ONE MORNING A FEW WEEKS AGO, a friend and I sat around her dining table drinking coffee, checking the “news” on our phones, and complaining about how terrible the internet is.
We do this a lot. (She lives upstairs from me.) It’s 7 or 7:30 a.m., and we’re dressed in yoga pants and T-shirts and picking at fresh fruit or eggs and toast. Her son, a toddler with an enormous smile and generous spirit, plays on the floor nearby. We talk about our plans for the day, and shoo cats off the table. All the while, we stare at our phones.
I don’t recall exactly what made us so irritated that morning; someone, no doubt, had proffered what we deemed a stupid or offensive opinion online—or initiated a pile-on directed at someone whose opinion had been deemed stupid or offensive. What I do remember, however, is what my friend said after she placed her phone on the dining table and pushed it away. “Everybody these days has an opinion. But nobody has a point of view.”
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. What my friend meant, I think, is not so much that points of view are nowhere to be found, but that—in this era of digital hyperconnectedness and performativity—the act of thinking (or eating, or traveling, or dating) in public has become so prevalent and remunerative that many of us have mistaken it for actual insight or authority. Much of the internet today runs on and rewards reactivity, putting a premium on split-second conclusions, outbursts, and jokes about the latest news headline, celebrity scandal, or political misstep. Meanwhile, developing an integrated, nuanced point of view is a luxury that requires time and space ... and the ability to make mistakes. Conversations online have devolved to the point where assertions of absolute certainty and authority are given more weight than having the courage to acknowledge that, in the whole scheme of things, no one really knows anything.
It wasn’t always like this, of course, and social media bears much of the blame. In the past decade, ideas around audience engagement and optimization have made conversations around contemporary culture both more accessible and more partisan. It’s a democratization of discourse that is, I believe, a bad thing—or, rather, a potentially good thing being used in bad ways. The idea that all opinions are created equal—and the presumption that online audiences should provide immediate feedback and issue urgent pronouncements on these opinions—creates a scenario in which lots of folks are prompted to speak out, but no one is expected to actually listen. It becomes increasingly difficult to take anything in; after all, there’s always something new, louder, more pointed, or more outrageous right around the corner. It’s the prioritization of opinions over facts.
I’m not the first person to make the observation that conversations within and around the contemporary digital landscape have become overwhelming and exhausting. Nor am I the first to note that the rapid metabolic rate of online news and commentary—and the competition this breeds between brands to do more and do it faster, or funnier, or more provocatively—means that many media outlets feel virtually indistinguishable from one another, all of them operating in response to the same things in pretty much the same ways, their stories peppered with the same basic aggregated facts and assertions, their analyses anchored by the same conventional wisdoms, their traffic stats subject to the same peaks and valleys and declining advertising CPMs. (And let’s not forget Facebook, with its stats and algorithms that help perpetuate the whole cycle.)
I’d be remiss if I also didn’t point out that the internet is not all bad—in fact, it’s been a revolutionary force for good, upending the way in which many of us see the world, offering up opportunities for heretofore ignored stories to be told, for marginalized voices to be heard, and injustices to be made public. Digital media has allowed for a reimagining of, well, everything; there is no world now without a screen, a cord, and a connection. The bad parts, though, are winning, because this reimagining, this emphasis on community, exploration, and experimentation—what used to make the internet so fucking exciting—doesn’t get rewarded as much as it used to. More often than not, it is co-opted, professionalized, hashtagged, and weaponized. The takeaway nowadays is not so much that curiosity and discovery will bring us together, but that the pose of having all the answers is some kind of legitimate currency.
Which brings us to today, and the launch of Topic.com. Last year, a few of us who love popular culture, politics, and, yes, the internet got together to figure out how to create a digital media brand devoted to developing, programming, acquiring, and licensing stories providing considered points of view—not rapid-fire reactions—about the current social and political climate. We decided to focus on visual stories because, for one thing, some of us are tired of words typed angrily and quickly into a void. (Also, keep in mind: we’re part of a film and television studio). We were further energized by the idea that the effort involved in the planning and production of video, film, photography, and illustration projects would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to tether ourselves to the news cycle; after all, crafting these sorts of stories demands the sort of care and consideration (and self-doubt and backtracking and garment-rending) that’s anathema to a culture that fancies 140-character-to-600-word hot takes.
We had some questions, of course. Is it possible to really be relevant without being reflexive? Audacious without being inelastic? Would modern audiences support carefully made, deliberately created, digital stories with long life spans and the promise of sustained engagement? Or were they perfectly happy with what they had now—those dozens of video summaries and TV recaps and explainers of, say, the latest outbursts from congressional hearings or how-tos about the most popular summer hairstyles? In the end, we decided to pose these questions to you—by creating a brand built on the idea that modern viewers are smarter, braver, funnier, and more searching than they’re given credit for being. We think we’re probably not alone in our belief that stories, not just push alerts and Twitter threads, are needed to fill the gaps in our understanding of the world.
You may have some questions for us. Like: what is Topic?
Topic is a website, though it doesn’t solely exist on an internet browser: it’s also on Facebook, on Instagram, on Vimeo, on YouTube, in newsletters, and yes, even on Twitter. (Thanks to the efforts of our programming studio, responsible for films such as Spotlight, we will also exist in movie theaters and on television screens.) Topic is a brand devoted to supporting independent storytellers and creators with strong points of view and allowing them to take the time to figure out what they’re trying to say, and then say it. It’s about working with established voices and finding and featuring new ones. It’s about taking chances and not having all the answers, about exploring and indulging ambitions and curiosities … ours and others’. It’s about big stories and small ones, about the real and the fictional—and the areas in-between.
On Topic you’ll find a long-form sensibility married to short-form formats: premium digital series, curated short-film anthologies, photo-essays, some illustration. As we grow, we’ll add more of the above, and some other projects as well, such as interactives … maybe even some VR. On the first of every month we’ll release a new storytelling package—what we call an “Issue”—programmed around a particular topic or theme. This month, for our inaugural Issue, “State of the Union,” our creators have focused their energies on the contemporary United States and all—well, some of—its complexities and contradictions. The theme for August is “Female Trouble,” anchored by a digital series starring—and written by—the up-and-coming writer and performer Cirocco Dunlap. For September, it’s “Rashomon,” built around the Mark Boal and Megan Ellison-produced documentary Death in the Terminal. After that, well, you’ll just have to wait and see.
Will Topic make online conversations around contemporary culture a little less predictable? We hope so. Will you like it? We think you will.
Anyway, as you’ll see on the pages within, there’s much more to the story. Welcome. It’s going to be great.