The Take Trap

A 75mph opinion in a 45mph zone

With your indulgence, I’d like to coin a term that may be helpful in navigating the days of social media reactivity.

Take trap.

A take trap describes a combination of factors: an urgent item in the news cycle, an underlying polarization, social media algorithms, the desire to be helpful, etc. A take trap is not an issue and it’s not an action. Rather, a take trap is a situation in which the perceived benefits of forming an opinion on something quickly and sharing that opinion outweigh both the learnedness of the opinion and even the heartfelt sense of the opinion’s importance. In other words, a take trap is when you absolutely, positively need to post what you think about issue X, even if what you think was mostly put there by accident.

Take traps were not invented by the internet, but social media perfected their form and made them almost impossible to avoid. Falling into a take trap is not reserved for the unintelligent or the vain. Wise, educated, and measured people fall into take traps every single day, some worse than others. Because of this, take traps are best understood not as a measure of someone’s self control or wisdom, but of the skillfulness of the trap itself. You don’t have to be an impulsive person to get caught in a take trap. You just have to run into one.

Here’s how the take trap works for most people, whom we will represent with a fictional character named Steve:

1) Steve logs onto social media and sees a lot of his friends talking about a particular item in the news. He scans headlines quickly and peruses comments, but most of the articles are paywalled and he doesn’t really have time or interest to dive further.

2) As this process repeats, Steve does not learn about the issue as much as he learns about how his social media timeline talks about it. This creates an interesting effect: Steve forms impressions of this news story based on which of his social media are saying what. He sees a conservative friend offer one opinion, while a liberal friend offers another. He sees one news personality he likes and enjoys (for reasons that aren’t always intellectual) give a perspective, while a podcast host he has disliked in the past gives a different one. Steve will decide what he believes about this issue mostly on the basis of the grid that is forming in his mind.

3) As people keep talking about the issue, Steve sees people he doesn’t trust getting lots of Likes and Retweets and Shares. He also sees people posting stuff like, “Why isn’t anyone talking about this,” a post that always gets a ton of reaction. Now Steve isn’t thinking about the people or places related to the news item at all, he’s thinking he doesn’t want to be the kind of person who doesn’t say anything about important stuff.

4) Steve finally posts something on social media about the issue, using a makeshift combination of his major political or religious views to say something general about the headlines he’s been seeing. If pressed, he probably couldn’t answer most questions about the details of the news story, but he’s not a reporter. He just wants to remind everyone of the Heart of the Matter. He’s pretty sure it all comes down to those who are wrong about X, and the solution is we need more people who are right about X.

5) The Likes roll in. And the articles are still paywalled.