You can trace today’s TikTok and Instagram videos—with the creator as the focus of the story—back to “Gonzo” journalism, a style popularized by writer Hunter S. Thompson.
With a press card tucked in the hatband, the traditional journalist followed the model of objectivity, framing the story around the “who, what, when, where, why and how.” A good reporter pursued the truth and muted their own point of view as much as possible. Editor-in-chief Perry White of the Daily Planet didn’t care what Lois Lane thought of the explosion, he wanted the facts to run the story by the deadline.
But Hunter S. Thompson threw a stick of dynamite into this status quo and told you how the bone-rattling blast felt firsthand. In Gonzo journalism Thompson didn’t report “on” the event, but from within it, making himself the story.
Bursting onto the literary scene with Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, Thompson told a lurid tale of what it was like to spend a year living and riding with members of the infamous California motorcycle club.
He followed this with his most famous work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Dispatched to cover an off-road desert race for Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson blended fact and fiction into a story with the event serving as a backdrop for the main characters’ feverish, drug-crazed misadventures.
In other books, columns and screeds Thompson wrote about politics and sports with a style of dizzying prose that veered from grandiose to harsh with the occasional flash of lyrical brilliance. He specialized in championing the underdog against the “elites” by combining his ideas of justice, righteous anger and resentment into a bitter brew with dashes of raw humor.
In addition to Thompson’s unconventional approach to writing, his signature clothing style inspired legions of journalism school graduates to wear Hawaiian shirts, bucket hats and aviator sunglasses to cover their local city council meetings.
While Thompson lived long enough into the 21st century to have a web-based column (Hey Rube for ESPN), he died in 2005 just missing Twitter, Instagram and TikTok where he might have found a whole new audience. Thompson’s quotes are eminently tweetable: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” and “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Thompson’s approach foreshadowed the world of social media today.
Ask kids what they want to be when they grow up and the reply, “YouTube influencer,” is all Gonzo. The crazy stunts and tricks everybody watches? Thompson delighted in outrageous and cruel pranks and would be right at home partaking in the latest social media challenge.
Plus his favorite activities; imbibing unsafe levels of questionable substances, riding motorcycles, shooting large caliber weaponry and detonating various incendiary devices lend themselves well to video. One can imagine the “likes” and “shares” this stuff would get. “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” Thompson said, known to court and relish danger at every turn.
He believed there was nothing like a surprise display of pyrotechnics to evoke instant hilarity, and any traumatized victims were part of the expected collateral damage.
Covid-19 wouldn’t have stopped Thompson, either. He tapped away at his IBM Selectric typewriter and raised peacocks on his beloved Owl Farm, a “fortified compound” in Woody Creek Colorado from the 1960’s until his death. The guy worked from home in shorts long before it was a thing.
Of course we’ll never know if social media would have been something Thompson might have turned against. He might have rued the existence of tech leaders “corrupting the possibilities of the American Dream,” and loathed the “hustlers” selling get-rich-quick courses, or cast a disdainful eye on the millionaire influencer “greedheads” pushing energy drinks and skin care regimens.
Maybe the rise of “fake news” might have caused Thompson to question his own history of fabrication to make things, as his idol Hemingway put it, “Truer than how they actually happened.” We can only wonder.
Today Thompson’s ashes lie somewhere on Owl Farm, blasted out of a cannon per his final wishes by his good friend Johnny Depp. Meanwhile, TikTok is gunning for a billion users around the globe and work continues on Meta and the promised virtual world where each of us has a Gonzo avatar of our own.
Who knows, had Thompson lived, perhaps just like in Fear and Loathing he might have had the right kind of eyes to point out the high water mark of all of this, wherever and whenever it may be.
“That place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”