Content-Era Ethics

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


New media forms affect a culture, in part, by reshaping what is seeable and sayable: what “ideas,” as Neil Postman once put it, “we can conveniently express.” In this essay, I ask what one of today’s major new media forms—viral, digital “content”—compels us to see and say. To address that question, I embrace a makeshift, hybrid methodology, informed by theory, sociology, arts criticism, and the digital humanities, and eschewing media theoretical orthodoxies that have been dominant across the humanities (namely: an exaggerated emphasis on the “medium” at the expense of the “message”). From this polyglot perspective, I analyze content contained in a database that I have compiled, indexing 205,147 of the most-shared pieces of viral media on sites like Facebook and Twitter, from 2014 to 2019. After surveying this content’s basic features, I focus on one, particularly popular and quintessential content genre, which I call the “uplifting anecdote”: a short, sentimental account of a heroic act. The uplifting anecdote, I argue, promotes a novel type of ethics, ideally suited to the content economy. I then track this ethics’ dissemination into the broader culture, through a discussion of two prominent, aesthetic artifacts: George Saunders’ prize-winning, best-selling novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), and NBC’s popular sitcom, The Good Place (2016-2020).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)290-325
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of Cultural Analytics
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)


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