Tag: social media

one more post about Twitter

I deactivated my Twitter account more than a year ago, and set a recurrent reminder to log in every 28 days to reactivate and then deactivate again. I wasn’t sure I wanted to let my handle go to some other person who would no doubt bring shame onto the noble ayjay name. This little dance became tiresome, and my publishers like it when I broadcast useful (read: sales-related) info on social media, so I decided to make the account active again and leave it that way.

Twitter is even worse than I remember it being. The same compulsive temporary madness-of-crowds obsessions — sure, of course, Kobe Bryant is the most important person in your life, even though you’ve never mentioned him before and will probably never mention him again — but conducted with a greater intensity than I had remembered. Also, it seems that the reply function is now reserved as a dedicated performance space for sociopaths (if you don’t believe me, look at the first ten replies to any widely-read tweet).

What a horrible, horrible thing Twitter is. If the people who work there weren’t sociopaths themselves they’d shut the whole thing down for the good of humanity.

So I’m bringing back Freedom, which I had used in the past but set aside when I left Twitter. There will be 20 minutes a day when I can see Twitter, mainly to be sure that things I post here actually show up there. I’ll spend the rest of my time praying that the whole platform will die a swift and irreversible death.

understanding Christians (and others) on social media

The Devil chooses to deceive some people in the following way. He will marvelously inflame their brains with the desire to uphold God’s law and destroy sin in everyone else. He will never tempt them with anything that is manifestly evil. He makes them like anxious prelates watching over the lives of Christian people of all ranks, as an abbot does over his monks. They will rebuke everyone for their faults, just as if they had their souls in their care; and it seems to them that they dare not do otherwise for God’s sake. They tell them of the faults they see, claiming to be impelled to do so by the fire of charity and the love of God in their hearts; but in truth they are lying, for it is by the fire of hell surging in their brains and their imaginations.

The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century), Chapter 55

Latka

latka

My post earlier today puts me in mind of something. Think of it as an allegory of social media.

In the old sitcom Taxi Andy Kaufman plays Latka Gravas, a mechanic, an immigrant with a funny high-pitched voice. And then at one point Latka starts to transform himself into someone else — into Latka’s idea of a cool guy, a successful guy. He gradually loses his eastern European accent, and his voice drops an octave. To the people he works with he sounds like a lounge lizard, or a parody of a lounge lizard: a guy who reads the articles in Playboy as a guide for self-improvement. He says that his name isn’t Latka Gravas. His name is Vic Ferrari.

vic

Vic thinks he is a sexy playboy; in fact, Vic is a jerk. Finally, all the people in the cab company who have to deal with Vic deputize Alex — the central character in the ensemble, the most well-adjusted and psychologically healthy person available — to confront Vic and, somehow, bring back Latka.

It doesn’t go well. Vic scornfully repudiates Alex and the rest of the crew. He says that everybody liked him when he was the foreign guy with the funny voice, when he was shy, silly, dopey Latka, a figure of fun, a clown. Nobody respected him then. Of course they want that guy back, someone they can all laugh at. Of course that’s who they’d prefer him to be.

Alex, being the mensch that he is, takes all this in, and acknowledges that there is truth in it. People did laugh at Latka, they did treat him as the comical foreigner, and they shouldn’t have done that. All that (ruefully) acknowledged, Alex still wants to make a point. “I liked Latka,” he says. “But I don’t like you.”

what can’t be changed

Many outlets have reported in recent days that Facebook is testing the removal of Likes from posts. Let’s say they do eventually implement this feature. If so, then the first question is whether it will be opt-in or opt-out. That is, will Likes show unless you choose not to show them, or will they be hidden unless you choose to show them?

My guess is that, in either case, and despite the many calls by tech journalists for changing the way Facebook works, most Facebook users will want to keep counting Likes. We need to remember that there are over two billion Facebook users, and hundreds of millions of them have undergone years of operant conditioning: they have been trained to seek Likes, to rejoice in Likes, to be made miserable by the absence of Likes. Many of them have returned thousands and thousands of times to Facebook to check their count of Likes, refreshing their browser tab even when they don’t need to. The habit of measuring their personal value by Likes is so deeply ingrained that it is difficult to see how a significant number of them will break it. Or even really want to.

I don’t think we reckon with this phenomenon often enough, or seriously enough. The major social-media companies have been conducting for the past decade an implementation of B. K. Skinner’s principles more massive than anything we can truly imagine. They have found ways to get billions of people to volunteer for the experiments and devote sometimes hours a day to pursuing them. Operant conditioning at this level works. And its effects are difficult to undo.

One way to see this: often when people get sick of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and find some other online venue, they simply bring with them to their new location the habits they learned in the previous ones: the snark of Twitter, the rants of Facebook, the posturing of Instagram. It’s like the old line about travel: wherever you go, there you are. It’s hard enough for people to leave Facebook or Instagram or Twitter behind; what’s almost impossible to leave behind is the person that those sites’ algorithmic behaviorism turned you into.

after the platforms

Ross Douthat:

Yes, it’s understandable for conservatives to worry that if Silicon Valley censors the likes of Molyneux, it will end up censoring them. It’s sensible for them to join parts in the left in worrying about the concentrated power over information that the stewards of social-media platforms enjoy. And it’s necessary for them to recognize that the influence of redpillers and white-identitarians reflects their own failure, across the decades of movement-conservative institution building, to create something that seems more compelling to fugitives from liberalism than the Spirit of the Reddit Thread.

With all that said, though, a humane conservatism should still be able to thrive in a world where white nationalists have trouble monetizing their extremism, in which YouTube algorithms are built to maximize something other than addiction.

I’m not sure what Ross means in the last sentence I’ve quoted by “should.” Does he mean that “humane conservatism” is likely to thrive, or that if the system is fair it ought to be able to do so? I doubt the first and doubt the conditional of the second.

Here’s the situation as I see it. First, as Alexis Madrigal has recently written, the big social media companies will from now on find it less likely to take refuge in the claim that they are “merely platforms”:

These companies are continuing to make their platform arguments, but every day brings more conflicts that they seem unprepared to resolve. The platform defense used to shut down the why questions: Why should YouTube host conspiracy content? Why should Facebook host provably false information? Facebook, YouTube, and their kin keep trying to answer, We’re platforms! But activists and legislators are now saying, So what? “I think they have proven — by not taking down something they know is false — that they were willing enablers of the Russian interference in our election,” Nancy Pelosi said in the wake of the altered-video fracas.

If you can’t plead platform neutrality, what do you do? Well, these companies being what they are, they’ll write algorithms to try to filter content. But the algorithms will often fail — after all, they can’t tell the difference between sites that promote hatred and sites that seek to combat it.

Where does that leave you? As Will Oremus points out, it leaves you with mob rule:

What should be clear to both sides, by now, is the extent to which these massive corporations are making up the rules of online speech as they go along. In the absence of any independent standards or accountability, public opinion has become an essential part of the process by which their moderation policies evolve.

Sure, online platforms have policies and terms of service that run thousands of words, which they enforce on a mass scale via software and a bureaucratic review process. But those rules have been stitched together piecemeal and ad hoc over the years to serve the companies’ own needs — which is why they tend to collapse as soon as a high-profile controversy subjects them to public scrutiny. Caving to pressure is a bad look, but it’s an inevitable feature of a system with policies that weren’t designed to withstand pressure in the first place.

Whatever should happen to humane conservatism on the internet, I don’t know what will, but as a person who is somewhat conservative and who would like to be humane, I wish I knew. In light of all the above, one thing seems nearly certain to me: If I were on a major social media service and a vocal group of that site’s users started calling me homophobic or transphobic or a white supremacist and demanded that I be banned, I would be banned.

to put the point plainly

Nolan Lawson:

Get off of Twitter.

You can’t criticize Twitter on Twitter. It just doesn’t work. The medium is the message.

There’s an old joke where one fish says to the other, “How’s the water today?” And the fish responds, “What’s water?” On Twitter, you might ask, “How’s the outrage today?” (The answer, of course, is “I hate it! I’m so outraged about it!”)

Get off of Twitter.

Wait, have I said this before? Maybe only two or three hundred times. 

But here’s why I keep saying it: The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point.

Just give it a try: suspend your Big Social Media accounts and devote some time to the open web, to a blog of your own — maybe to micro.blog as an easy, simple way in. Give it a try and see if you’re not happier. I know I am. 

working the refs

Last Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of the first game of the NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, there was much online huffing and puffing about whether the game’s referees had failed to call fouls against the Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul.

But something important was overlooked in said huffing and puffing: the fact that, whether Harden and Paul were fouled or not, they were desperately trying to get fouls called against their opponents. And that makes the last few seconds of that game a kind of parable of our cultural moment.

It’s possible that the Warriors’ Draymond Green grazed James Harden as Harden came to earth after shooting — after, that is, missing a shot quite badly, possibly because he was thinking less about making the shot than about getting the ref to believe that Green had fouled him, which he did by falling, completely unnecessarily, to the ground. The ball ended up in Chris Paul’s hands, and Paul charged into the Warriors’ Klay Thompson while flailing his arms wildly, determined to force a call. (He did not get the call, and in his rage shouldered the referee, which has earned him a fine.)

This kind of thing has, of course, long been the bane of soccer: players who might have a legitimate chance to score a goal, or at least got off a shot on goal, fling themselves to the ground and roll about in feigned agony hoping that they will get a penalty called or a yellow card assigned to the opponent.

I have come to believe that this is what almost all of our culture is about now: working the refs. Trying to get the refs, whoever the refs might be in any given instance, to make calls in our favor — to rule against our enemies and for us, and therefore justify us before the whole world.

What are students doing when they try to get speakers disinvited from their campus? Or when Twitter users try to get other Twitter users banned from the platform? Or when people try to get executives or members of some board of directors fired from their jobs? In each case, it’s an appeal to the refs. These people are not trying to persuade through reasoned argument or to attract public opinion to their side through the charm of their personality. They’re demanding that the designated arbitrators arbitrate in their favor. (Sometimes, as in the case of the college admissions, scandal, they just bribe the refs.)

And it’s easy to see why people would think this way: If I assume the point of view underlying this habit, it means that nothing that goes wrong is ever my fault. If anything that I want to go my way doesn’t go my way, it’s because the referees didn’t make the right call. It’s never because I made any dumb mistakes, or indeed had any shortcomings of any kind. Things didn’t go my way because, whether through incompetence or bias, the refs suck. I would’ve won if it hadn’t been for the stupid refs.

I think this is a particularly attractive strategy in our current moment, especially on social media. As I wrote a couple of years ago,

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

Call-out culture has many, many mechanisms of enforcement but none of forgiveness or restoration. A culture that knows only how to punish creates an environment in which, as Freddie deBoer has said, “everyone’s a cop”; but it simultaneously creates disincentives for people to admit they they might themselves need policing. Because who wants to apply the single-sanction one-strike-and-you’re-out criterion to themselves?

These reflections might help to explain a phenomenon that Michael Lewis describes on his new podcast “Against the Rules”: that the NBA is dealing with unprecedented levels of complaint about its officials at the moment when the league gives those very officials unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and unprecedented levels of training, and unprecedented opportunities to review and correct bad calls.

If refs are doing their job better than ever and simultaneously catching more grief for their errors, that just might be a result of our expecting more of them than is reasonable. In the NBA, and also in society at large, we do better when we try to solve problems ourselves rather than try to manipulate the refs into solving them all for us. I hope the Rockets get swept by the Warriors. (And that the Warriors swept in the next round, because their moaning and bitching are almost as bad.)

UPDATE: I realized something right after I posted this — that’s always how it happens, isn’t it? — which is that by circling back to the NBA at the end of the post I elided a major distinction: The NBA refs may be “doing their job better than ever,” but that doesn’t mean that the same can be said for all our society’s referees. Indeed, many of them are doing a very bad job indeed. More on that in another post. (This is also what I get for writing a short post about an issue that needs to be treated at length.)

two thoughts on Twitter

After being away from Twitter for a few months, I have two thoughts.

The first is that I wish I had departed years ago.

The second is that when I peek at Twitter, the whole enterprise seems so weird. It’s not that it seems worse than I had remembered, nastier or stupider; rather, the fact that people spend time on that platform now strikes me as absurd, inexplicable. And I was tweeting for eleven years before I departed! It’s remarkable how quickly my mind has re-set itself to the pre-Twitter norm.

the beginning of the end of the republic of podcasts

For the last couple of years I have been hearing — from Marco Arment quite regularly — that podcasts are great because they’re the last refuge of the truly independent web. Looks like that’s changing. I can’t imagine that Spotify would make this investment without requiring you to sign up for a Spotify account in order to listen to Gimlet Media podcasts. And I’m sure other big media companies will follow suit, buying up popular podcasts and podcast networks. (What’s your price, Radiotopia?) And so back into the silos, and behind the paywalls, we go. There’s nothing about podcasts that makes them intrinsically independent.

“Gen Z” and social media

Christopher Mims of the WSJ has talked to a few members of Gen Z and is here to define the entire cohort’s use of social media for us. As someone whose job requires me to deal with members of that generation every day, and who has for the past decade taught classes on negotiating the online world, I think some of what Mims so confidently asserts is right, but other generalizations are very wrong.

The first of his seven points is: “Gen Z doesn’t dis­tin­guish between on­line and IRL.” This is, frankly, a ridiculous thing to say, first of all because any universal statement about an entire generation is (as I have often but fruitlessly commented) indefensible. Generational cohorts — even within a given country — are divided in serious ways by social class, by economic condition, by culture, by education. The only people Mims talks to are university students and people who work in, or study, the tech sector. It is, to put it mildly, not safe to assume that those people are representative of an entire generation.

But to the specific point: most of my students are very aware of the distinction between interacting online and IRL, and I have seen a distinct upturn over the past few years in insistence on the value of being present when with friends and not always checking your phone. (That’s noticeably stronger among my recent students than people five or six years older. My 26-year-old son tells me that he is almost the only person he knows who makes a point of putting his phone away when hanging with friends. He’s trying to set a good example.)

Mims’s second point: “Pri­vacy on­line? LOL.” This is true to my experience, though (see above) I can’t assume that the young people I know are representative. But for what it’s worth, almost all of my students understand, in theory anyway, that anything they post online could come back to haunt them some day. I might add that every term I have students who are not on any social media at all, and when I ask them why, they usually cite privacy concerns as their chief reason for abstaining.

3. Face­book is out, In­sta­gram is in.” True, but Facebook has been out for a long time. Most of my students from a decade ago already saw Facebook only as a place to (a) post pictures of themselves for their grandparents and (b) find high-school friends they had lost touch with. Also, while Instagram is definitely big, not all use it in the “self-branding” way Mims assumes is normal. Many of my students have their Instagram accounts set to private, and I’m pretty sure that’s a trend. (Though it’s not really related to the privacy issues mentioned above, because people know that even their private posts can be screenshotted.)

4. So­cial me­dia is how they stay informed.” Also true, to my long-time frustration — though I am increasingly inclined to think that there’s no real difference between getting your news from social media and getting it from, say, the Washington Post, since so many journalists today take their marching orders from Twitter mobs. A small data point: Baylor buys access to the WSJ for everyone with a baylor.edu email address, but I have only ever met one student who has the WSJ app installed on his phone.

5. Video is im­por­tant, but it isn’t every­thing.” No, video isn’t everything, but it’s hard to overstate the centrality of visual communication (especially edited still images — Snapchat-style even when made outside Snapchat — and emoji) among most of my students.

Mims also quotes in this context a Pew report claiming that the “Post-Millennial” generation is probably going to be the “best-educated ever,” but by “best-educated” Pew means simply having the most years of education. And that is, ahem, not the same thing. But that’s a subject for another day.

6. Gen Z thinks con­cerns about screens are overblown.” Some do, some don’t. The really interesting question is this: Even if we could determine what percentage of them are concerned about overdependence on screens, which would be hard, how will those views change over the next decade? When today’s college students are 30, will they be more or less dependent on their screens, especially their phones?

7. But they’re still sus­cep­ti­ble to tech addic­tion and burnout.” Indeed. Mims quotes a young woman who says, “I def­i­nitely think we all know that we’re ad­dicted to our phones and so­cial me­dia…. But I also think we’ve just come to terms with it, and we think, that’s just what it is to be a per­son now.” I have seen, often, just this helplessness and defeatism, but I have also encountered many students who are not just aware of their condition but determined to do something about it.

“the instantaneous awareness of so much folly”

The in­stan­ta­neous aware­ness of so much folly is not, I now think, healthy for the hu­man mind. Spend­ing time on Twit­ter be­came, for me, a deeply de­mor­al­iz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Of­ten, espe­cially when some con­tro­versy of na­tional im­por­tance pro­voked large num­bers of users into tweet­ing their opin­ions about it, I would come away from Twit­ter ex­as­perated al­most to the point of mad­ness.

I thought of a verse from the 94th Psalm: “The Lord knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are van­ity.” Af­ter an hour or so of watch­ing hu­man­i­ty’s stu­pidi­ties scroll across my screen, I felt I had peeked into some dread­ful abyss into which only God can safely look. It was not for me to know the thoughts of man.

— Barton Swaim

social media, blogs, newsletters

Tim Carmody:

The blogs I’ve written for (Kottke notwithstanding) have only had so much ability to retain me before they’ve changed their business model, changed management, gone out of business, or been quietly abandoned. They’re little asteroids, not planets. Most of the proper publications I’ve written for, even the net-native ones, have been dense enough to hold an atmosphere.

And guess what? So have Twitter and Facebook. Just by enduring, those places have become places for lasting connections and friendships and career opportunities, in a way the blogosphere never was, at least for me. (Maybe this is partly a function of timing, but look: I was there.) And this means that, despite their toxicity, despite their shortcomings, despite all the promises that have gone unfulfilled, Twitter and Facebook have continued to matter in a way that blogs don’t.

I’d very much like to dismiss what Tim says here — but I don’t think I can. He’s probably right. (And the asteroid/planet metaphor is an especially fertile one.) In light of Tim’s account of his experience, I’ve been reminded that my own opting-out of social media is a luxury — and I am therefore all the more grateful for that luxury.

I wrote in a recent edition of my newsletter,

On Tuesday morning, January 22, I read a David Brooks column about a confrontation that happened on the National Mall during the March for Life. Until I read that column I had heard nothing about this incident because I do not have a Facebook account, have deleted my Twitter account, don’t watch TV news, and read the news about once a week. If all goes well, I won’t hear anything more about the story. I recommend this set of practices to you all.

After reading the Brooks column I checked in on the social media I have access to, and I cannot readily express to you how strange the commotion seemed to me. The responses of people to this issue struck me as — this is going to sound very strong, but I promise you that it’s precisely how I felt — it struck me as the behavior of people in the grip of some manic compulsion, of some kind of mass hysteria. There are no rational criteria in light of which what happened between those people on the National Mall matters — none at all.

And then I was filled with relief that I hadn’t got caught up in the tsunami — which, if I had been on social media, I would have been as vulnerable to as the next person, I’m sure — and filled with determination to make my way to still higher ground. Maybe you can’t do that, but if you can you probably should. (And, to be perfectly straightforward, there are a great many people who say they can’t disconnect from social media who in fact just don’t want to, or are afraid of what will happen if they do.)

Relatedly: I was chatting with the wonderful Robin Sloan about these matters earlier today, and Robin expressed his hope that “a tiny, lively, healthy Republic of Newsletters is possible — it really is!” I love everything about that formulation: Republic of Newsletters, yes, but also that it’s “lively” and “healthy” — and tiny. Numbers, metrics are not what matters here. What matters is relation. What matters is “Only connect.” I replied to Robin,

I think so — I really really do. Opt in, read or don’t read as the fancy strikes you, and if you have a comment or a question, hit reply. What could be simpler? (As you and Craig Mod commented in that recent WSJ piece, email may be the Tom Bombadil of internet communication: last, as it was first. Well, you didn’t use that metaphor, I admit. But it’s fascinating that the pattern, for some of us anyway, seems to be internet to open Web to walled gardens to open Web to internet.)

Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace. We’ve moved a long way from Tim Carmody’s planetary metaphor, which, as I say, I feel the force of, but whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.


scruples

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that writing an eight-thousand-word world-historical explanation for why you can’t get through your to-do list is not the best use of your energies and abilities. Think about how many tasks on her to-do list Anne Helen Petersen could have accomplished in the time it took to write such an essay!

More seriously: Is this really a generation-specific problem? I too have tasks that I roll over from week to week to week, but I don’t think I need a Universal Socio-Economic Theory of Generational Paralysis to explain why. Some tasks are annoying and I’d rather do other stuff. Over the years I’ve developed some decent strategies for coping with my reluctance — most of them belonging to the structured procrastination family — but I’ve never overcome my lack of efficiency. (Ask my wife.) I’m not sure this needs or deserves a thorough explanation. Maybe a shrug is more appropriate.

Auden once wrote, “The same rules apply to self-examination as apply to auricular confession: Be brief, be blunt, be gone. The scrupuland is a nasty specimen.” I would amend that to say that the scrupuland — the overly scrupulous person — is a tired specimen. Nothing is more exhausting than ceaseless self-examination, self-reflection, self-criticism.

The word “scruple” comes from the Latin scrūpus, a rough pebble. A little pebble stuck in your sandal that the scrupuland can’t manage to ignore, try though she might. But if you can’t remove the pebble, I think continuing to try to ignore it would be preferable to writing an eight-thousand-word essay on how the pebble got there, complete with an account of the relationship between Roman roads and the transition from Republic to Empire.

If I were a full-on curmudgeon, instead of a intermittent curmudgeon, I might shout, “Get over yourself!” But that’s not the problem here: whatever might be wrong with a Petersen’s essay, it’s not too much self-regard. I do think, though, that scrupulands need to find ways to get out of themselves, to direct their gaze away, towards other human beings, towards the natural world. But that is difficult for people of any generation who are extremely online — who are, primarily through social media, always on display. When technologically-enabled self-fashioning is a 24/7 job … well, it’s very hard to get that pebble out of your shoe. Maybe those rules for auricular confession and self-examination apply also to participating in social media: Be brief, be blunt, be gone. That won’t get those items on your to-do list done, but it might allow you to think of procrastination as a normal human imperfection rather than a generational curse and a source of ongoing angst.

why you need to take a break from social media

Imagination is strong in a man when that particular function of the brain which enables him to observe is roused to activity without any necessary excitement of the senses. Accordingly, we find that imagination is active just in proportion as our senses are not excited by external objects. A long period of solitude, whether in prison or in a sick room; quiet, twilight, darkness — these are the things that promote its activity; and under their influence it comes into play of itself. On the other hand, when a great deal of material is presented to our faculties of observation, as happens on a journey, or in the hurly-burly of the world, or, again, in broad daylight, the imagination is idle, and, even though call may be made upon it, refuses to become active, as though it understood that that was not its proper time.

However, if the imagination is to yield any real product, it must have received a great deal of material from the external world. This is the only way in which its storehouse can be filled. The phantasy is nourished much in the same way as the body, which is least capable of any work and enjoys doing nothing just in the very moment when it receives its food which it has to digest. And yet it is to this very food that it owes the power which it afterwards puts forth at the right time.

Schopenhauer, Studies in Pessimism

maintaining lines of connection

Warren Ellis:

I feel like I want to see some more thought around getting the fuck off social networks but being able to maintain lines of connection between friends, comrades and fellow-travellers in addition to the Republic Of Newsletters and the Isles Of Blogging. Status pages as the signals from the Invisible Monastery, or, possibly, Hobo Code marks on the walls of the web. Planning for the oncoming dark age?

Radio beacons.

I dunno. I feel like it’s either a fragment of an idea for maintaining connections while routing around toxic internet, or it’s MySpace pages.

I’ve been getting a good many ideas from Ellis lately: he mentions here status pages, for the second time in a week, and I decided to make one — there a link to it at the bottom of my home page. And status pages are indeed nice — I wish more of my friends had them — but they do sort of belong to the monastic world, the world of people who need to hole up for long periods of time to get work done but don’t want to be hermits.

But if you’re somewhere between being a monk and being an incessant chatterbox, it’s hard to know what to do, online anyway.

Here’s what I’m doing now: I still see Twitter and Instagram occasionally, but it’s very occasionally. I have Freedom set up to block those apps, on all my devices, for all but two hours each day (an hour in the morning and another in the evening). And that’s sufficient — more than sufficient: there are days when I forget to check either of them. I post to my blog and my micro.blog, and those posts get auto-cross-posted to Twitter.

As much as I still love, and will always love, RSS, I have purged it of almost all news and current-events sites. I have unsubscribed from all newspapers — though I get free access to the WSJ through Baylor — and try to get my news through weekly and monthly magazines. That’s much saner. I subscribe to a dozen or so newsletters, but for me, newsletters are just not All That.

Overall I am reading more codex and less internet.

But I never have stopped missing the friendships I used to experience through Twitter. For a while I tried chatting with people on micro.blog, but that didn’t work — which may be because I just don’t have the knack of social-media chatting any more, but also may be because people have learned certain discursive habits from Twitter and Facebook that they then bring to every other platform, and I don’t like those discursive habits. In any case, for now I’m just posting to micro.blog and not trying to converse. Maybe that will change. Or maybe I’ll move everything back to the blog. Time will tell.

My guess is that social media are dead to conversation and conversation on them cannot be revived. But if that’s true, how to “maintain lines of connection between friends, comrades and fellow-travellers” while “routing around the toxic internet”? That is indeed the question, and I don’t have a clue how it might be answered. I suspect that there is no answer: that it’s the toxic internet or hermetic life or, for those who are blessed, what Auden called “local understanding.” And if so, though I don’t want to be a hermit, I’d definitely prefer that to trying, yet again, to talk to strangers on social media.

Anyway: like Ellis, I am waiting and hoping for ideas. Maybe a revival of listservs? That’d be way better than Slack.

totalitarian presentism

Senator Ben Sasse doesn’t read modern fiction, only old books, and people on social media are getting seriously freaked out.

Let’s stop and think about this. Sasse’s day job requires him to spend dozens of hours a week immersed in the affairs of the moment. When he turns on his TV: affairs of the moment. When he ferries people around as an Uber driver, he hears about people’s take on the affairs of the moment. When he listens to the radio: affairs of the moment. When he’s on social media: affairs of the moment. But if, in his leisure hours, he wants to read old books, he’s THE WORST. He has committed the unpardonable sin.

It is not enough for many people that they be so utterly presentist in their sensibility that their temporal bandwidth is a nanometer wide. Everyone must share their obsession with the instant. No one may look to other times. It’s not just presentism, it’s totalitarian presentism.

Yeah, I really do need to write this book.

it’s not gonna change

Kara Swisher:

Social media platforms — and Facebook and Twitter are as guilty of this as Gab is — are designed so that the awful travels twice as fast as the good. And they are operating with sloppy disregard of the consequences of that awful speech, leading to disasters that they then have to clean up after.

And they are doing a very bad job of that, too, because they are unwilling to pay the price to make needed fixes. Why? because draining the cesspool would mean losing users, and that would hurt the bottom line. Consider this: On Monday, New York Times reporters easily found almost 12,000 anti-Semitic messages that had been uploaded to Instagram in the wake of the synagogue attack.

The social media companies have shown who they are over and over and over and over. It’s not gonna change. Ever.

Warren Ellis is extremely correct

Usual Hermitage Bullshit Notice – MORNING, COMPUTER:

On Saturday at 1201am I turned off my social media. I have a private IG account for looking at nice pictures, and Twitter lists for news, but I’m not posting on or participating in the public internet for the next several months. I tell people on my newsletter, all the time, to tune their internet connections until they are useful and fun.  The public internet stopped being fun for me some years ago, and I disconnect from it for half of each year at least. I like newsletters, blogs and RSS, podcasts, email, messaging apps and complete thoughts. The public network turned into something I don’t really enjoy or get anything out of.

the “gradual decay” of Twitter

Am I finally done with Twitter? After years of leaving and coming back, leaving and coming back? If I haven’t learned how to leave Twitter, at least I’ve learned how not to claim that I’m leaving Twitter. But I’m closer than I’ve ever been.

There’s almost never any pleasure in visiting Twitter now, just the utility of finding out what my friends are up to. Still, something in my brain remembers better times, so left to my own devices I check in far more often than makes sense. So lately I’ve been using Freedom to block Twitter except for a brief period each morning and a brief one each evening. I have found that I don’t miss the place, yes, but also that more and more often I forget to visit when the window is open.

Now that Twitter is finally hobbling the third-party clients that make using the site bearable, and is continuing to get bad publicity for its inability to control bad actors on its platform, I’m seeing in my RSS feed a number of suggestions for how Twitter can be fixed. All of them are ideas that have been put forth for a decade now — adding a paid tier, forcing the third-party clients to show ads, improving the ability to block users — so it would be very strange if Twitter started making intelligent decisions at this late date. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t known for his wit, but I think often of what he said some years ago about the creators of Twitter: They drove a clown car to a gold mine, and then fell in.

Twitter’s current leadership are flailing around right now, looking for ways to fix their platform, but there’s virtually no chance that they’ll make good choices. They have never understood their own product, in large part because few of them use it themselves, and a dozen years in that’s not going to change. And for people like me, it’s too late anyway.

There’s a very moving passage in one of Samuel Johnson’s essays about how friendships end that captures much of how I feel about Twitter:

The most fatal disease of friendship is gradual decay, or dislike hourly increased by causes too slender for complaint, and too numerous for removal. — Those who are angry may be reconciled; those who have been injured may receive a recompense: but when the desire of pleasing and willingness to be pleased is silently diminished, the renovation of friendship is hopeless; as, when the vital powers sink into languor, there is no longer any use of the physician.

But if my friendship with Twitter is dying, I still care for the friends whose company I have enjoyed there. I hope I will hear from them elsewhere — maybe even at micro.blog.

getting real about Facebook

Nikhil Sonnad:

The solution, then, is for Facebook to change its mindset. Until now, even Facebook’s positive steps — like taking down posts inciting violence, or temporarily banning the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — have come not as the result of soul-searching, but of intense public pressure and PR fallout. Facebook only does the right thing when it’s forced to. Instead, it needs to be willing to sacrifice the goal of total connectedness and growth when this goal has a human cost; to create a decision-making process that requires Facebook leaders to check their instinctive technological optimism against the realities of human life.

Absent human considerations, Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world. The 2.5 billion people who use it, as part of their real lives, won’t put up with that forever.

My reply:

  1. Facebook will not “change its mindset.” Ever.
  2. Facebook’s “goal” is not “total connectedness,” it is the monopolization and monetization of your attention.
  3. “Facebook will continue to bring thoughtless, banal harm to the world.” Period. There are no “human considerations,” nor will there ever be.
  4. Billions of people will indeed “put up with that forever.”

I really cannot see the point of these arguments that assume the possibility that Facebook will radically reconfigure its corporate ethics. That’s like building hen houses with the hope that the local foxes will become vegetarians. The “what to do about Facebook” question must begin with the understanding that Facebook will (a) try to buy off its fiercest legislative critics and (b) make only such changes as it must to avoid being legally constrained.

Just one more quick thought about yesterday’s post: I’ve done this kind of thing before, but usually by trying to delete Twitter altogether. This time I’m continuing to use Twitter to share links, but I am making it very difficult to look at Twitter. And that seems to work much better for me. 

re-setting my mental clock

A couple of months I submitted to my brilliant agent, Christy Fletcher, a proposal for a general-interest book, a book I had been thinking of as a kind of completion of a trilogy that began with The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction and continued with How to Think. The three books together would distill most of what has been central to my teaching over the decades.

And then I wrote back to Christy and asked her to withdraw the proposal.

Why? Because I kept asking myself What is the point? and could not come up with any answers. As an evangelical Anglican Christian and a professor of the humanities, I have spent my adult life in service to the church and the academy, and I don’t know how anyone could look at either of those institutions right now and see them as anything but floundering, incoherent messes, helmed largely by people who seem determined to make every mess worse. I want to grab those leaders by the lapels and shout in their faces, “I’m trying to contain an outbreak here, and you’re driving the monkey to the airport!” What good has anything I’ve written ever done? Why bother writing anything else? What is the point? The monkey’s already at the airport, securely stashed in the airliner’s cargo hold, and the plane is taxiing down the runway.

Now, around the same time that I arrived at this melancholy judgment about my past and future as a writer, I also decided that I needed to make some serious changes to my encounters with social media. I deleted Twitter from my mobile devices, and, just to make sure that I couldn’t access it even from the web more than a time or two a day, scheduled daily blockages via Freedom.

Of course, this did not remove the posting itch, so I moved my social-media posts and photos away from Twitter and Instagram and to micro.blog, the wonderful new creation of Manton Reece where I can post to my heart’s content but can’t retweet, can’t be retweeted, can’t see how many followers I have — it’s amazing: just conversation without posturing or signaling or bots. (You can, and I do, cross-post to Twitter, which means that when I want to point to something cool that I’ve read I can do so to a much, much larger audience than I currently have on my micro.blog account, but, thanks to Freedom, without even being able to see whether people are liking it.)

Please do consider signing up: it’s not free (though there’s a free trial), but there are also no ads, which means that Manton has no agenda except to make the service fun and useful for his users. Also, following the example of my friends Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Dan Cohen, I connected my micro.blog to my own domain, keeping my stuff on my turf.

In related moves, I purged a number of news sites from my RSS feed, deleted Apple News from my devices, and canceled my subscription to the Washington Post (which in any case has been interspersing more and more and more Florida Man-style stories among the actual news and analysis pieces). I have come to rely on the weekly news summaries provided by, for instance, National Review and the Spectator — more leftish magazines should do this kind of thing; also monthlies and quarterlies. It would be interesting to see what the “top news stories” looked like if you could only gather them every three months.

There has been one significant consequence of all these moves, and I find it an interesting one. Curiously, though in a way logically, my escape from Twitter’s endless cycles of intermittent reinforcement and its semi-regular tsunamis has made me significantly calmer about my own future as a writer, in large part because it has re-set my mental clock. I have always told myself that I have time to think about what, if anything, I want to write next, but I haven’t really believed it, and I think that’s been due to my immersion in the time-frame of Twitter and other social media. Now that I’ve climbed out of that medium, I can give not merely notional but real assent to the truth that I have time, plenty of time, to think through what I might want to say.

And who knows, maybe I’ll even come back to that third volume of my Pedagogical Trilogy.

Facebook wants to matter

Siva Vaidhyanathan:

There’s no one to punish Facebook if Facebook fails. Facebook’s trying to head off regulation by doing this, this transparency effort. But ultimately, transparency doesn’t matter. The same practices will occur. Facebook is committed to being a factor in global politics. And it not only wants to make money off it, more importantly, it wants to matter. Facebook wants to be the place where we conduct our politics.

Here’s what I don’t understand: Vaidhyanathan says this and much worse about Facebook, but also, in the same interview and elsewhere, discourages people from leaving Facebook. “By removing yourself from Facebook, you remove yourself from the concern. If you are active on Facebook and you watch how people relate to each other and how it affects you, you can be sensitive to the larger condition.” I don’t see how this follows. I don’t see why you have to be on Facebook to critique Facebook, or to see the damage it does. I ditched Facebook in 2007 but that hasn’t “removed me from concern” about the social and political damage it’s doing. Is Facebook really going to be responsive to people who stay on it no matter how foul it becomes? 

good-bye Instagram

Instagram is very pleased with its algorithm. Good for them — but that algorithm is the reason I have deleted my account. I could never see what I want to see in Instagram — again and again and again I would find out what friends were doing days after I needed to know. The only way I could keep up with my friends on Instagram was by going through their feeds one by one. So I’m done with that “service” — and how I wish my friends who use it would post to their own sites instead, or to micro.blog — or to anything except Instagram, where I really want to know what y’all are up to but am algorithmically prevented from finding out.

delete

Jaron Lanier:

If you have good experiences with social media, nothing in this book invalidates those experiences. In fact, my hope is that we—meaning both the industry and all of us—will find a way to keep and improve on what we love precisely by being precise about what must be rejected. Deleting your accounts now will improve the chances that you’ll have access to better experiences in the future. Some have compared social media to the tobacco industry, but I will not. The better analogy is paint that contains lead. When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard. Smart people simply waited to buy paint until there was a safe version on sale. Similarly, smart people should delete their accounts until nontoxic varieties are available.

where have the readers gone?

Jürgen Habermas:

The public sphere is crucial to the intellectual, though its fragile structure is undergoing an accelerated process of decay. The nostalgic question, ‘Where have all the intellectuals gone?’ misses the point. You can’t have committed intellectuals if you don’t have the readers to address the ideas to.

Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter. One could argue that social media are not an extension of the public sphere but the antithesis of it. Habermas doesn’t want to rule out the possibility of things getting better: “Perhaps with time we will learn to manage the social networks in a civilized manner.” But he doesn’t seem especially hopeful: “I am too old to judge the cultural impulse that the new media is giving birth to. But it annoys me that it’s the first media revolution in the history of mankind to first and foremost serve economic as opposed to cultural ends.”

The really interesting point here is that you can’t have genuine public intellectuals if you don’t have a sizable class of people who are able to read — who can understand arguments and assess them shrewdly and fairly. But anyone has been on social media knows how rare such ability is, how regularly (almost unerringly) people respond to what others have written without having, in any meaningful sense, read it.

So maybe one of the most important questions we who are concerned about our common culture can ask ourselves is this: How do we bring reading back?

POTUS, tweetblocker

Maybe there’s some legal element I don’t understand, but this ruling seems wrong to me. Not that I don’t want to see the Donald discomfited in every way possible, but

  1. Twitter is a service provided by a private company, it’s not a public forum; and

  2. Blocking people on Twitter doesn’t impede them from saying whatever they want to say, and saying it on Twitter. I don’t see how anyone, including POTUS, has an obligation to listen to anyone and everyone.

notify me — NOT

Farhad Manjoo:

Another idea is to let you impose more fine-grained controls over notifications. Today, when you let an app send you mobile alerts, it’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition — you say yes to letting it buzz you, and suddenly it’s buzzing you all the time.

Mr. Harris suggested that Apple could require apps to assign a kind of priority level to their notifications. “Let’s say you had three notification levels — heavy users, regular users and lite, or Zen,” Mr. Harris said.

My question is: Why let any app issue you notifications ever? Here are the notifications I get on my phone: Text messages from my family. That’s it. Everyone and everything else has to wait until I’m ready.

Auden adapted

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
Tweet, tweet, for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Tweet till the stars come down from the rafters;
Tweet, tweet, tweet till you drop.

People vary widely in their proclivities and needs alike, so it’s usually impossible to offer advice that applies equally well to everyone. But I believe the following law is of universal validity: When a tragedy occurs, disappear from all social media for at least 48 hours. 

life among the crackheads

Damon Linker:

After six months of unremitting chaos, lies, ignorance, trash-talking vulgarity, legislative failure, and credible evidence of a desire to collude with a hostile foreign government to subvert an American election, President Trump’s approval rating is astonishingly high — with something between one-third and two-fifths of the American people apparently liking what they see and hear from the White House. They approve of the constant ignoble churn and presumably want it to continue. This is the kind of politics they prefer.

Damon is precisely right about this, and of all the elements of Trumpworld that might make a sane person worry, this is right at the top of the list. I have no quarrel here with those who supported Trump reluctantly, out of the belief that however bad he might be, Hillary would’ve been worse; I want to talk about people who like a demeaned and diminished public sphere, who enjoy taking to social media to spread contempt and mockery and hatred, and who applaud when others of their political tribe do the same (even if they cry out in outrage when people of the Other Tribe do the same thing).

There’s been a great deal of discussion over the past eight months or so about who’s most to blame for this situation, but I want to waive all such questions. I want instead to look forward.

In order to do that, I believe we need to look right past the gleeful haters. Basically, they’re crackheads: wholly addicted to their cheap and nasty drug of choice. They’re not hopeless — I’m a Christian, I don’t do hopeless — but you can’t count on them for anything constructive. If there’s a crack house in your neighborhood and you’re trying to build some kind of community, you don’t go out of your way to invite the crackheads to your meetings. You don’t hate or reject them; if they happen to show up, you welcome them in, and you gently encourage them to note and heed the rules of polite discourse; but you don’t try to drag them to the meetings.

You don’t try to drag them because you’re practicing containment: you may not be able to eliminate the crack house, or turn it back into a decent family home, but you want to do everything you can to make sure that no more houses in your neighborhood become refuges for crackheads, because crackheads can do a lot of damage to the houses they inhabit. In fact, you’re holding these meetings to help the families in the neighborhood take care of the place, take care of each other, keep the neighborhood an actual neighborhood rather than a row of crack houses. And the healthier your neighborhood, the better you’ll be able to help the crackheads, show them a better way to live; because they’re sad figures, after all, far more to be pitied than despised. They just can’t be allowed to dictate the condition of the neighborhood.

Our public sphere is an old neighborhood with a few social-media crack houses in it. And if you’re spending a significant amount of your time fighting with people on Twitter or Facebook or even in the comments sections of websites that still have comments sections, then you’re a crackhead, which means that you’re a danger to yourself and to your neighbors. Sorry, but the first step to getting better is always to admit that you have a problem.

Anyway, we’re going to move ahead with our neighborhood improvement project without you. And here’s how we’re going to do it:

1) We have to make sure that we ourselves avoid crack like the plague that it is. So, Don’t fight on social media. Ever. It spreads the addiction to more and more of the community, so that you get situations like the one Scott Alexander imagines in this thought experiment:

Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police.

As Freddie deBoer recently wrote, we’re living on a planet of cops — or, if I may stick with my metaphor, we’re in a crack house of cops. So let’s sneak out quietly and leave the crackheads to their mutual recriminations.

2) We have to teach our children. No matter how commonplace, how normal, smoking crack may seem to them, we have to work firmly, consistently, and patiently to make sure they understand what it really is. The same goes for the many other drugs they might use that don’t show their effects so publicly: porn may be more like certain of the mellower opioids rather than crack, but it can make messes of lives too, just in different ways.

I emphasize educating the young because I don’t see how you can draw people away from the crack of social media if they’re long-habituated to it. Again, I don’t say that they’re hopeless, but rather that you can’t count on them. You have to proceed without them. And you have to focus your attention passionately on the next generation, to do everything possible to keep them away from the Bad Thing. Even if it means taking away their smartphones — and I really mean that.

two minutes

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

15 hours

Russell Berman tweets: “15 hours later, not one of the top 4 House Republican leaders have issued a statement on the president’s firing of the FBI director.” This expresses a commonly-held view — just as I write these words I see a post by Pete Wehner asking “Where is the Republican Leadership?” — but I wonder: When did we get on this schedule? That is, when did an overnight wait before commenting on a political decision become an unconscionable delay? I’m old enough to remember when people used to counsel their agitated friends to “sleep on it,” and maybe even seek the opinions of others, before making public statements or highly consequential decisions. Now anything but instantaneous response is morally suspect — at best. 

For the record: I harbor not the tiniest suspicion that the President is acting in good faith and with the best interests of the nation in mind. I am as sure as I can be that he made this decision the way he makes all of his decisions: on the basis of what he perceives to be his own self-interest. And I seriously doubt that anyone in Washington differs from me in this regard, whatever they might end up saying to the public. But I’m not making a point here about how we judge the President’s motives; I’m making a point about what seems to have become the standard expectation, at least among journalists and other people who are on Twitter all the time, for how quickly judgment should be expressed. And I’m not confident that it’s good for the body politic for politicians to be under pressure to make instantaneous statements. I’d rather that they take some time, seek counsel, sleep on it, and think it over

hypocrisy

If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: ‘Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.’ Aw, isn’t that nice? From one ‘pioneer’ to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy….

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for ‘making the world more open and connected’. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more ‘connected’ but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a ‘walled garden’ and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it.

Why Tim Berners-Lee is no friend of Facebook | John Naughton | Opinion | The Guardian. Couldn’t be more correct, or more importantly correct.

Why I Unfollowed You on Instagram

boundaries

One must not, however, imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory: it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect…. Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: in this is its seriousness and significance; abstracted from boundaries it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.

— Mikhail Bakhtin, from a late essay translated by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. This is one of my foundational beliefs: it governs many of my choices, especially about what I read and whom I converse with — and on social media also. Choose wisely and carefully the people you follow on Twitter and you can create a digital version of Bakhtinian/Dostoevskian polyphony.

grand narratives

Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness … We’re giving way to terror, to news of terror, to tape-recorders and cameras, to radios, to bombs stashed in radios. News of disaster is the only narrative people need. The darker the news, the grander the narrative.

— Don DeLillo, Mao II

All-Purpose Responses to Expressions of Puzzlement or Resentment on Twitter

  1. Here, let me google that for you.
  2. If you read a few other recent tweets of mine your confusion is likely to be remedied!
  3. I think you just tried to cram 500 words of meaning into 140 characters, so, alas, I find your reply incomprehensible.
  4. Thank you for sharing your passionate lack of interest in what I just tweeted about. Had I known that in advance it would have had no effect on my tweeting, though.
  5. Please do not take my tweet as an indication that I wish to conduct a debate on Twitter. I don’t use Twitter for that.

There is a significant psychological price to being constantly aware of the variety of ways in which your activity might be tracked. To be blunt, it makes you feel crazy. That is why, if you want a quiet life, you shouldn’t make friends with security analysts: they tend to get drunk and describe the ways in which your phone can be turned into a listening device until the skin on the back of your neck starts to crawl, because it’s their job to know about such things. There is a non-zero cost to this sort of awareness.

In a choice between paranoid vigilance and easy participation, few choose paranoia. It’s just easier to change your behaviour. A friend who works in computer security told me that “the most important censorship happens between your head and your keyboard”. Self-censorship is significant in a world where, increasingly, as the tech journalist Quinn Norton observes, “falling in love, going to war and filling out tax forms looks the same: it looks like typing”.

Home and Away are the poles of our being, each exerting a magnetic pull on the psyche. We vibrate between them. Home is comforting but constraining. Away is liberating but lonely. When we’re Home, we dream of Away, and when we’re Away, we dream of Home. Communication tools have always entailed a blurring of Home and Away. Newspaper, phonograph, radio, and TV pulled a little of Away into Home, while the telephone, and before it the mail, granted us a little Home when we were Away. Some blurring is fine, but we don’t want too much of it. We don’t want the two poles to become one pole, the magnetic forces to cancel each other out. The vibration is what matters, what gives beauty to both Home and Away. Facebook Home, in pretending to give us connection without the shadow of loneliness, gives us nothing. It’s Nowheresville.

— Nick Carr. One of Nick’s best and truest posts ever. But then I would think that, because there are no words for how deeply I despise Facebook.

The Online State of Nature

Back in 2010 I published this column for the Big Questions Online website. That site has changed a good deal since, and my columns have been taken down. Maybe this one is worth reposting.

Recently John Sentamu, the Anglican Archbishop of York, said that it’s time for people to stop attacking Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury:

It deeply saddens me that there is not only a general disregard for the truth, but a rapacious appetite for ‘carelessness’ compounded by spin, propaganda and the resort to misleading opinions paraded as fact, regarding a remarkable, gifted and much-maligned Christian leader I call a dear friend and trusted colleague — one Rowan Williams. I say, enough is enough. May we all possess a high regard for the truth.

A couple of years ago I was visiting an Anglican blog, as was then my habit, and came across an article in which a theological conservative — that is, someone on “my side” of the Anglican debates, if we must speak in such terms, God help us — was accusing Archbishop Williams of something like complete epistemological skepticism, effective unbelief. I have heard many of my fellow conservatives speak of Williams in this way. I thought that if they were to read what he writes, or listen to what he preaches — this magnificent sermon, for instance — they would no longer speak of him so dismissively. I wrote a comment on this post, challenging the critique of Williams, linking to sermons, talks, essays that demonstrated beyond any doubt that the charge of skepticism was false.

None of this convinced the author, or other commenters. The general belief was that the Archbishop had not acted decisively for conservative causes, especially regarding sexuality, and therefore anything he said or wrote that savored of theological orthodoxy amounted to protective coloration at best and outright deceit at worst. In their minds he was the enemy of orthodoxy and therefore their enemy, and as such could be granted the benefit of no doubt. Never mind that on liberal Anglican blogs he was simultaneously being condemned for having sold out to the forces of right-wing reaction. (And never mind what Jesus said about loving your enemies, even assuming that Rowan is really an “enemy.”) He was wrong; he had to be resisted by all available means, tarred by any brush near to hand. My response to this attitude towards Williams can be summed up perfectly in Archbishop Sentamu’s recent comments: there was a deeply lamentable “general disregard for the truth.” And from the strict upholders of tradition and orthodoxy!

The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated. At one point I said to myself, all right, you want to play hardball, we’ll play hardball — and I would have cut loose and said exactly what I wanted to say, except that at that moment my hands were shaking too violently for me to type accurately.

I looked at my trembling fingers for a moment. Then I closed that browser tab and spent a few minutes removing all Anglican-related blogs from my bookmarks and my RSS reader. I stopped reading those blogs and have never looked at them again to this day, and I feel that I am a better person and a better Christian for it.

“Someone is WRONG on the internet”, as the now-famous xkcd cartoon has it, but it’s a particular way of being wrong that generates this kind of heat. I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity. (You’ll see that I am putting this in terms of the classic virtues.)

Late modernity’s sense of itself is built around achievements in justice. Consider Americans particularly: when we look back over the past hundred years, what do we take pride in? Suffrage for women; the defeat of international fascism; Brown vs. Board of Education; civil rights and especially voting rights for African-Americans. If you’re on one side of the political spectrum you might add the outlasting of the Soviet Empire; if you’re on the other side you might add the expansion of rights and gays and lesbians. But the key point is that all of these are achievements in justice.

To this point someone might object: well, of course — those are political accomplishments after all, and politics is, or ought to be, about the pursuit of justice. And that’s right: but one of the key developments of the late modern world is the dramatic increase in public information about political action. We know more about politics, we think more about politics, than our ancestors ever did or could have done. In the eighteenth century, near the beginnings of modern political journalism, Samuel Johnson wrote, “How small of all that human hearts endure / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.” But perhaps few late moderns would agree with him. We seek to have almost all that we have to endure cured, or prevented, by laws and kings, that is, politicians.

And so, as we have come to think more and more about politics and the arts of public justice, we have come to consider our private and familial and communal lives more and more in those terms. The pursuit of justice becomes central to, even definitive of, acts and experiences that once were governed largely by other virtues. It is this particular transformation that Wendell Berry was lamenting when he wrote, “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate ‘relationship’ involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” That is, a matter of justice rather than love, an assertion of rights rather than a self-giving.

It is this self-same logic that governs our responses to one another on the internet. We clothe ourselves by the manifest justice of our favorite causes, and so clothed we cannot but be righteous. (“Someone is WRONG on the internet.”) Not only do we fail to cultivate charity and humility in our online debates, we may even come to think of such virtues as in fact, vices: forms of weakness that compromise our advocacy for our causes. And so clothed we go forth to war with one another.

But this comes perilously close to what Thomas Hobbes, 350 years ago, famously called “this war of every man against every man.” And as Hobbes pointed out, such a war may begin in the name of justice, but justice cannot long survive: in such an environment “this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place… . Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.” No wonder, then, that Cardinal Sentamu cries out, “May we all possess a high regard for the truth.” No wonder he cries in vain.