lost causes and places of hope

Better late than never, Ezra — props to you for finally coming around. But not many of your generation will. Indeed, for policy if not for personal purposes, we should probably treat everyone over thirty as a lost cause. They’ve been sucked into the black hole of social media and we won’t see them in the real world again. (“Never trust anyone over thirty,” we were told all those decades ago, and now I’m saying “Never hope for anyone over thirty.” In each case there are exceptions, though maybe not enough to bother with.) The key thing, then, is to save the coming generations from the conflagration, and Yuval Levin has a proposal for achieving that

another friendly reminder

Spy Vs Spy

Here’s the good news: Most Americans are not hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors.

Here’s the bad news: The hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors dominate social media – they’re on it all the time. They toil not, neither do they spin, but they never stop posting and tweeting and reposting and retweeting and shitposting and shittweeting.

And here’s more bad news: the professional media make bank by showcasing the hateful conspiracy-theorists who want to destroy their wrongthinking neighbors – and they too never stop their destructive work. There is a malice there that does not sleep.

But – finally – here’s more good news:

  1. You can stop reading Twitter and Facebook, you can stop watching TV “news,” you can stop listening to loudmouthed podcasters.
  2. You can change your news consumption to a weekly cycle rather than a daily – or hourly – one.
  3. You can spend more time with monthly or quarterly periodicals; you can read books — even old books. 
  4. You can also listen to music, ideally music not served up to you algorithmically. Buy one CD or vinyl record per month and listen to it all the way through, multiple times. Retrain your attention.
  5. Go outside as often as you can, ideally without devices. Work in the yard, or just walk around. Pause occasionally to take a few deep breaths. When you come back in, do not head straight for your device; instead, make a cup of tea, straighten your shelves, or pray.

We can do this! 

decline and fall

TikTok and the Fall of the Social-Media Giants: A very interesting post by Cal Newport. His thesis is, essentially, as follows: TikTok’s popularity has alarmed Facebook — a company that has a history of forgetting what it does well in order to chase immediate relevance — and as a result Facebook is neglecting to consolidate its advantage in the “social graph.” The result will inevitably be a further and more precipitous decline in Facebook’s influence — but it is also unlikely that TikTok itself will remain as dominant as it is. 

As Newport says in an accompanying blog post, “If platforms like Facebook and Instagram abandon their social graphs to pursue this cybernetic TikTok model, they’ll lose their competitive advantage. Subject, all at once, to the fierce competitive pressures of the mobile attention economy, it’s unclear whether they can survive without this protection.” Thus: “If TikTok acts as the poison pill that finally cripples the digital dictators that for so long subjugated the web 2.0 revolution, we just might be left with more breathing room for smaller, more authentic, more human online engagements.” 

Well, let’s hope so. I’d love to see a future in which the algorithmic social-media domination of our online lives ended, and we return to online life at a more human scale. But how likely is that? We know that the venture capitalists and angel investors don’t want moderate successes — they want The Next Enormous Thing. Will they get it? I think it all hinges on how strongly people respond to VR environments. 

Yes, Social Media Really Is Undermining Democracy – The Atlantic:

Social media may not be the primary cause of polarization, but it is an important cause, and one we can do something about. I believe it is also the primary cause of the epidemic of structural stupidity, as I called it, that has recently afflicted many of America’s key institutions.

A good response by Jon Haidt to critics of his work, one that calls upon many new studies. I mean, if you’re not yet convinced. 

Andy Crouch:

What I say to students is, you are not unhealthy people in a normal world, despite these statistics that show how anxious, lonely, and depressed young adults are. What you are is normal people in an unhealthy world. It’s not healthy to be anxious, lonely, and depressed, but it is a natural response to a world that is not asking you to become anything, and is not giving you confidence that you can overcome difficulty — one that’s dissociating the different parts of you, compelling you to spend a good part of your time with your body disengaged and your mind occupied. It’s totally understandable that our young people are experiencing such distress, because the world we’re asking them to live in — this world of easy everywhere — this world of superpowers, is not good for them. It would be very odd if, in this world, people were doing just fine. It’s not at all surprising that they’re struggling and feeling disconnected. 

You can be almost certain that people who sneer with ready contempt at today’s college students don’t spend much time around them. Our young people have been given a raw deal, and most of them play it better than we have any right to expect. And the ones who don’t? They’re twenty years old. How put-together were you at age twenty? 

indestructible

This long post by Jesse Singal makes one key point perfectly clear: People on Twitter may know that 10,000 alarmist posts about their political enemies have been thoroughly debunked and discredited, but when that ten-thousand-and-first comes along they’ll instantly retweet it and add, “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS CRAP???” And of course the lies will get a hundred times the exposure of the corrections. We all do well to remember Mark Twain’s “Advice to Youth”:

Think what tedious years of study, thought, practice, experience, went to the equipment of that peerless old master who was able to impose upon the whole world the lofty and sounding maxim that “Truth is mighty and will prevail” — the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved. For the history of our race, and each individual’s experience, are sown thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal. There in Boston is a monument to the man who discovered anesthesia; many people are aware, in these latter days, that that man didn’t discover it at all, but stole the discovery from another man. Is this truth mighty, and will it prevail? Ah, no, my hearers, the monument is made of hardy material, but the lie it tells will outlast it a million years. An awkward, feeble, leaky lie is a thing which you ought to make it your unceasing study to avoid; such a lie as that has no more real permanence than an average truth. Why, you might as well tell the truth at once and be done with it. A feeble, stupid, preposterous lie will not live two years — except it be a slander upon somebody. It is indestructible, then, of course, but that is no merit of yours.

 

The Woes of Being Addicted to Streaming Services | Pitchfork:

I feel unsettled when I stream music on Spotify. Maybe you feel that way, too. Even though it has all the music I’ve ever wanted, none of it feels necessarily rewarding, emotional, or personal. I pay a nominal fee for this privilege, knowing that essentially none of it will reach the artists I am listening to. I have unfettered access to an abundance of songs I genuinely love, along with an abundance of great songs I’ve never heard before, but I can’t shake the eerie feeling that the options before me are almost too perfect. I have personalized my experience enough to feel like this is my music, but I know that’s not really true — it’s simply a fabricated reality meant to replace the random contours of life outside the app. 

Jeremy Larson here covers some familiar territory in his descriptions of the distressing things that the streaming services do to musicians’ careers, but I’m more interested in the parts (like the above quote) that describe how streaming services mess with the experience of listeners

For what it’s worth, as I have, over the past year, spent less and less time on my digital devices, I have almost completely stopped streaming music. I listen to LPs and CDs, and reconnecting with those older technologies has had a wonderfully enlivening effect on my experience of music. I regularly do something now I haven’t done for years: listen to al album all the way through for several days in a row. I love it. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever go back to streaming. 

reification and metaphysical capitalism

I’ve written occasionally here about what I call “metaphysical capitalism” — see the relevant tag at the bottom of this post — but one thing I have neglected to note is that one of the most powerful elements of the Marxist critique of capitalism has been the argument that it is the nature of modern capitalism to extend its understanding of the world into the personal, the emotional, the spiritual — in general the metaphysical realm. 

A key text here is George Lukács’s famous essay on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” where he writes of “the split between the worker’s labour-power and his personality, its metamorphosis into a thing, an object that he sells on the market.” This happens in varying ways in the varying professions of the capitalism world; for instance, in any bureaucracy: 

The specific type of bureaucratic ‘conscientiousness’ and impartiality, the individual bureaucrat’s inevitable total subjection to a system of relations between the things to which he is exposed, the idea that it is precisely his ‘honour’ and his ‘sense of responsibility’ that exact this total submission all this points to the fact that the division of labour which in the case of Taylorism invaded the psyche, here invades the realm of ethics. 

And when Taylorism conquers both the psyche and ethics, we get self-Taylorizing — the complete internalization of metaphysical capitalism and the consequent redescription of a condition of enslavement as a condition of self-making. People come to believe that they’re expressing themselves on social media when in fact they’re doing Mark Zuckerberg’s bidding for free. They’re like Eloi thinking that they’re the masters of the Morlocks when in fact they’re merely food. 

What I found especially interesting in my re-read of Lukács (for the first time in many years) is his demonstration that this commodification of the human person goes back a long way, much longer than we might typically think. For instance, he notes that in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) Kant defines sex and marriage in the most commodified way imaginable: “Sexual community is the reciprocal use made by one person of the sexual organs and faculties of another,” while marriage “is the union of two people of different sexes with a view to the mutual possession of each other’s sexual attributes for the duration of their lives.” Lukács comments, “This rationalisation of the world appears to be complete, it seems to penetrate the very depths of man’s physical and psychic nature.” It’s capitalism all the way down. 

I am anything but a Marxist, but it’s important for me to realize (however belatedly) that some of my own recent arguments were anticipated by Marxist thinkers a hundred years ago. I should probably be making better use of that critique — if not of their suggestions for what should replace capitalism. 

the glazing of eyes

The older I get, the more common this experience becomes: finding that I am simply unable to read essays and articles on certain topics. I may, out of a sense of duty, begin to read something on these topics, but almost immediately my eyes begin to wander, or to glaze over. I strive to refocus; I re-read the same few sentences; but before long my mind has wandered elsewhere. Eventually I give up.

I used to be able to read about some of these things, but the way The Discourse asymptotically approaches the point of absolute stupidity — a stupidity than which no stupider can be conceived — has now rendered my brain dysfunctional w/r/t the following:

  • Critical race theory
  • Trans issues
  • Productivity
  • Burnout
  • The New Right
  • Denominational break-ups and church splits
  • Elon Musk
  • And, now of course, abortion (The Discourse around which has always been brain-dead, but was usually avoidable)

That is of course only a partial list, but it seems to cover about 90% of what I’m seeing in news periodicals these days.

One nice feature of Feedbin is the ability to create actions based on filters. So, for instance, I have just created an action to set any new article that contains the word “abortion” as read; that way it won’t show up in my “unread” feed, which is the only feed I look at. A couple of weeks ago I created a similar action for the term “Elon Musk”; I had already targeted posts that have “Burnout” or “Productivity” in their titles — if the Bad Words are not in the actual title then maybe their use in the text is innocuous. We’ll see how it goes; I’ll adjust as necessary. Keeping my sanity requires constant vigilance — unless I want to go offline altogether, which, believe me, I often consider.

On the other side, things I find that I want to read more about these days:

  • China, present and past, especially religion in China
  • Daoism
  • Anarchism
  • Infrastructure
  • Materials science
  • Scientific innovation, especially regarding climate-change mitigation
  • Water, and places where it is (a) scarce or (b) overabundant
  • Late antiquity in the West
  • … and one more topic I’ll talk about in a future post.

Mainly, though, I want to read more novels.

[I thought I had this post scheduled to go out tomorrow, but obviously I messed up. Consider this, then, a proleptic disclosure of the eschaton.]

rules, consent, virtues

Leah Libresco Sargeant:

The search for the perfect rule or set of safety settings does remind me of Christine Emba’s Rethinking Sex. As she told me during our conversation, the modern culture around sex is marked by a broken promise. Many of her interviewees had a sense that, if you find the right rules, sex can only be good, and you and a stranger will never have to know each other or reveal yourselves to each other in order to feel good about what you do with each other. The rules (“two enthusiastically consenting adults”) will keep you safe.

But there’s no end run around character formation, and no checklist of consent items that lets us get around the fact that we are interacting with another human being, not a preference menu. 

Christine’s book sounds absolutely brilliant, and I very much look forward to reading it. Leah’s conversation with Christine — I know both of them, thus the first names — is fascinating also. Such vital voices! 

I decided not to read the article about the takes about the memes about the exhaustion about the memes about the takes about the Thing That Happened.

Injured Parties

I have an essay in the new Hedgehog Review — behind a paywall, but shouldn’t you subscribe? Yes indeed you should. The essay is called “Injured Parties,” and it begins thus:

In 1923, the American movie star Dorothy Davenport lost her husband, the actor and director Wallace Reid, to an early death resulting from complications of morphine addiction. After the tragedy, Davenport took up the job — an unusual one for a woman in Hollywood in that era — of film producer. Starting with Human Wreckage, a movie about the dangers of drug addiction that appeared just months after Reid’s death, Mrs. Wallace Reid, as she now called herself, oversaw a series of films on pressing social issues. For instance, the third one she produced, and which she personally introduced in a prologue, The Red Kimono (1925), portrays the dark personal and social consequences of prostitution.

All of Davenport’s moral-crusading films were popular, but also controversial: Some were banned by the British Board of Film Censors and by the guardians of public morals in many American cities. The Red Kimono had other problems, though, problems related to one Gabrielle Darley. Darley was a young woman who in the second decade of the twentieth century had worked as a prostitute in Arizona for a pimp named Leonard Tropp. She fell in love with him and they moved to Los Angeles, where she gave him money to buy a wedding ring — for herself, she thought, but in fact Tropp planned to marry another woman. When Darley discovered this, she shot Tropp dead. In 1918, she was put on trial for murder, but had the great good fortune of being represented by an exceptionally eloquent defense attorney named Earl Rogers — a close friend of William Randolph Hearst — who presented her as having been, before meeting Tropp, “as pure as the snow atop Mount Wilson.” The jury couldn’t get enough of this kind of thing and enthusiastically acquitted Darley.

One of the journalists covering the trial was Rogers’s daughter, Adela Rogers St. Johns, who was already well on her way to earning her unofficial title as “World’s Greatest Girl Reporter.” (For many years she worked for Hearst newspapers, and may have reached the height of her fame in her reporting on the 1935 trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering the young son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.) She wrote a short story, based on the trial, called “The Red Kimono.” It caught the attention of Dorothy Davenport, who immediately commissioned a screenplay and started filming. The name she chose for the film’s protagonist? Gabrielle Darley. 

I describe Darley’s claim to having been defamed by the film — to being injured reputationally — and the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court of California in her favor. 

From there I go on to explore the meaning of defamation and how it has changed over time, with a particular focus on the early modern period, during which, as I learned from reading that wonderful scholar Debora Shuger, defamation was very differently understood. I indulge my suspicion that we — immured in a social-media environment for which defamation is more or less the coin of the realm — might have a few things to learn from that era, and also from Erving Goffman. Yeah, I know it sounds weird, but trust me, it all holds together. I think. Ultimately I am trying to imagine charity as both a legal and a social concept. The point of the essay is not to settle any current issues but rather, by looking into the past, to discover alternative and superior moral vocabularies with which to address our disagreements. 

Subscribe and read, please! 

Daring Fireball:

Spotify isn’t just trying to become the biggest name in podcasting (which has heretofore been, but may no longer be, Apple). They’re trying to usurp podcasting as we know it — one of the last and brightest bastions of the open, simple, private, transparent internet — and turn it into a privately-owned, gated, complicated, invasive, utterly closed platform. Spotify is trying to do to podcasting what Facebook did to “having your own website”.

Senator Josh Hawley:

To start, large social media companies should be required to become interoperable with one another: Just as you can email someone who uses a different email provider than your own, you should be able to contact and engage with individuals across different social media platforms. In the same vein, large social media companies should be required to permit the use of alternate filtering and sorting algorithms — democratizing content moderation by allowing users to choose which content they wish to view or block, rather than relying on the black-box internal processes of an individual, hyper-concentrated company. 

Agreed, except that the first point is potentially in tension with the second. Perhaps micro.blog should be forced to become interoperable with Twitter, but I should also be able to set my micro.blog account so that I will never see anything that anyone on Twitter says to me — which is precisely the setting I would choose. 

attentional norms

Me at the Hog Blog on “attentional norms” and Zoom:

It has been interesting to watch over the last two pandemic years as the norms associated with videoconferencing have coalesced. My experience strongly suggests that the attention level expected on Zoom (and other videoconferencing platforms) is quite remarkably low — medieval-churchgoing low. Obviously, there will be exceptions to this norm — no one feels free to look away when the Boss is giving a speech — but I can’t remember the last time I was on a Zoom call in which participants were not regularly cutting their video and audio, or just their audio, to talk to people in the room with them. Or they just walk out of frame for a few minutes. Or they type away furiously on Slack or email or WhatsApp or iMessage. And no one who does this acts inappropriately, because such fidgeting and alternations of attention are permitted by the norms that have emerged. 

It’s fascinating to me how these norms emerge. No one chooses them, they just happen; and when a lot of people are using one technology, they happen quickly. As I say in the essay, they also change, but they seem to change a lot more slowly than they emerge; and there’s nothing any one person can do to change them. When you’re a teacher, as I am, you have to be very observant about those attentional norms and choose the technologies that match your pedagogical purposes. Because you’re wasting your time if you try to enforce norms that are different than those people have absorbed from everyone else. 

UPDATE: Everything I try to say here is said better by Rands: “Do you want to know why you’re fatigued at the end of a long day of video conferences? It’s because your brain has been straining to collect essential information that is no longer there.” 

engagement

Marianna Spring, BBC News:

All the main social media companies say they don’t promote hate on their platforms and take action to stop it. They each have algorithms that offer us content based on things we’ve posted, liked or watched in the past. But it’s difficult to know what they push to each user.

“One of the only ways to do this is to manually create a profile and seeing the kind of rabbit hole that it might be led down by the platform itself, once you start to follow certain groups or pages,” explains social media expert Chloe Colliver, who advised me on the experiment.

So Spring set up a fake account: a man called Barry.

Like my trolls, Barry was mainly interested in anti-vax content and conspiracy theories, and followed a small amount of anti-women content. He also posted some abuse on his profile — so that the algorithms could detect from the start he had an account that used abusive language about women. But unlike my trolls, he didn’t message any women directly.

Over two weeks, I logged in every couple of days and followed recommendations, posted to Barry’s profiles, liked posts and watched videos.

After just a week, the top recommended pages to follow on both Facebook and Instagram were almost all misogynistic. By the end of the experiment, Barry was pushed more and more anti-women content by these sites — a dramatic increase from when the account had been created. Some of this content involved sexual violence, sharing disturbing memes about sex acts, and content condoning rape, harassment and gendered violence.

As I keep saying: for the social media companies, hatred isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It promotes engagement. 

David French:

We cannot be empathetic only to our allies. We cannot allow fear of law enforcement excess to deprive fellow citizens of the protection they need. And we have to recognize both that threats and harassment are always wrong and that in our present moment they’re especially dangerous. Our nation is playing with fire. It’s imperative that it stop now, or the angry and the cruel will ignite a blaze that we cannot contain.

The whole post is good and important. Always remember: there are people out there — the professional media and social media are dominated by them — who want us to hate one another, who make bank when we hate one another. Flee those people as you would flee the plague, because they are a plague. Don’t threaten them; don’t attack them; just get away from them. Don’t feed their fire with the oxygen of your attention, or else, as David says, we’re not gonna be able to extinguish those flames. 

The Greenwald has a point about the current anti-Facebook energy:

The social media giant hurts America and the world, this narrative maintains, by permitting misinformation to spread (presumably more so than cable outlets and mainstream newspapers do virtually every week); fostering body image neurosis in young girls through Instagram (presumably more so than fashion magazines, Hollywood and the music industry do with their glorification of young and perfectly-sculpted bodies); promoting polarizing political content in order to keep the citizenry enraged, balkanized and resentful and therefore more eager to stay engaged (presumably in contrast to corporate media outlets, which would never do such a thing); and, worst of all, by failing to sufficiently censor political content that contradicts liberal orthodoxies and diverges from decreed liberal Truth.

a new theory of propaganda

(An idea for a book I’ll never write) 

One of the most famous scenes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four begins this way: “It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Records Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate.” As the office workers gather around the television, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great enemy of the state, appears on the screen. “The Hate had started.” And people know what to do: “Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room…. In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy…. The Hate rose to its climax.” And then it is over. It is now time to chant a hymn of praise to Big Brother.

The scene has always been noteworthy for its disturbing power, but since the rise of social media it has become a central image of our time, and the phrase “Two Minutes Hate” is widely used to describe those moments when someone (usually inadvertently, though sometimes intentionally) arouses the outrage of some Twitter cohort or Facebook faction. 

The relevance of the Two Minutes Hate to our social-media world is so obvious that we rarely pause to notice the fundamental difference between what happens in Orwell’s novel and what we do: no one organizes our sessions of loathing.

In Orwell’s novel, the Two Minutes Hate is a deliberate exercise created, scheduled, and enforced by the government for propagandistic purposes. It is a carefully designed strategy of negative reinforcement (loathing of Goldstein) followed immediately by positive reinforcement (love of Big Brother). But nothing like that happens in our world. We all know that Big Brother does not exist, and yet we feel his presence all around us. No centralized political force pulls our puppet-strings, and yet we feel pulled upon nonetheless. No one organizes a Two Minutes Hate, and yet Two Minutes (or Several Hours) of Hate we have, day after day after day. We affirm one another in key responses and exclude those who fail to exhibit those responses. (Note that what’s happening here is the performance of responses, not beliefs as such.) We monitor, we police the boundaries.

And it’s not just about Hate. It’s all the other emotions as well, experienced in some mysteriously synchronized collectivity. Some studies suggest that when people sing together in a choir their heartbeats synchronize; when they shout together on Twitter their emotions do the same. We live in a world of propaganda that succeeds beyond the imaginings of the propaganda-masters of the past, and yet no one has designed it. No one is organizing or scheduling it. It seems just to be happening, somehow. The propaganda of our world is emergent and ambient, and those two traits make it harder to understand and harder to combat. 

In the preface to his justly famous book on propaganda, Jacques Ellul wrote, “Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.” And he continued, 

In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace. When man will be fully adapted to this technological society, when he will end by obeying with enthusiasm, convinced of the excellence of what he is forced to do, the constraint of the organization will no longer be felt by him; the truth is, it will no longer be a constraint, and the police will have nothing to do. The civic and technological good will and the enthusiasm for the right social myths — both created by propaganda — will finally have solved the problem of man. 

We have clearly not reached the point at which the police have nothing to do; but in many respects, certainly among our cultural elites, Ellul’s forecast has largely come true. Without anyone directly telling them or persuading them to do so, they have, as their “enthusiasm for the right social myths” demonstrates, come to love Big Brother. Propaganda has ceased to be the function of government and become instead a kind of collective self-soothing, with social media networks the primary instruments.

Future historians of propaganda will not be able to do without Ellul’s book but will need to reconsider its significance in light of the realization of some of the prophetic elements of the book. His definition — “Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization” — will need to be revised. 

And for those who wish to use rather than merely understand propaganda: Deliberate propaganda in the future will, if it wishes to be effective, need to mimic the character of emergent propaganda. Anything more direct will seem too, too crude. 

the fault

This is prompted largely by Robin Sloan’s comments on comments.

A decade ago I was active on Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinboard, and wrote a couple of comment-inviting blogs on magazine websites. Now?

  • No Twitter
  • No Tumblr
  • Pinboard bookmarks are set to private
  • I blog on my own site, and have comments disabled
  • I’m on micro.blog but only post photos

What happened? In a nutshell: I simply got tired of strangers wanting to argue with me. (Also, it was moronic to be that Extremely Online. I don’t know how I got anything else done.) Twitter was, you know, Twitter. Blog comments were generally what one would expect from blog comments, occasionally useful but prone to degenerate into spats. People who followed my Tumblr would write — you couldn’t disable such on-site messaging — to chastise me for signal-boosting something I had just quote-posted. People would email similar chastisements about something I had saved on Pinboard, apparently under the assumption that a bookmark is an endorsement.

Even when I moved to micro.blog, where folks are in general extremely nice, I had to stop posting anything but photos because strangers would invariably show up wanting to argue with me about … well, anything. As though the subject doesn’t matter so much as the act of arguing. I don’t know whether such people feel that argument is a means of sharpening their ideas or whether they just want to be heard, but I keep thinking, Man, does everything have to be subject to disputation? Can I not just put something out there for people to take or leave? Even now that I am blogging without comments, I regularly get emails about my posts, and at least 90% of them are negative. It wears on you after a while. (I continue to believe in the intrinsic value of the blog garden, so the negativity isn’t keeping me away.)

The reigning assumption seems to be that every posted opinion or preference or experience or plain old link is an invitation to debate or refute — that’s what social media, to many people, fundamentally is for: debate and refutation. And as long as that is the reigning assumption, then no platform, it seems to me, can be fundamentally different than all of our other platforms. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our platforms, but in ourselves, that we are disputatious.

habituation

We all know — though we don’t think of it often enough — that through highlighting and repeating certain events, the media make them seem more common and therefore more characteristic than they really are. So while there’s been a lot of talk over the past week or so about the misbehavior of fans in American stadiums — the stadiums fans have only recently been allowed to reenter — I’m not sure whether this is a real phenomenon or rather just a random set of events magnified by our love of outrage and the media’s compliant provision of opportunities for us to enjoy that love.

But I do wonder whether something is going on here. One of the most common debates about social media centers on this question: Do social media exacerbate tensions among Americans and make us more likely to act badly towards one another in person, or, conversely, do social media give us a useful outlet for our frustrations, opportunities to purge our negative emotions in such a way that we can better maintain courtesy towards our neighbors? One possibility is that we are seeing now what happens when people simply get out of the habit of being in the physical presence of other human beings and instead spend a year and a half stoking their own fears and hatreds. Maybe some people have just forgotten, literally forgotten, how to act in public. If so, let’s hope that when they get little more practice they’ll do better.

the death of journalism

From Charlie Warzel’s newsletter:

Julia Marcus: I’m fairly new to Twitter but it’s felt to me that the people who are amplified in news media as experts are often the people who have large followings on Twitter, which creates this feedback loop that can build a false sense of consensus. And that makes it very difficult to put forth alternative perspectives. It’s hard to imagine how the pandemic would’ve played out without social media but it feels to me that social media contributed to an unhelpful polarization of the discussion.

Charlie Warzel: I’ve heard public health people say that before everyone flocked to social media a lot of these scientific discussions were happening on private listservs or messageboards and in those spaces there was room for disagreement or to express a greater spectrum of doubt. It was a safe space. And then the discussion moved into the public and it was distorted. Is that true in your experience?

JM: Twitter rewards certainty. How often do you see a tweet go viral when somebody is unsure about something? And it’s an addictive process. Certainty is rewarded, high emotion is rewarded, especially anger and fear, and it’s a self-perpetuating phenomenon. When the scientific discourse largely moves onto social media it begins to degrade. I think it moved to social media because it was the easiest way to get the word out, and because so many scientists were working at home and social media provided a forum for conversations in their fields. But sometimes it has felt more like a middle school cafeteria than a scientific discussion.

From Zeynep Tufekci’s newsletter:

Many top media outlets took this group of critics’ dismissal of a version of the lab leak hypothesis and then acted like that dismissal was universal and a scientific consensus, which it wasn’t, or was conclusive, which it couldn’t be simply because we … don’t know. We certainly didn’t have the evidence we need to be so conclusive, especially not at the time.

In addition, press reports suggested that everything that fell under the umbrella of the term ‘lab leak,’ which has been a conceptual mess, had also been dismissed, although it hadn’t been, even by some of the original opponents of that particular version.

Then, for a whole year, the coverage implied that any question or statement skeptical of the lab leak critics, broadly defined, was essentially unscientific and could only be motivated by racism. Social media sites took down posts, and even news articles that made such claims.

In the meantime, the reporters did not do the leg work to separate the pieces of the question or seek a broad range of experts. If they had, they might have realized that many experts were quiet on the topic partly because they didn’t want to die on this hill last year, and partly because many were actually eminent experts very very busy doing work on the pandemic itself. Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to do the work necessary to pull themselves out of the tight Twitter/media feedback loop that dominates so much of our media coverage.

Twitter has absolutely killed journalism. Killed it stone dead. And there’s not one journalist in a hundred who has brains enough to realize it.

pluralities

One of the most fundamental ideas that Auden held in the 1950s — the period of his career that I’m working on right now — was that “pluralities” of people come in three kinds. From an essay called “Nature, History, and Poetry” (published in Thought in 1950), with bold type added by me: 

  1. “A crowd consists of n members where n > 1, whose sole characteristic in common is togetherness. A crowd loves neither itself nor anything other than itself. It can only be counted; its existence is chimerical.” 
  2. “A society consists of x members, i.e. a certain finite number, united in a specific manner into a whole with a characteristic mode of behavior which is different from the behavior of its several members in isolation (e.g. a molecule of water or a string quartet). A society has a definite size, a specific structure and an actual existence.” 
  3. “A community consists of n members, all of them rational beings united by a common love for something other than themselves.” 

The tragedy of social media is this: Each given social-media platform consists of a crowd pretending to be either a society or a community. 

first signs

Recently I wrote a post for the Hedgehog Review on the Substackification of journalism and whether it marks a permanent atomization of journalistic writing or whether it could be the seed of institutional renewal. Here are a couple of relevant data points: 

  • On his Substack newsletter, Scott Alexander has been running book reviews by his readers
  • On her Substack newsletter, Bari Weiss has been publishing essays by other writers, and explains that practice thus: “My goal is not to make a living publishing only my views —  or ones that conform exactly to my worldview —  on this Substack. (Trust me, it’d get boring.) My ultimate goal is far more ambitious. I want to run the most interesting opinion page in America, filled with fresh reporting and commentary.” 

Substack began as a way of highlighting distinctive individual voices; it’s already turning into something more collaborative. 

acoustic renown

Kleos means both “glory” or “fame” and also “the song that ensures that glory or fame.” The noun is cognate with the Homeric verb kluō, meaning “I hear.” Kleos is sometimes translated as “acoustic renown” — the spreading renown you get from talking about your exploits.* It’s a bit like having a large Twitter following. In the Homeric version of the Ethos of the Extraordinary … to live a life worth living was to live a kleos-worthy life, a song-worthy life. Being sung, having one’s life spoken about, your story vivid in others’ heads, is what gives your life an added substance. It’s almost as if, in being vividly apprehended by others, you’re living simultaneously in their representations of you, acquiring additional lives to add to your meager one.

The Ethos of the Extraordinary answered that all that a person can do is to enlarge that life by the only means we have, striving to make of it a thing worth the telling, a thing that will have an impact on other minds, so that, being replicated there, it will take on a moreness. Kleos. Live so that others will hear of you. Paltry as it is, it’s the only way we have to beat back uncaring time. 

Our own culture of Facebook’s Likes and Twitter followings should put us in a good position to sympathize with an insistence on the social aspect of life-worthiness. Perhaps it’s a natural direction toward which a culture will drift, once the religious answers lose their grip. The ancient Greeks lived before the monotheistic solution took hold of Western culture, and we — or a great many of us — live after. A major difference between our two cultures is that, for the ancient Greeks, who lacked our social media, the only way to achieve such mass duplication of the details of one’s life in the apprehension of others was to do something wondrously worth the telling. Our wondrous technologies might just save us all the personal bother. Kleos is a tweet away. 

— Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex 


* “Though the gods are incessantly mentioned [in Pindar’s poems], this ethos presents a life worth living in terms that are drawn far more from the world of men. What is desired is not the attention of the immortals, but rather the attention of one’s fellow mortals. The gods come prominently into the picture because they either promote or prevent this good — that is, the achievement that brings fame — from being attained, but the good itself isn’t defined in terms of the gods. The good belongs to the world of mortals; it’s their attention and acclaim one is after.” – RNG

couldn’t have said it better myself

Megan McArdle: “Will is a friend, so naturally I’m dismayed by what happened. I’m also dismayed that it should have happened at Niskanen, a center-to-leftish institution I admire. And I’m even more worried to have yet another example of the damage Twitter is doing to American discourse — damage so profound that I’m beginning to think that the only way to fix it is not to urge tolerance, but for major institutions in the media and think-tank world to tell their employees to get the hell off Twitter.”

muting

Goodness, this post from Noah Millman is challenging. It’s about those complicated situations when we mute, unfollow, or otherwise disengage from our friends who have become overly unpleasant online. It’s a two-way street, Noah says.

On the one hand, we as a society have become far too ready to shame, harass, disown, expel, and otherwise punish people who transgress lines that often didn’t exist until the moment the mob attacks. On the other hand, our provocateurs themselves are far too ready to get high on their own supply, indifferent to whether they are actually provoking thought in those they see as complacent or oblivious, or whether they are just making those who already agree with them less thoughtful, less worthy of anyone’s time and respect.

In the end, Noah wants to make two points to those of us who disengage (as opposed to those who are disengaged from). The first is this: “We need to be clear to ourselves that our disengagement is something we’re doing for ourselves, and not for any greater good, much less for the people we’re disengaging from.” And the second: “That’s no way to be a friend. And it’s no way to be a citizen either.”

I want to take these ideas on board, but I think I also want to dissent, at least in part.

First, when I have disengaged in this way I have indeed, and absolutely, done it for myself — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to do it. I find the online direhose of wrath and contempt and misinformation immensely wearying, and indeed depressing, and especially given the damage I have sustained from the unavoidable depredations of the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think there can be good reason for avoiding the depredations that are not necessary.

Second, I think that how you disengage matters. On many occasions I have decided to unfollow or mute or just ignore people I know IRL, and when these were just acquaintances it was a simple thing to do. But on the rare occasions when they were genuine friends it was complicated. In all such cases, I began by telling them that I had problems with their online self-presentation and that I wished they would behave differently. Memory may fail me, but I can’t at the moment remember an occasion when that intervention had any effect whatsoever. So eventually I unfollowed/muted/ignored — and I told them I was doing that, also.

Before you tell someone you’re muting their online presence you take a deep breath because you don’t know what the consequences will be. In one case, my friend was a bit hurt, but our friendship is as strong now as it ever was. In another, the friendship ended.

Why the difference? It may have something to do with the character of the people involved; about that I’m not sure. But two major factors were certainly in play. One: In the first case, I had a much longer and stronger history of face-to-face connection, so that a rejection of his online persona obviously did not mean a rejection of his whole being. Two: in the second case, the friend was much more deeply invested in his online presence — maybe to the extent that he couldn’t have accepted the rejection even if we had a stronger face-to-face history.

Looking back on these situations, I am not sure what lessons to draw — Noah’s column has got me reflecting and I don’t know where that reflection will lead. But at the moment I am thinking that in all the cases where I disengaged I was right to do so — some degree of self-preservation made it necessary. But maybe I should have done so silently, and not spoken of the disengagement unless asked. I thought at the time that friendship required honesty; but maybe there’s a place for reticence in friendship also, or at least more reticence than I demonstrated.

it’s time

I read stories like this almost every day: banned from Twitter for no good reason; banned from Facebook for no good reason; banned from Facebook supposedly by accident, but come on, we know what’s going on here.

I don’t for an instant think Bret Weinstein’s Facebook account was flagged by an algorithm: someone there wanted to silence him and hoped to get away with it. But most of the time these bans happen because the sheer scale of these platforms makes meaningful moderation impossible. Facebook and Twitter would have to hire ten times the number of moderators they currently employ to make rational judgments in these matters, and they won’t voluntarily cut into their profits. They’ll continue to rely on the algorithms and on instantaneous denials of appeals.

Here’s your semi-regular reminder: You don’t have to be there. You can quit Twitter and Facebook and never go back. You can set up social-media shop in a more humane environment, like micro.blog, or you can send emails to your friends — with photos of your cats attached! If you’re a person with a significant social-media following, you can start a newsletter; heck, you can do that if you just want to stay in touch with five of six friends. All of the big social-media platforms are way past their sell-by date. The stench of their rottenness fills the room, and the worst smells of all come from Facebook and Twitter.

In your heart you know I’m right: It’s time to go.


P.S. Of course, I’ve been singing this song for a long time. I return to it now simply because the election-as-mediated-through-social-media seems to be exacerbating the misery of millions and millions of people. I’ll try to sing a different song from now on.

rediscovery

Via Patrick Rhone, I discovered this newsletter by Mo Perry, in which she discusses the Triumph of the Scold:

Now my social media feed is full of people scolding others who have the audacity to try to salvage a shred of joy and pleasure from their lives. The lens seems largely political: as if anyone experiencing pleasure or expressing joy while Trump is president is tacitly endorsing Trump. The communally encouraged state of being is dread and misery and rage. People who eat at restaurants, people who let their kids play on playgrounds, people who walk around the lake without a mask — all condemnable, contemptible. Selfish. How dare they?

But maybe, Perry suggests, the universality of scolding is having an unanticipated consequence. She describes a recent mini-vacation with a friend:

We didn’t share a single picture or post about the trip online. Not on Instagram, not on Facebook, not on Twitter. On the one hand, it felt like a naughty indulgence — something we had to do on the DL to keep from getting in trouble. On the other, it was a revelation: This chance to rediscover privacy. To inhabit my experience without broadcasting it or framing it for public consumption.

A ray of hope, this thought. That what the scolds will achieve is to push the rest of us “to rediscover privacy.” To take photos that we share only with friends; to articulate thoughts just for friends. To leave Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to the scolds, who will then have no choice but to turn on one another.

simple

XKCD is rarely wrong, but this:

xkcd

— this is wrong. During that nine nine hours and fourteen minutes you will not do anything to “slightly improve your knowledge.” You will, instead, gradually become less knowledgeable; any genuine information you might happen on will be methodically and inexorably displaced by misinformation, deliberate twisting of the facts, rumor-mongering, hate-mongering, fear-mongering, and brazenly dishonest personal attacks on anyone and everyone.

If you have any concern whatsoever for acquiring knowledge, you won’t be on social media at all for the next month. It’s as simple as that.

the circle game

A year-and-a-half ago or thereabouts I deactivated my Twitter account and was very happy to escape the place. But I have a new book coming out, and one’s publisher always reminds one that social media are super-important for promoting books, and Twitter is the only mainstream social media platform I have ever used, so … earlier this year I re-activated the account. Round and round.

At first it didn’t go badly. Twitter created a new setting that allows users to hide replies from anyone they’re not following — an important and decade-overdue step. Also, when the lockdown started a good many people enjoyed using Twitter as a place to re-connect with people they had fallen out of touch with. There was a positive vibe.

For a while. It didn’t last long. The old habits of malice and ignorance soon reasserted themselves. And even the best-natured, gentlest people would regularly feel compelled to share some horrific news item or appalling celebrity/politician/journalist tweet. I could get Twitter’s filtering of my replies only by using its own apps — its API doesn’t provide that feature to third-party apps, naturellement — which regularly served me ads I didn’t want to see and promoted tweets I would’ve paid to avoid. (I have been asking for at least ten years why Twitter doesn’t create a paid level where that kind of shit can be escaped.) Frustrated by all that, I would return to a third-party app — I like Tweetbot best — only to be confronted by replies I was even more eager to avoid.

My feelings about replies from strangers, I realized some time ago, are largely a function of my Southern upbringing. For years, whenever I got some random question or comment from someone I didn’t know, I would feel honor-bound to reply. That’s what a gentleman does, isn’t it? I was certainly raised to believe that when someone addresses you you have an obligation to respond, and to do so politely. (I didn’t always manage the “politely,” though.) After some years of obeying the promptings of conscience, I finally understood that four out of five strangers who addressed me on Twitter were not seeking good-faith conversation but rather were angry or needy or some combination of the two. And yet my felt need for politeness had me answering them for far longer than was healthy for me. That’s why being able to hide replies from people I don’t follow relieved me of my burden: I can’t respond to tweets directed at me if I never see them.

However, that didn’t altogether solve my problem. I still felt an obligation to reply to the people I do follow, almost all of whom are friends or at least acquaintances. So if any of them addressed me or tagged me in a tweet I had to come onto the site at least to like the tweet, maybe to comment. But that always ended up exposing me to a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t want to see. And so I would fulfill my felt duty to my friends but go away frustrated by what I heard and saw. Round and round and round.

That’s why I was I was really content during that year or so my account was deactivated: my friends couldn’t tag me there, so if they wanted to get in touch with me they had to send me an email. I wasn’t failing them by not answering their tweets, because there were no tweets to answer. Perfect!

But when I returned to Twitter to promote my new book, I fell back into the same frustrations as before. If I just didn’t have this Southern training that makes me feel an obligation to anyone who asks anything of me, I probably wouldn’t be in this situation, but you can’t unlearn your rearing. Or I can’t anyway.

My friends make fun of me for my long-standing ambivalence about Twitter, but since the 2016 election season I haven’t been ambivalent. I have despised it wholly. I believe that Twitter and Facebook have done unprecedented and unhealable damage to our social fabric — I believe that they are evil, and that no morally sane person should be comfortable using either of them. I do not say that every morally sane person should refuse to be on them — for some people the decision to be on social media is wholly justifiable and maybe even admirable — but if you’re happy on social media then you need to reset your moral compass.

So I wrote to my peeps at Penguin Random House and asked if I would be betraying them if I deactivated my Twitter account again. My wonderful editor Ginny Smith wrote back reminding me that Twitter is a “useful tool” — “but it’s not worth your sanity.” Exactly. Thank you. I’m outta there.

punishing the innocent

Re: Yascha Mounk’s article on leftist mobs punishing the innocent: For the ones doing the mobbing, ruining the lives of innocent people is not a bug in their program, it’s an essential feature. There can be no reign of terror when only the guilty are punished.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is the great text for understanding this phenomenon. Punishment of the guilty is, from the perspective of social control, an implicit confession of failure. A social order that has proper control over its members will not have to punish them, because they will be obedient. And you make people obedient by instilling discipline: you carefully and thoroughly train them to say what you want them to say and do what you want them to do, and to refrain from saying or doing what you think inappropriate.

However, the disciplinary systems that do this work — schools, for instance — are scarcely less efficient than punishment. What must be created is an environment in which people discipline themselves. But they will only do this when they fear exposure (and subsequent punishment) so much that they will go to extreme lengths to perform their obedience. And people will only exert the energy to enact this ongoing self-policing if they believe that anything they do or say can be seen. They need to believe that they are living in a Panopticon.

This is where social media come in. If everyone has a smartphone and access to social media accounts, then anything you do or say might be recorded and published. Anything those to whom you are related do or say may be recorded and published, to shame you before the entire world. From the perspective of those who lust for social control, this is an ideal situation, because if they make you sufficiently fearful of exposure then you will not only police yourself, you will police your friends and family. And if you can be exposed and punished not only for what you intentionally do and say, but for what you inadvertently do and say, and for what people you know do and say, then you will become obsessively vigilant in your policing.

That is why, for those who want to effect social change by exposure and shaming, punishing the innocent is a feature of their system, not a bug. It increases fear, which increases discipline, not only of oneself but of others. And every employer who fires an employee because they’re afraid of a social-media mob draws us closer to a fully Panoptic society, a social tyranny with an efficiency beyond the dreams of totalitarian societies of the past.

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