On this date in 2008, I gathered my smartest, funniest friends and together we founded Overthinking It to subject the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.
A few months later, the the junior senator from Illinois won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president of the United Sates and utterly remade—for better and worse, and largely without trying—the American cultural landscape. One year later, my Overthinking It anniversary post came two days after his inauguration as president. Nine years later, and that same cultural landscape has developers’ cranes looming over it, and we’re all bracing for a remodel.
But don’t worry: The third paragraph is not about how we need Overthinking It Now More than Ever™.
The whole OTI project is, for reasons beyond just the coincidence of dates, a product of the Obama Era in American culture. I call it that, though the site is most assuredly not affiliated with a political party. Our writers, our community of commenters, our awesome and sustaining members are a global community of diverse opinion, and we have resisted the urge—largely at my insistence—to wade into certain contemporary debates. But there was a certain character to the time, one that cut across political divides (though less so across educational or economic ones), which I believe the site embodies.
The voice of Overthinking It is buoyant, ironic, confident; cautious about grand pronouncements; introspective and sometimes self-deprecating but unapologetic. It’s a voice that reflects the civic faith of its time: faith in technology as a moral good; faith in meritocracy; faith that social progress is secure; faith that its cultural values, resilient enough to withstand terrorism and war, could stand whatever lesser tests were to come.
Today, though our perspective may be altered, I think it’s a little too easy to condemn this faith as naive and blithely self-involved. It’s true that there was a rarefied air about our project, but I’m not sure I regret that. Honestly, one of the things I’m proudest of is that we have appeared on various listicles around the web highlighting our comments section both for its intellectual worth and for its civility: “You Will Literally Rub Your Eyes In Slack-Jawed Wonderment at These Ten Astonishing Websites Where You Should Read The Comments.” If during this election cycle “Twitter” has become a shorthand for “the common rabble,” well then, call me an elitist all you want, but I’m determined that we should stand above it, and I’m grateful to our community of awesome commenters that we have.
And we’ll continue to stand. Against all odds, Overthinking It has endured for nine years. More than endured: thrived. All the more so in 2016, with the help of our members (you can become one!), whose generous support has not only earned them special treats but has enabled more reliability and variety in our output. I am honored—floored, really—that so many good people have pitched in. Members: we have worked our asses off to be worthy of your good opinion.
I love writing these anniversary posts every year. I mean, I love commemorating every milestone, a fact the crew routinely teases me for. It’s great to see how far you’ve come, what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same. And as we feel the tectonic plates of culture shifting beneath our feet and brace ourselves for an upheaval, I am happy to say that Overthinking It is as strong as ever, and we’re not going anywhere.
There is a principle in Catholic theology that while the truth doesn’t change, because it is eternal, the means of expressing that truth may indeed change over time, because the expression is temporal and governed by circumstance. And today, on our ninth anniversary, I’m struck most by how Overthinking It, a project forged in an era very different from the one we are embarking upon, can still hew so closely to its goals at its founding. As we’ve changed, we’ve become more ourselves, rather than less. Take our motto for example.
When we started the site nine years ago, our first motto, dreamed up by Stokes (who also dreamed up the name of the site itself), was: “Gaze in to the navel long enough, and the navel starts gazing into you.” Pretty spot-on; maybe just a bit too contemplative. This gave way shortly to the familiar “Overthinking It subjects the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.” A couple years ago, in an exercise designed to distill this “brand promise” (ugh) into its most pithy essence, I settled on “We have smarter fun together.” I used this line as the title of the anniversary post in 2015, but I didn’t really explain what it means to us.
Every successful project of Overthinking It has been marked by three elements in particular: intellect and curiosity; humor and entertainment; friendship and community. Take away the intellect, and you have a rec league. Take away the entertainment, and you have Vox. (Been there, done that.) Take away the community and you have season four of The Simpsons (admittedly a pretty awesome thing to have). It takes all three qualities to make Overthinking It, and it’s these qualities I’m happy to celebrate today, on our ninth anniversary.
“Smarter fun together” is not “world peace.” Its virtues are perhaps not the highest social goods. But they’re nothing to be sneezed at. When I consider Overthinking It as a group of friends engaging with the culture, I’m proud of what I see. We enjoy unreservedly. We reason soundly. We argue carefully. We write clearly and, one hopes, stylishly. We debate passionately. We disagree respectfully. We change gracefully. We think, we laugh, we gather…endlessly.
I am your smart, funny friend on the Internet. And you are mine. Let’s keep hanging out.