"This is More Severe Than a Vibe Shift"
Talking with Elamin Abdelmahmoud
When I first started writing for the internet, I didn’t know about scoops. I didn’t know much about journalism, really, outside of His Girl Friday and a very detailed histories of gossip and fan magazines. I had spent most of my time writing about classic Hollywood stars, so it was hard to feel like I was racing with, well, anyone to get something out into the world.
But when I started at BuzzFeed News in 2014, I very quickly learned that scoops aren’t just for revelations about politicians. They’re for profiles, too — Publication A will catch wind that Publication B is trying to write about the same company, or the same event, or the same whatever (often because one of the people they’ve interviewed for the story casually them, oh, hey, The New Yorker called the other day) and then do what’s called “crashing” to make sure their piece gets out first.
There are other options, too — like waiting a month so that people will be interested again, or changing your framing. But I don’t feel like the competition is nearly as cutthroat as it used to be (or was before I came to BuzzFeed) simply because the internet and the audiences within it have proven so vast and varied — and, increasingly, dependent on algorithms. There’s a small handful of very-media very-online people who will notice that there’s two features about something, but there are very few media instances of the 1997 Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano. Instead, there’s 16 different profiles and adaptations of Theranos, and yes, I will consume them all.
Last week, I scheduled my latest essay, “Is This Just the Way Things Are Now?” to go up on Wednesday morning. I woke up, read some initial comments, opened the Culture Study Discord, and saw that someone had post that was similar to mine. The title: “What You’re Feeling Isn’t a Vibe Shift. It’s a Permanent Change.” The good news was that it was my former colleague, Elamin Abdelmahmoud, whose work I deeply admire. The bad news is that it was by my former colleague, Elamin Abdelmahmoud, whose work makes me profoundly jealous.
The essay is worth your time — it manages to be at once sweeping and specific, to feel personal and, as Elamin put it on Twitter, to commit an act of sociology. And honestly, I love that it came out on the same day as my own: it validates that it does feel like something’s shifting, and while some of us are catching up to that feel sooner or later than others, it, whatever it is, is demanding description. We feel hungry to give it shape, because to articulate it is to begin to understand it. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but there’s going to be a lot of writing and thinking to come about the precarity and attempts at resilience this decade will bring.
If you like nerdy process pieces, this conversation is for you. If you like Elamin — he has a significant fan club — this conversation is for you. And if you’re still figuring out how to describe some ineffable shift in your own world view, and how you’re grappling with an acknowledgment of a new normal — this conversation is for you, too. (And here, again, is your chance to quickly go read Elamin’s piece — and/or my own, if you didn’t read it last week).
It’s ostensibly a coincidence — but not really, not at all — that your essay and mine were published within hours of each other, and then just days later. I do think both you and I are approaching this shift from a particularly millennial positionality, and just a few days later, our former colleague Steve Kandell (also my former editor, who basically taught me how to write longform) wrote a piece for Vanity Fair from a distinctly Gen-X perspective. First off, who would you nominate to write the Gen-Z piece, and second, how much of this feeling do you think was catalyzed by the invasion of Ukraine? Put differently, what made us write it now?
Yes, it was a bit of a Vibes-Are-Off convention, wasn’t it?! It makes sense to me that we all gathered around this fire at the same time. I think we’re each writing from an emotional place, and at least for me, what happens with these pieces is: I start to feel an urge to understand and crystallize a feeling, then I walk around with that urge for days and days, then I finally arrive at what I’m looking for. This one took a couple of weeks to cook.
I know for me, the feeling that I’ve been circling certainly didn’t start with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the extraordinary events and news coming out of the war — specifically, how Ukrainians have held off a much stronger army, and how a charismatic president used the language and values of the West to call for the West’s help — accelerated the path to clarity here! It suddenly became clear to me that 1) on a personal level, on a national level, and on an international level, I’ve been operating with a set of rules for my whole life and 2) I am currently watching those rules become less relevant.
I hope a Gen-Z version comes along! I nominate my BuzzFeed News pal Kelsey Weekman, let’s GO.
People love hearing about how a piece becomes a piece, because it’s often either far more straightforward or more complex than one might expect. Can you go back in time and tell us about your pitching and writing process, and how the essay went from conception to final execution?
Well, honestly, I was really taken with that vibe shift story from The Cut that went viral a few weeks ago. The summary of that piece is that the trend-forecaster who has helped identify trends like “normcore” now foresees a big change coming in aesthetics and fashion and style. And I was taken with the piece, not because I’m a particularly trendy person, but because the frame was clarifying: with a vibe shift, there’s a before and an after. And I kept thinking about it, and kept stacking before/after moments on top of each other. And there were so many that it seemed to me that the social contract itself had been fundamentally altered.
So I did what any rational writer would do: I furiously wrote like 200 words to my editor that included the sentence “this is more severe than a vibe shift” and “everything we knew about how the world works has been collapsed.” That was enough for her to say: sure, let’s pursue this.
I’m always really fascinated by the theorists people choose to root their essays — I know that in my case, I gravitate towards thinkers who’ve grounded my thinking for some time, and what I end up quoting is just the tip of the iceberg. What’s your history with Ulrich Beck?
Ulrich Beck and his Risk Society work is like a recurring riff for me. I first encountered it in university, probably in a second-year sociology class or something, and I’m sure I was more interested in going to the pub than listening to what some 80s German had to say about the world. But since graduating, Beck has popped up consistently around major news events. And every time he did, Risk Society became more and more salient, particularly as climate reports got more and more dire. I’m convinced the next report is just going to be you in danger, girl. Trump’s election presented an opportunity to revisit Beck. He popped up again at the start of the pandemic.
To me, when someone’s work is relevant enough that it is increasingly cited / applied as a framework to understand events, that’s a signal to go back and spend time with that theorist. Not even because they’re “right,” just because the more they’re quoted, the more likely it is that their claims are watered down. Like a big internet broken telephone.
The last time I reread Risk Society was in the summer of 2020, and found a compelling, and I think correct, arc for modernity’s collision with the environment, and the threats it would lead to.
So in a way, this has been brewing in the back of my mind! I’ve been finding his work useful for a long time, but this time, he was a bit more directly relevant.
You are a phenomenal culture writer — I’ve particularly loved your past work on Kanye, and Jason Isbell, and Ted Lasso — but I first really encountered your writing in the form of the personal essay (more specifically: this piece about giving your daughter a name that was at once a gift and a burden). Your upcoming book, Son of Elsewhere (out May 12th! Preorder!!!) is also collection of personal essays. But there is very little of you in this particular piece — to the extent that I think you could read it and not realize that you’re Canadian, or an immigrant, or the father of a young child, or how that does or does not affect your thinking on these larger, global issues.
The essay is still “personal,” because every essay is speaking from a point of view, but I’d love to hear more about your thinking when it comes to exclusion and inclusion of these sorts of identifying/positioning details.
Thank you!! Listen, I’m not just saying this because I’m in your newsletter, but real talk: so much of what I value and seek out and try to replicate and recreate in internet culture writing has been stuff I learned from reading you.
Okay, yes, there is comparatively very little of me in this piece, and I wish I could tell you this was an evolved writerly decision……….. but it was purely a decision I made because of time constraints! I wanted to expel this piece from my brain, it had been consuming me for weeks, and it would’ve needed to be a lot longer to capture some of those dimensions.
For instance: I grew up in Sudan, and moved to Canada when I was 12. So in order to put more of myself in this piece, I would have had to spend a lot longer setting up my complicated journey in relation to the West’s supremacy. I was 10 years old when Bill Clinton bombed the Al Shifa medical factory in Sudan which made more half of the country’s medicines, and I could see the flames from my house. So for a third of my life, the relative safety of the West and the assuredness of American dominance had direct consequences for my life. But that’s a 12,000-word essay! I promise, living in the shadow of America is absolutely in my book, it was the first essay I finished. But for the purposes of this essay, I had to limit the scope a bit.
This is a hard one, but: Who should buy your book? You can say everyone but also who else *within* that everyone?
Well, until this book earns out, let me just say it’s absolutely for everyone on earth, if you’re into words, I got a few of ‘em for you. Hell, if you hate words, but like sounds, please consider the audiobook. I narrated it myself, and we had some fun along the way.
But for a more refined answer: I think you should get this book if you are curious to hear an account of the ways we sideline parts of ourselves, wall off whole sections of our identity, in order to make life easier. I think it’s also the book for you if you’re interested in how we take small elements from pop culture — the soundtrack of the OC, or writing wrestling fan fiction, or the incredible career of Liverpool Football Club star Mo Salah — and use them to construct a story about ourselves.
Also, folks don’t have to buy it! Ask your local library to grab a copy. There are a thousand things tugging at your attention at any given moment, so if you choose to just spend a few pages with me, I’m hono(u)red.
On a very different note: because we both love country (read more about why here): what’s your favorite new-ish country song right now?
Oh man I want to throw a million songs out, but that never works because that’s overwhelming! I’ll choose one instead: I’ve been spending time with Morgan Wade’s new record — she’s got this wonderfully textured voice that has an edge to it, it’s so good! I’d start with “Take Me Away.”