Archive for July, 2018

Book Review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

kill all normiesI bought the audiobook version of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies for a bike ride we took this summer. It’s a fairly short book and it did make the ride more enjoyable. The book lists a number of Internet phenomena that have occurred in recent years and links them to broader social and political movements. It starts out strong, has a strong middle, but it does seem to fall into the trap of simply bemoaning various transgressions of the 4chan crowd in its final chapters.

The incidents, memes and hate campaigns mentioned in the book are ones that most of us have lived through. The great thing about the book is that it collects these together in a single work. I was going to say it collects them into a narrative, but that would not be accurate. There are stories to be told when recounting the events, but the larger narrative arc seems to fall apart. I’m not sure it was even the intention of the author to draw one. In any case, the episodes – starting with Harambe – work well by themselves. It goes all the way to Pat Buchanan and introduces his idea of the culture war to younger readers. If there is a longer historical arc here, it does not burrow further than that. Kids reading the book are probably not familiar with the orchestrated effort behind the ludicrous idea of a culture war, and it’s good to have it written out like this.

For anyone who was already familiar with all the events described in the book and who already knows how the culture war (such as it is) has progressed thus far, the meat of the book is in the relentless barrage of examples from the junkheap of the Internet. As with many other books about online culture, it’s heartbreaking. Of course, if you love the Internet and all its potential, you don’t have to crawl through its sewers and participate in the horrors of 4chan culture or the rest of it. But knowing that it’s there matters. The online attacks against women, for example, are something you simply have to know about in order to have an intelligent conversation about what the Internet has become. Seeing all this fuckery laid bare in front of you is arresting, and it should be. It is also profoundly sad.

If the Internet was only the junk Nagle sifts through in her book, we would all opt out. It would simply be the playground for nasty children who shout at people from the bushes. Luckily, it’s not. It is a vast online space you can use for the betterment of those around you and explore to your heart’s content. It is a place of commerce. It provides all kinds of possibilities for everyone who has access to it. The idiotic snark that tries to pollute it may be a trace of the nerd culture that started it all, but it doesn’t really matter where the moronic cynicism came from. The Internet is far bigger than that now, but people who are not to be taken seriously remain. We need ways of discrediting and dismissing them. There are many tools for doing this. “Don’t feed the troll” is one of them. And I don’t advocate punching people, but have you heard of the Nazi blowhard Richard Spencer since he was punched in the face on TV and became a meme? There are many ways of reacting to online bile, that’s all I’m saying. Some of them work better than others in different contexts.

Discussions like Nagle’s book tend to look at surface-level phenomena online that reduce people and issues into one-dimensional memes. Richard Spencer is now the face-punch guy. It doesn’t matter what he says, because he is now the face-punch guy. Violence is an extreme way of memefying someone, but in his case it did the trick. People become simple images, complicated issues hashtags. This process is in itself tragic, because it kills thought in public discourse. It deprives us from any intelligent analyses of phenomena that guide our thought, politics and our lives. What, then, is to be done to counteract this rot? I’m not sure, but I have come to the conclusion that Twitter is for cute animal videos, Facebook for feeding your self-styled Tamagochi-avatar, and Instagram is for holiday snaps and advertisements of luxury items. The serious matter of thought takes place elsewhere and we should quit pretending it can survive on social media or the 4chan-cesspools of the Internet.

Book Review: Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier

lanierJaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is disguised as a self-help book. I’m not sure why. It presents ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts, as it says on the cover, but the argument as a whole goes much further. Lanier is very concerned with the way social media manipulates people. The manipulation is usually called advertising, but also includes all the other ways social media directs our opinions and our lives in general.  It’s nothing like the advertising we refer to when we commonly use the term. The issues are serious, but Lanier’s style of writing is light and entertaining. For example, Argument Three states: “Argument 3: Social media is turning you into an asshole. […] Please take the possibility seriously.” Take it seriously, but don’t be too morbid about it. That, I think, is the point of the overall message.

I confess I was drawn in by the self-help façade of the book. I’ve noticed lately that social media makes me feel bad. There are many reasons for this and Lanier seems to check most of the boxes. Argument Seven actually says: “Social media is making you unhappy.” The problem is that you are constantly being judged by faceless people you don’t really know. When you are judged by people whose opinions you respect and really care about, this can be healthy. Criticism is not the bogey man. When all eyes are on you (even if this is not factually the case), you are powerless to decide which things or actions you are judged upon. You become a helpless victim of external and mostly random opinions that cannot contextualize what you have to say or what you do. The resulting noise is draining no matter who you are. Not having social media accounts is one way of escaping all this. Instead, you could write a blog or do a number of other things to decide what output will be judged and by whom. Not everyone can do this, says Lanier, which is of course true, but I’m one of those privileged enough to consider deleting my accounts.

Social media is a bullshitshow, to coin a phrase. We have fresh proof of this. Several news stories in Finland recently stated most of our plastic is shipped to China to be recycled and is not, in fact, recycled at all. The stories spread on social media like wildfire. Bullshit. All our plastic is recycled in Finland. Another recent story said that there were racist attacks online against the Swedish footballer Jimmy Durmaz during the World Cup. The Swedish football team strongly condemned the attacks, as they should. A Swedish IT professor later revealed that the racist accounts were fake. A very serious matter, but essentially all built on a foundation of bullshit. One person can orchestrate an attack like this and get a few other assholes to play along. They, in turn, make themselves look more important than they actually are, and like people we should actually take seriously. Fake, nefarious and harmful to all. This is the new normal for social media. Do I really want to be part of it?

I’m on social media because this way I can meet people I would otherwise not meet. Will I lose out if I delete my accounts? Probably not much, but I will lose out a little. Is the loss worth the perks? Could I think in broader terms and think of it as absconding from a movement I do not want to be a part of? Or could I stay and try to make things better from the inside? I really don’t know what to do, but Lanier’s book has made the options clearer.

There is also a great melancholy here that Lanier’s jovial tone does not always capture. It’s a tragedy what has happened to social media. It’s like a beautiful vine that has been polluted by a virus or an alien fungus. Lanier does say that the core of the Internet is still intact. We can email each other, visit websites, read good news sites, blog, create podcasts, and so on. But as products of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., we are not on secure ground. There are options like Mastodon and other ways of creating groups like Slack, and maybe even good old IRC, but they are fairly barren compared to the big players like Google and Facebook. The latter also tend to buy up all competition. There is hope, but hope will only get you so far. We need to decide what we want out of our social media. We need action. If we continue to comply, the shitshow will spread and the most we can hope for in the future is that our bot-overlords will be friendly. That’s a bet I’m not willing to take.