Archive for January, 2019

Monetizing Anger (and the joys of goats)

David Brooks wrote an interesting story in the New York Times: How We Destroy Lives Today. It deals with yet another case where a racist is shamed on social media. I honestly don’t know the details of this individual case, but I did find the analysis interesting. Brooks writes about the ensuing journalistic onslaught:

Before you judge the reporters too harshly, it’s important to remember that these days the social media tail wags the mainstream media dog. If you want your story to be well placed and if you want to be professionally rewarded, you have to generate page views — you have to incite social media. The way to do that is to reinforce the prejudices of your readers. 

From this perspective, the problem with social media is not social media itself. The problems seem related to the old business models of the press. However, I don’t want to make a fundamental distinction between social and legacy media, because I think they overlap so much — there are actually two tails wagging each other in Brooks’s analogy. The “We” in the title of the story refers to both social media and the New York Times. The interaction between social media and traditional news outlets is fairly clear, but their relationship is not as hierarchical as Brooks wants to argue.

Thinking about this, it dawned on me that maybe news media has not changed as much as we have been told. They still have to make money and they now have many more sources, materials and, well, media to do it with than ever before. A reporter does not have to get out of his or her chair to investigate and write a news story. If they go on Twitter and find out what people are talking about, the story practically writes itself. Of special interest are things people are angry and bitter about. I think that’s what is implied in Brooks’s article, at least, and there really is a lot of bitterness and anger online. Expressing your anger online is one thing. Some people can’t help it, because it feels good. Monetizing anger is a completely different ball game.

Can the blame really be shifted on social media as a whole? Certainly some of it can. Social media businesses make tons of money from ignorance and rage. But shifting the blame entirely on social media would be short-sighted. Brooks seems to channel a view of social media that is informed by the kind of journalism he criticizes:

It’s hard to believe that people are going to continue forever on platforms where they are so cruel to one another. It’s hard to believe that people are going to be content, year after year, to distort their own personalities in service to a platform, making themselves humorless, semi-blind, joyless and grim.

Yes, there’s all that on social media. But that’s clearly not the whole story. For example, I just unfollowed about half of the people I followed on Twitter because my feed was getting pretty rancid and filled with moronic rhetoric. I think someone could have monetized some of the idiocy I got used to seeing every day, but I will feel much better with a feed that is easier on the nerves. Journalists may not have this luxury. The rest of us can do otherwise. We can unfollow the bores and follow accounts that bring us joy, like the one that posts pictures of goats every day. After all, if we really want to know about all the depravity going on in the world, old-fashioned news organizations scraping the bottom of the barrel have our back.


Source: Wikipedia

Social Media Anxiety

I don’t really use social media for work. However, I have been fed the line that I should be branding myself online for career purposes. It’s simply not true. This has led me to manage my social media accounts as if they were somehow vital to me and my work, coupled with cognitive dissonance resulting from the fact that my anxiety about social media is actually based on nothing. That is, I feel I have a duty to be on social media when I really don’t. It’s a weird place to be mentally, and I’m looking for an escape. I’m looking for reasons to leave.


Kantian social media: the subjective mind trying to become objective reality by sharing pictures of cats.

Now that the Finnish parliamentary election is at hand, I can exit Twitter. My feed is quickly becoming a cesspool of stupidity and hate. It is depressing to follow, so I won’t. It’s also a bit sad, because Twitter was the first social media platform I joined after I decided to come back to social media. I then joined Facebook, which has since taken over my life. It’s embarrassing, because I do have better things to do than gossip online. Actually, it’s quite depressing. I’ve thought about deleting my account again, but I think I will keep it as an advertising channel in case something needs to be advertised. I just have to stay away from it when I’m not promoting something.

I’m also on Instagram. I like it, but it seems to be mostly an advertising channel as well. It’s owned by Facebook, but I’m not too bothered about corporate links, or other privacy issues either. I’m more worried about what these platforms are doing to my general mood. Instagram is not too bad. The hook is not in that deep.

Speaking of corporate links, Google’s YouTube became very disturbing to me not too long ago. I would watch hours of it every day. It got a little better when I logged out of my YouTube account to watch videos. In fact, the recommendations are much better when I watch it without logging on. It’s less like social media this way, and it feels better because of it. I logged out based on Jaron Lanier’s advice in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018). It worked.

Lanier also recommends blogs over other social media platforms. I think Pinterest is probably OK, too, although I would have to check what Lanier himself thinks about it. At least Pinterest seems to create positive vibes. I’ll go with my gut.

Pinterest is fun, but I always think of the blog as my escape and refuge. I can see that very few people read it, but it’s OK. It can be used as a journal or a soap box, but it’s usually the former. Why shout when only a few people are listening? Here I can see exactly how many people visit, but on Facebook all of that is hidden. You’re shouting at ghosts or figments of your own imagination. Twitter has better stats, but it’s a mess. I honestly don’t care what most people I follow think, and not caring makes me feel guilt. None of this is healthy. The blog feels different. It’s better to create your own space and cultivate it than give yourself to another.

Moron Clarity

I recently discovered a new YouTube video format. It consists of people called sovereign citizens getting into trouble with police officers and judges. Much like the flat-earthers (another guilty pleasure), these people seem to live in a reality of their own. They seem to think they can hold all the rights and none of the obligations of US citizens. That’s probably the only way you can be “sovereign” and “a citizen” at the same time. Some of this stuff goes over my head because I’m not that familiar with US legislation. Mike the Cop tells me that these sovereign citizens sometimes cite the Articles of Confederation as a legal document to argue their case — the problem here is that the Articles of Confederation were replaced by the Constitution in 1789. Mostly, however, these people just spew a bunch of irrelevant loopy legalese.

What really fascinates me about the videos is that these people are absolutely convinced that their cause is true. As a result, they make a routine traffic stop a major issue, get arrested and get into a lot of trouble. At first I thought this was the effect of the Internet. These sovereign citizens sound very much like trolls or the kind of people who argue endlessly about everything on online forums. Sometimes things get really serious, as with the guy who marched into a police station wearing a hood with a semi-automatic rifle and a sidearm to “make a complaint”. Some of these people are clearly nuts, but what makes those who are not completely insane so sure of their reasoning? And why is it so pleasurable to see the theories forged in their social media bubble crumble when they try to apply them to real life?

Frank Guan of the New York Times pointed me to the term “moral clarity”. The term gives us the answer to the my first question. Guan writes that “we hear about moral clarity any time there is impatience with equivocation, delay, conciliation and confusion — whenever people long for rapid action based on truths they hold to be self-evident.” His longer definition and added comment are enlightening as well:

Moral clarity is long defined by usage as a capacity to make firm, unflinching distinctions between evil and good, and to take action based on those distinctions. These are fighting words: They mean knowing the enemy, which is the first step to taking up arms against the enemy. But they’re potentially applicable to any side of a fight. What adrenaline does for the body, moral clarity does for semantics: It generates a surge of willpower, serving as a prelude to — and maybe a pretext for — combat.

Guan talks a lot about politics, where moral clarity is a kind of rhetorical flourish reserved for occasions where the state has to wield its power. But the brilliant analogy between adrenaline and moral clarity links rhetoric and psychology in a way we can all recognize. When arguing with someone who has moral clarity, you quickly discover that they are not interested in resolving an issue or learning from the debate. They are in it for the fight. Meaning matters less and a wonderful pointlessness covers the conflict like freshly fallen snow. It’s a deadlock and something outside the debate must resolve the deadlock. Sometimes that something is a baton or a taser.

So why is it fun or funny to watch people applying moral clarity in cases where it serves little purpose? Moral clarity is great if there is an enemy coming at you in the battlefield and you have to stand your ground no matter what. Or so I would imagine. Verbal arguments are not very useful in actual combat, I’m told, so moral clarity has to be installed before you put people in that situation. That’s what military training is for: you learn not to think too much in certain situations so you can act quickly and decisively. But regular everyday life is not a battlefield for those of us who are lucky enough to live outside actual war zones. Seeing someone apply a warrior mentality to a speeding ticket is incongruous, and incongruity breeds comedy.

When you watch people in everyday situations harass the police or a judge with empty rhetoric, usually the police and judges — who deal with this stuff on a daily basis — quickly find them out. Why this happens is something Guan is very eloquent about:

In politics, as in all things, it should be possible to match decisive action with intelligent consideration. Clarity achieves only the first of those two; left to its own devices, taken as a virtue in itself, it tends to generate more problems than it solves.

Guan writes beautifully, but what he basically says here is that if there is no wisdom behind moral clarity, it can get pretty dumb. If moral clarity is all you have, the disparity between your ethics and actions grows as your moral clarity grows. In simple terms, you will eventually go full retard. And you should never go full retard, no matter how much moral clarity you may think you have.