Explaining the Twitter Postrat Scene
You are reading this post on LessWrong. If you’re like most of my rationalist friends, you believe that LessWrong’s culture of decoupled and straightforward communication and focus on timeless issues of rationality and world-optimization has created a community of like-minded people that you enjoy interacting with and learn a lot from. Once in a while, I tell my LessWrong friends that they should get on Twitter, that the culture of memes and half-joking deeply contextualized and obscure banter on the latest breaking news and culture war topics has also created a wonderful community of like-minded people you can learn a lot from. My rationalist friends are horrified at the suggestion.
They’re almost as horrified as people who’ve tweeted for years about sex and astrology and pineal glands are to discover that half their mutuals are actually LessWrongers.
So, what the hell is going on? Is rationalist twitter a thing and if so, why? Are postrats just rats who post? And am I writing this off the cuff with little editing because that faithfully communicates my Twitter style or because it’s Goodheart week? Read on to find out!
The problems with Twitter are obvious on the surface:
It mostly consists of partisans of competing culture war tribes fighting over polarizing object-level topics with no desire or ability to go meta.
No matter how clearly you express yourself, people will misunderstand it in the least charitable way.
There’s no way to enforce barriers to entry, any rando can comment on anything.
But well-known journalists and other bluechecks are even worse, using Twitter either to parrot the same coordinated narrative or to viciously settle personal scores.
The nuggets of vital breaking info and true deep insight are buried under a torrent of bullshit.
Anonymity + audience + zero personal stake in relationships = people being total fuckwads.
But also Twitter is the place where Elon Musk challenges Vladimir Putin to hand to hand combat for the future of Ukraine. People don’t want to miss out on that.
To get the best parts of Twitter without the worst, you’d want to join as part of a community with norms that defuse and ameliorate Twitter’s worst tendencies. A community where:
Object-level pontificating is looked-down upon, and partisanship is outright scorned.
Illegibility to outsiders is prized, so that only those who have followed you for a while and share a context will understand what you mean while everyone else couldn’t even parse it enough to get mad or start a mob against you.
Everyone is encouraged not only to post takes but to socialize, play silly games, flirt, and make friends.
Bluechecks and celebrities are treated with suspicion. The highest status members are (often anonymous) posters who grew their audience on Twitter alone.
The community retweets are a filter surfacing the best nuggets from the rest of Twitter.
The only rule strongly enforced is being cordial in replies and otherwise abiding by Twitter etiquette, violators are blocked.
Members in good standing come hang out in a 400+ attendee in-person summer camp.
This is postrat Twitter, aka TCOT/TPOT (this corner/part of Twitter), aka — my favorite name for the multiple levels of irony and meaning — simply “the ingroup”. The ingroup doesn’t have a unifying theme or explicit purpose. Most importantly, it doesn’t have an outgroup. A couple of sympathetic journalists tried to understand what the ingroup is and only managed to conclude that we’re really weird and that “this is the exact opposite of media Twitter, which is defined exclusively by who you hate”.
The Twitter ingroup is based on who you read and who you’re friends on Twitter with, with the fuzziness and porousness of boundaries this implies. In this way it’s a lot like the rationalist community: no one hands out membership cards, but you can tell if someone’s in it or not in 3 minutes of conversation.
What does it have to do with Post-rationality?
About a decade ago, post-rationality emerged as a coherent intellectual movement that was, at least in part, explicitly a reaction to LessWrong. It included writers like David Chapman, Venkatesh Rao, Sarah Perry, and a spectrum of others from spiritually-focused monastics to red-pilled neoreactionaries. These writers are widely read by both LessWrongers and the Twitter ingroup, but they’re not central at all to the latter.
Closer to the core is the fact that many prominent ingroupers have bounced off the self-improvement approach of LessWrong, finding that it only exacerbated their personal struggles. These self-identified “postrats” often tweet about trauma, therapy, meditation, “just vibing”, physical exercise, and religion. Their challenge to rationalists is: if you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy? But of course, these topics are covered extensively on LessWrong itself by writers like Kaj Sotala — this isn’t something rationalists are opposed to addressing at all.
I think the main reason people on Twitter call themselves “postrats” is to piss off rationalists, given the whiff of superiority conveyed by the “post- “ prefix. At this point “post-rationality” is mostly an internet community characterized by an unusually high number of regular rationalists. And that’s a good thing!
But how does shitposting lead to the pursuit of truth?
It’s probably obvious, but when Q talks about a “cabal of pedophile elites” it’s not literal. They’re talking about structures of power and oppression that “fuck over” the young generation. They’re talking about the patriarchy. True feminists understand this.
This is one of my tweets I’m proudest of, and when I shared it to Facebook no less than three rationalist friends wrote me angry replies expressing their frustration with my dumb shitposting and would it kill me to add a /s tag at the end to make it clear that I’m joking.
But I’m not joking. There are several important topics today that are nearly impossible to discuss directly for both individual and social reasons. The best way to approach them is with “shitposting” that expresses a real opinion but doesn’t immediately bind the writer to a legible object-level position that could be attacked.
I could have written:
Some extreme takes under the “feminism” umbrella are as crazy as Q Anon
But that’s not really what I meant or what I believe, and writing that explicitly could also get me in trouble.
What I actually wanted to say is:
Many people on all sides of the political spectrum hold truly radical and insane beliefs, but this is often ignored because they’re “sanewashed” by some adjacent less-radical position that is palatable to the mainstream. It’s a social motte-and-bailey in which the radicals’ excesses are covered by sympathetic moderates who explain that “they only mean this metaphorically” and that “you should take them seriously but not literally”. Q Anon is the exception that proves this rule because there are no palatable “bailey” positions adjacent to it, and it is thus considered (wrongly) a singular example of collective insanity.
I could write this essay on my blog, and 750 people would read it. But 75,000 chuckled at my tweet and hopefully more than 1% of them went hmmm afterward and asked themselves why this is funny and what it means.
Even if you carefully curate your timeline, very little of it will be insightful. The vast majority of everything is shit, and this is undoubtedly true of shitposts. But there are some truths that can only be approached through the shitpost side gate. There have been several memes by the ingroup that “escaped containment” and reached a huge audience. I think that none of them are accidental, they are all expressions of important truths that could not be spread except by this format.
I don’t want to suggest that Twitter is a replacement for LessWrong, which I think is a more unique and special space. The Twitter ingroup is also a village without a mission, and I do believe in the importance of the mission. But I think Twitter is a great compliment to LessWrong for anyone pursuing the art of rationality. It trains you to play with ideas, to improv, read between the lines, make the shadow visible. It allows you to make friends with people who know deep and important things and will never communicate those things to you in a LessWrong-legible way. It teaches you to express yourself outside the constraints of epistemic statuses and acceptable topics of discussion. It teaches you to filter truth from bullshit in the real memetic jungle, real-life rationality under fire.
Also it doesn’t censor titties.