tolerated (just barely) by polite society, like litter on a city street," but now, they are "self-styled cultural assassins" who are bolder and less content to "merely snipe from the shadows." Williams reports that this is also the main idea behind a forthcoming movie called "Heckler," the presumed peg for this piece, which argues that hecklers are getting more brazen and more vicious because of "the culture of blogs and online user reviews."

Well, okay. Hecklers are everywhere and they are sometimes harsh. How does Williams illustrate this? By listing everyone who has ever said a mean thing about anyone in a public or semi-public venue. Under Williams' parameters, this seems to include people who have cracked wise at comedy clubs, written blogs, written comments on blogs, written articles in magazines, or reviewed movies on RottenTomatoes.com. Also people who have voted for Sunjaya on American Idol. Williams' experts—the director of "Heckler" and a psychologist from Johns Hopkins—say it's because on the internet, "hate sells," and that the "internet meanness" as practiced by "media gadfly blogs" has bled into public discourse.

There you have it, then: the claim has been asserted, handily brought to life with a few anecdotes, and finally verified by a couple of articulate scientists. The only thing left for this trend piece to do is turn its gaze backwards and send its roots down into history. So Williams proceeds:

As a tradition, heckling predates YouTube by centuries. In Shakespeare's day, audiences were expected to hurl insults, if not rotting fruit, at the actors onstage. In Colonial America, Crispus Attucks and others at the Boston Massacre in 1770 helped spark the American Revolution by lobbing epithets like "lobster scoundrels" as well as debris at red-coated British troops, only to find their volleys answered with musket balls, said Nicole Eustace, an assistant professor of history at New York University.

Heckling as an extreme expression of free speech has thrived ever since — and politicians from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson have had to duck the verbal grenades launched at their appearance and policies.

This is where things go wrong for Williams: indeed, the abundance of material he offers as part of his de rigeur history lesson seems to neatly contradict the basic point of his article about how this heckling thing has only just entered the mainstream. If trend pieces have a winning formula—and, of course, they do —then Williams seems to have been foiled by the very same tricks of the trade that allowed him to glide through this assignment so firmly on automatic.

The main trouble is that for all his random, unrelated examples—sports fans shouting at players, Michael Richards, and "macaca" are apparently all pieces of the same puzzle—Williams doesn't say anything about Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show about robots who watch old movies and mock them. Now, your weekend correspondents never watched this show—the kids who did were only slightly less unappealing than the Monty Python fans—but according to IMDB, it ran from 1988 to 1999 and spawned a feature film in 1996. Doesn't that qualify as a definitive, or at least notable, moment for the "heckler as star" transition Williams is trying so half-heartedly to will into existence?

"But I don't wanna sound mad, I feel marvelous," etc.—LEON