A Return to Discussion

Epistemic Sta­tus: Casual

It’s taken me a long time to fully ac­knowl­edge this, but peo­ple who “come from the in­ter­net” are no longer a minor­ity sub­cul­ture. Se­na­tors tweet and sub­ur­ban moms post Minion memes. Which means that talk­ing about trends in how peo­ple so­cial­ize on the in­ter­net is not a frivolous sub­ject; it’s rele­vant to how peo­ple in­ter­act, pe­riod.

There seems to have been an over­all drift to­wards so­cial net­works over blogs and fo­rums in gen­eral, and in par­tic­u­lar things like:

  • the drift of com­men­tary from per­sonal blogs to “me­dia” ag­gre­ga­tors like The At­lantic, Vox, and Breitbart

  • the mi­gra­tion of fan­dom from LiveJour­nal to Tumblr

  • Face­book and Twit­ter as the places where links and dis­cus­sions go

At the mo­ment I’m not em­piri­cally track­ing any trends like this, and I’m not con­fi­dent in what ex­actly the ma­jor trends are — maybe in fu­ture I’ll start look­ing into this more se­ri­ously. Right now, I have a sense of things from im­pres­sion and hearsay.

But one thing I have no­ticed per­son­ally is that peo­ple have got­ten in­timi­dat­edby more for­mal and pub­lic kinds of on­line con­ver­sa­tion. I know quite a few peo­ple who used to keep a “real blog” and have be­come afraid to touch it, prefer­ring in­stead to chat on so­cial me­dia. It’s a weird kind of perfec­tion­ism — no­body ever imag­ined that blogs were meant to be mas­ter­pieces. But I do see peo­ple flee­ing to­wards more ephemeral, more stream-of-con­scious­ness types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or com­mu­ni­ca­tion that in­volves no words at all (re­blog­ging, image-shar­ing, etc.) There seems to be a fear of be­com­ing too visi­ble as a dis­tinc­tive writ­ing voice.

For one rather pub­lic and hilar­i­ous ex­am­ple, wit­ness Scott Alexan­der’s flight from LessWrong to LiveJour­nal to a per­sonal blog to Twit­ter and Tum­blr, in hopes that some­where he can find a place iso­lated enough that no­body will no­tice his in­sight and hu­mor. (It hasn’t been work­ing.)

What might be go­ing on here?

Of course, there are prag­matic con­cerns about rep­u­ta­tion and pre­serv­ing anonymity. Peo­ple don’t want their writ­ing to be found by judg­men­tal bosses or fam­ily mem­bers. But that’s always been true — and, at any rate, so­cial net­work­ing sites are of­ten less anony­mous than fo­rums and blogs.

It might be that peo­ple have be­come more afraid of trolls, or that trol­ling has got­ten worse. Fear of be­ing tar­geted by ha­rass­ment or threats might make peo­ple less open and ex­pres­sive. I’ve cer­tainly heard many writ­ers say that they’ve shut down a lot of their in­ter­net pres­ence out of ex­haus­tion or literal fear. And I’ve heard se­ri­ous enough hor­ror sto­ries that I re­spect and sym­pa­thize with peo­ple who are on their guard.

But I don’t think that re­ally ex­plains why one would drift to­wards more ephemeral me­dia. Why short-form in­stead of long-form? Why stream­ing feeds in­stead of search­able archives? Trolls are not known for their pa­tience and rigor. Sin­gle tweets can at­tract storms of trolls. So troll-avoidance is not enough of an ex­pla­na­tion, I think.

It’s al­most as though the is­sue were ac­countabil­ity.

A blog is al­most a perfect medium for per­sonal ac­countabil­ity. It be­longs to you, not your em­ployer, and not the hive­mind. The archives are eas­ily search­able. The posts are per­ma­nently vie­w­able. Every­thing em­bar­rass­ing you’ve ever writ­ten is there. If there’s a com­ment sec­tion, peo­ple are free to come along and poke holes in your posts. This leaves peo­ple vuln­er­a­ble in a cer­tain way. Not just to trolls, but to crit­ics.

You can pre­empt em­bar­rass­ment by declar­ing that you’re do­ing some­thing shitty any­how. That puts you in a po­si­tion of safety. I think that a lot of on­line man­ner­isms, like us­ing all-low­er­case punc­tu­a­tion, or us­ing re­ally self-de­p­re­cat­ing lan­guage, or deeply nested meta-lev­els of meme irony, are ways of say­ing “I’m cool be­cause I’m not putting my­self out there where I can be judged. Only pompous idiots are so naive as to think their opinions are ac­tu­ally valuable.”

Here’s an­other an­gle on the same is­sue. If you earnestly, ex­plic­itly say what you think, in es­say form, and if your writ­ing at­tracts at­ten­tion at all, you’ll at­tract swarms of earnest, bright-but-not-brilli­ant, mostly young white male, com­menters, who want to share their opinions, be­cause (per­haps naively) they think their con­tri­bu­tions will be wel­comed. It’s ba­si­cally just “oh, are we play­ing a game? I wanna play too!” If you don’t want to play with them — maybe be­cause you’re talk­ing about a per­sonal or highly tech­ni­cal topic and don’t value their in­put, maybe be­cause your in­ten­tion was just to talk to your friends and not the gen­eral pub­lic, what­ever — you’ll find this style of in­ter­ac­tion aver­sive. You’ll read it as seal­ion­ing. Or mansplain­ing. Or“well, ac­tu­ally”-ing.

I think what’s go­ing on with these kinds of terms is some­thing like:

Author: “Hi! I just said a thing!”

Com­menter: “Ooh cool, we’re play­ing the Dis­cus­sion game! Can I join? Here’s my com­ment!” (Or, some­times, “Ooh cool, we’re play­ing the Ver­bal Bat­tle game! I wanna play! Here’s my re­tort!”)

Author: “Ew, no, I don’t want to play with you.”

There’s a bit of a race/​gen­der/​age/​ed­u­ca­tional slant to the peo­ple play­ing the “com­menter” role, prob­a­bly be­cause our so­ciety re­wards some peo­ple more than oth­ers for play­ing the dis­cus­sion game. Priv­ileged peo­ple are more likely to as­sume that they’re au­to­mat­i­cally wel­come wher­ever they show up, which is why oth­ers tend to get an­noyed at them.

Priv­ileged peo­ple, in other words, are more likely to think they live in a high-trust so­ciety, where they can show up to strangers and be greeted as a po­ten­tial new friend, where open dis­cus­sion is an im­por­tant pri­or­ity, where they can trust and be trusted, since ev­ery­body is play­ing the “let’s dis­cuss in­ter­est­ing things!” game.

The un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity is that most of the world doesn’t look like that high-trust so­ciety.

On the other hand, I think the ideal of open dis­cus­sion, and to some ex­tent the past re­al­ity of in­ter­net dis­cus­sion, is a lot more like a high-trust so­ciety where ev­ery­one is play­ing the “dis­cuss in­ter­est­ing things” game, than it is like the pre­sent re­al­ity of so­cial me­dia.

A lot of the value gen­er­ated on the 90’s and early 2000’s in­ter­net was built on peo­ple who were in­ter­ested in things, shar­ing in­for­ma­tion about those things with like-minded in­di­vi­d­u­als. Think of the web­sites that were just cat­a­logues of in­for­ma­tion about some­one’s ob­ses­sions. (I re­mem­ber my fam­ily hap­pily gath­er­ing round the PC when I was a kid, to listen to all the na­tional an­thems of the world, which some helpful net denizen had col­lated all in one place.) There is an enor­mous shared com­mons that is pro­duced when peo­ple are play­ing the “share info about in­ter­est­ing stuff” game. Wikipe­dia. Stack­Ex­change. It couldn’t have been mo­ti­vated by pure pub­lic-spirit­ed­ness — oth­er­wise peo­ple wouldn’t have pro­duced so much free work. There are lower mo­ti­va­tions: the de­sire to show off how clever you are, the de­sire to be a know-it-all, the de­sire to cor­rect other peo­ple. And there are higher mo­ti­va­tions — ob­ses­sion, fas­ci­na­tion, the delight of in­fo­dump­ing. This isn’t some higher plane of civic virtue; it’s just or­di­nary nerd be­hav­ior.

But in or­di­nary nerd be­hav­ior, there are some un­usual strengths. Nerds are play­ing the “let’s have dis­cus­sions!” game, which means that they’re un­em­bar­rassed about shar­ing their take on things, and un­em­bar­rassed about hold­ing other peo­ple ac­countable for mis­takes, and un­em­bar­rassed about be­ing held ac­countable for mis­takes. It’s a sort of happy place be­tween perfec­tion­ism and lax­ity. No­body is sup­posed to get ev­ery­thing right on the first try; but you’re sup­posed to re­spond in­tel­li­gently to crit­i­cism. Things will get poked at, in­evitably. Pok­ing is friendly be­hav­ior. (Which doesn’t mean it’s not also ag­gres­sive be­hav­ior. Play and ag­gres­sion are always in­ter­mixed. But it doesn’t have to be un­der­stood as scary, hos­tile, en­emy.)

Nerd-for­mat dis­cus­sions are definitely not costless. You get dis­cus­sions of ad­vanced/​tech­ni­cal top­ics be­ing mobbed by clue­less opinionated new­bies, or dis­cus­sions of deeply per­sonal is­sues be­ing has­sled by clue­less opinionated ran­dos. You get end­less de­bate over ir­rele­vant minu­tiae. There are rea­sons why so many peo­ple flee this kind of en­vi­ron­ment.

But I would say that these dis­ad­van­tages are nec­es­sary evils that, while they might be pos­si­ble to miti­gate some­what, go along with hav­ing a gen­uinely pub­lic dis­course and pub­lic ac­countabil­ity.

We talk a lot about so­cial me­dia kil­ling pri­vacy, but there’s also a way in which it kills pub­lic­ness, by al­low­ing peo­ple to cu­rate their spaces by per­sonal friend groups, and re­treat from open dis­cus­sions. In a pub­lic square, any rando can ask an aris­to­crat to ex­plain him­self. If peo­ple hide from pub­lic squares, they can’t be ex­posed to Socrates’ ques­tions.

I sus­pect that, es­pe­cially for peo­ple who are even minor VIPs (my level of on­line fame, while mod­est, is enough to cre­ate some of this effect), it’s tempt­ing to be­come less available to the “pub­lic”, less will­ing to en­gage with strangers, even those who seem friendly and in­ter­est­ing. I think it’s worth fight­ing this temp­ta­tion. You don’t get the gains of open dis­cus­sion if you close your­self off. You may not cap­ture all the gains your­self, but that’s how the tragedy of the com­mons works; a bunch of peo­ple have to co­op­er­ate and trust if they’re go­ing to build good stuff to­gether. And what that means, con­cretely, on the mar­gin, is tak­ing more time to ex­plain your­self and en­gage in­tel­lec­tu­ally with peo­ple who, from your per­spec­tive, look dumb, clue­less, crank­ish, or un­cool.

Some of the peo­ple I ad­mire most, in­clud­ing the­o­ret­i­cal com­puter sci­en­tist Scott Aaron­son, are no­table for tak­ing the time to care­fully de­bunk crack­pots (and offer them the benefit of the doubt in case they are in fact cor­rect.) Is this ac­tivity a great ROI for a brilli­ant sci­en­tist, from a nar­rowly self­ish per­spec­tive? No. But it’s praise­wor­thy, be­cause it con­tributes to a truly open dis­cus­sion. If sci­en­tists take the time to in­ves­ti­gate weird claims from ran­dos, they’re do­ing the work of prov­ing that sci­ence is a uni­ver­sal and sys­tem­atic way of think­ing, not just an elite club of in­sid­ers. In the long run, it’s very im­por­tant that some­body be do­ing that ground­work.

Talk­ing about in­ter­est­ing things, with friendly strangers, in a spirit of wel­com­ing open dis­cus­sion and ac­countabil­ity rather than flee­ing from it, seems re­ally un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated to­day, and I think it’s time to make an ex­plicit push to­wards build­ing places on­line that have that qual­ity.

In that spirit, I’d like to recom­mend LessWrong to my read­ers. For those not fa­mil­iar with it, it’s a dis­cus­sion fo­rum de­voted to things like cog­ni­tive sci­ence, AI, and re­lated top­ics, and, back in its hey­day a few years ago, it was suffused with the nerdy-dis­cus­sion-na­ture. It had all the en­thu­si­asm of late-night dorm-room philos­o­phy dis­cus­sions — ex­cept that some of the peo­ple you’d be hav­ing the dis­cus­sions with were among the most cre­ative peo­ple of our gen­er­a­tion. Th­ese days, post­ing and com­ment­ing is a lot sparser, and the en­ergy is gone, but I and some other old-timers are try­ing to rekin­dle it. I’m cross­post­ing all my blog posts there from now on, and I en­courage ev­ery­one to check out and join the dis­cus­sions there.

(Cross-posted from my blog, https://​​sr­con­stantin.word­press.com/​​)