Welcome to Galaxy Brain—a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology, media, culture, and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. We’re still figuring things out in our new home so let me know what you think: galaxybrain@theatlantic.com.

This is a paid edition of the newsletter, but you can subscribe to The Atlantic to get access to all posts. Past editions I’m proud of include: A 10-Year-Old Nuclear-Blast Simulator Is Popular Again, The Bad Ideas Our Brains Can’t Shake, and How to Spend 432,870 Minutes on Spotify in a Year.

By the time you read these words, last Sunday’s Oscars slap will already be filed away in the dusty meme catalog in your head somewhere between “Binders Full of Women” and “Bernie Sanders’ Mittens” (Oh, you alphabetize your meme catalog? Sure, buddy.) In a week, you’ll only be 83 percent sure the slap didn’t actually happen in the Trump era. Everything online burns too hot and too fast. And because this is a newsletter that thinks a bit too hard about how information travels, I wanted to take a moment and do that for The Slap™.

I’m writing this on Monday evening after a day of internet surveying, and the thing that sticks out to me is just how predictable the discourse surrounding the slap has been. In an era where almost every big cultural product is painstakingly scripted and designed to achieve some hopeful level of virality and engagement, we got a genuinely shocking, confusing moment: two incredibly famous people involved in a physical altercation at a globally televised event rooted in fusty pomp and circumstance and tradition. And yet the reaction to the whole spectacle played out the same way any usual political scandal or social-media dustup might. Even the notion that this event would unleash a take-pocalypse to end all other bad take cycles failed to materialize.

If Future Charlie had appeared in your living room around the Oscars pre-show (sorry to intrude) and told you what was coming, I’m guessing that, depending on how much of a sicko you are, you could have written a general script for the aftermath: Twitter explodes, first with confusion and then with a general shock. Likely even before there was any real clarity about what really happened, the first strident opinions trickle in, blaming Chris Rock or Will Smith for the confrontation. These opinions are confidently voiced and confidently amplified by like-minded people, enough that they catch the eye of people who think that opinion is bad or perhaps even dangerous. The incident itself, thanks to quickly available hi-res images, becomes a meme around the same moment. Some people will be having fun with the meme, while others, viewing the event through a more serious lens, will be quite upset with those making jokes. As soon as Smith wins the Oscar, you’ll get the takes about whether he deserves the award. But most everything after is mostly a second-order take—a commentary on the commentary. By the show’s end, the slap has achieved Mass Attentional Event status, which means it is a vessel for content of any type. Any bit of expertise in a related or unrelated field can be affixed to the attentional event, and any other news or cultural event can be viewed through the lens of the Mass Attentional Event. So naturally, you’ll get at least a few Ukraine/Slap remixes.

You’ll get people delighting in the fact that the event is scrambling people’s brains, and you’ll get the people whose brains have been scrambled and are just...tweeting through it. You’ll get one famous person who steps in it early and deletes the tweet but becomes the avatar for a cringey reaction. You’ll get the people who’ve been accidentally thrust into the conversation because they have an unfortunately similar name and social-media handle. You’ll get parodies about bad takes and then people who think the parody jokes are real, and then the people who get mad that the people fell for the parody jokes because, come on, they should be better than that. You get the MAGA contrarians latching onto the take that Hollywood is full of horrible, hypocritical cretins and this is proof. You get the people who are exhausted by Mass Attentional Events like this complaining, and the people who love Mass Attentional Events getting ready to drink from the firehose. And then you have the most worthless group—jabronies like myself who like to proclaim WE ARE IN A MASS ATTENTIONAL EVENT.

If you spend even casual amounts of time online, I bet you could have predicted two-thirds of what transpired post-slap. Yes, there was a brief moment of confusion, as some people attempted to figure out how to rotate the incident to fit into their larger cultural/political framework, but that sorted itself quickly. By morning, everything was in its right place.

And so of course we’d have slap truthers. Of course we’d have spats over the definition of assault that get hijacked by people having a separate discussion about the definition of violence that spins off into a discussion about wokeness or something (I tried to link to tweets here, but nearly all of them have now been deleted!). Bits and pieces of these threads then get scooped up—by members of the press writing on deadlines, by trending topics aggregators, by anyone, really—and dropped, usually without the full context, into larger stories (I’m sort of doing this, here!). People who don’t spend their days chained to social-media platforms for their jobs see these posts and then have their own diverse and usually predictable reactions—many of them end in some form of outrage.

The weirdest thing about this system is how reliably it functions. Yes, the slap was a genuinely wild thing that happened on live TV. But it doesn’t seem to matter all that much what the root content everyone is reacting to is—the output is usually quite similar. It feels like a theater performance; everyone has a part and has been working on the lines and the blocking. The curtain goes up, you hear a slap, and the program begins. This very newsletter you are reading is me playing my role in this system.

To read the rest, subscribe to The Atlantic.

Already a subscriber? Sign in