Who is “S.M.”? The question is our generation’s “Who shot J.R.?”
Online speculation abounded yesterday. A tweet raised a question, which turned into articles, which became a symbol of web journalism gone amok. When Mediaite discussed this elusive figure’s work, it wrote, “S.M., whoever you are, we salute your taste.” BuzzFeed did some web sleuthing, and thinks it cracked the case open.
I can reveal here, with absolute certainty, the identity of S.M. And I can also promise that you won’t feel good about it.
It all began with a tweet. My tweet.
That’s a bit from the latest issue of Esquire, and it made me laugh out loud. So I tweeted it yesterday. As you can see, this is the source of the mystery: The profane little rant is signed simply “—S.M.”, and many people yesterday saw it. Within a few hours of getting a retweet from Emily Nussbaum, the thing had had 500 RTs.
And then . . .
Roughly an hour after my tweet, it showed up on Mediaite.
I chuckled when I saw this. Mediaite had credited me with bringing this clip “to the world’s attention,” which isn’t quite right: It was in a national print magazine that sells 725,000 copies; my tweet at the time hadn’t yet cracked 1,000 retweets.
From there, Mediaite shows my original tweet, and underneath it, addresses the author of the Esquire piece:
S.M., whoever you are, we salute your taste.
Here is the premature big reveal: S.M. is Stephen Marche.
Want to know how I know that? Because it’s printed right there on the page.
See it? Top left. Stephen Marche has a monthly column in Esquire, you see, and it’s even named after him. The item I’d photographed was a sidebar to that column, and as is traditional in situations like this, his byline was reduced to initials because the identity remains clear to the reader. This information is not readily available in the tweet, though, and so the web’s curiosity remained unsated.
I sent the Mediaite link to my friend Joe Keohane, an articles editor at Esquire. We laughed about it, and then he sarcastically tweeted, addressing to the Mediaite writer and his colleague Stephen Marche. S.M. then replied:
Mediaite ran an update. Mystery solved, right? No!
This morning, a day after my tweet, BuzzFeed saw it and used it as the seed for a BuzzFeedy take on the coming end of Two And A Half Men. It included my tweet, and afterward, re-raised the question of the mysterious S.M.
As you see, the BuzzFeed reporter saw Joe and Stephen’s exchange and interpreted it as Joe outing Stephen, and Stephen sheepishly admitting that he was the writer. Or, maybe not? BuzzFeed is circumspect: The evidence only “seems to suggest” that Marche is the culprit.
Let’s be clear: It was Stephen Marche, in his column, which this month was titled “Stephen Marche Would Like To Propose A Toast.”
I don’t mean to only single these writers out. We have a bigger problem here. One of the greatest questions facing online publishers–and, as an employee for a magazine that has a robust website, I sympathize with this–is often, “How do we participate in the subjects that do well on social media, so that we can divert some of that traffic onto our own site?” Many publishers and writers (and very often, especially BuzzFeed) are extremely thoughtful in addressing that question. But too frequently, the solution is to slap popular tweets onto a webpage and quickly surround them with enough copy to make it seem as if there’s more here than just a tweet slapped onto a webpage.
That further exacerbates a lazy mentality: Social media, and those who report within its confines, has a habit of treating the web like it’s the only place where things exist. If something is not digitized, it is somehow otherworldly. A conversation on Twitter, due entirely to its accessibility, is more authoritative than picking up a copy of a national magazine and flipping to a page that offers a definitive answer to the question you’re seeking. Sometimes, horrible as this may seem, the answer just doesn’t exist online.