The News Genius Non-Controversy And Millennial Entitlement At Work

I’m done. The non-controversy around News Genius broke me. I’ve been denying it for years, but it seems true enough, now: Millennials are entitled.

If you haven’t heard about it, bless your soul. The whole thing centers on a Twitter call-out from herpes blogger Ella Dawson, whose post “I Am Not ‘Suffering’ from Herpes” was annotated critically by an acquaintance and then, the next day, by former New York Times and Gawker editor and current News Genius editor Leah Finnegan. Dawson responded with another blog post and by asking News Genius to develop an opt-out for the tool, incorrectly characterizing the annotations as “graffiti” on her blog. (It’s been pointed out repeatedly that the Genius tool is an overlay in the same way that, say, the Ryan Gosling browser extension will turn the Internet into fansites; it does not actually vandalize or in any way change the site itself, and it’s only viewable with the plugin or a specific URL.)

The argument in general came to my attention last week, when writer Alana Massey had a slightly more minor Twitter argument with Finnegan regarding annotations on an essay she’d written about loneliness for New York Magazine’s women’s vertical, The Cut. Massey’s tactic was, bafflingly, to criticize the tone of Finnegan’s annotations by calling Finnegan “a glorified internet commenter with ‘editor’ in your title.”

The argument against News Genius, per Dawson and Slate’s Chelsea Hassler, is that it is a potential — not currently real — platform for abuse and harassment that could “silence” marginalized writers (the writers in question here are, notably, two white, cis women). This, in reaction mainly to some brusque but overall reasonable annotations from an experienced editor, feels a bit extreme. The sense that someone has been “mean,” whether or not that’s objectively true, and the fear that that meanness could be worse, is enough, apparently, to trigger a response from an actual member of Congress.

What is this insistence that we have the right to be bubble-wrapped from the realities of our jobs? Take, for example, the Yelp employee who was surprised that she was fired after writing a scathing open letter to her company’s CEO, exhausted over the idea of having to work an entry-level job for an entire year. Or the Mic employee who was quoted in a recent Times profile as being frustrated about a former job where “no one really took my opinion into consideration.” And now, two young writers who took umbrage at the fact that the digital landscape they know they work in is changing in a way that they don’t like; in a way that streamlines, heaven forbid, critique that exists on the internet anyway. What Dawson and Massey’s complaints sound like are two young professionals saying, “I cannot take feedback so long as it is not in the form, venue, and tone that I dictate.”

It’s #NotAllMillennials — these are just a tiny few — and it’s not all the time. But Generation Y has demonstrably created a trigger warning, “safe space” culture that’s stretched well beyond college campuses, into our professional networks, and has now manifested itself in what we demand from our workplaces. (Claim that Dawson’s blog isn’t a professional space all you want — she works in social media and has a press section on her web site.)

Maybe this is especially so for professionals who work on the internet, where no matter what you think or feel, you can find someone who shares your thoughts and feelings, who will validate them and tell you that you’re right, no matter how outlandish your thoughts and feelings are. At that, maybe this is especially so in an internet culture where you can get paid to share your thoughts and feelings on a platform.

And it is outlandish for professionals to expect to have their feelings prioritized in their workplaces. If the conditions of their work environment are truly prohibitive to their personal well-being, most people find another job or another line of work. They don’t demand that their employer or their industry change to suit them. It requires just a tiny bit of humility to recognize that a workplace and an industry cannot accommodate the inevitably conflicting emotional needs of each constituent worker.

News Genius is now a part of the professional landscape for people who write on the internet. It is not a genuine threat to any writer’s well-being, certainly not more so than any comment section, op-ed, or personal blog that could host the same responses. There are so many — too many — young professionals who are too quick to call foul, to claim we’re being “silenced,” to say, basically, that other people are not making us feel important enough at work. No wonder so many employers are wary of us.

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