Prefaces

Preface I

I have joined LW somewhat recently, and after a brief period of activity decided to stop contributing to discussions or reading posts until I had entirely read the Sequences, as I felt I did not have enough background to meaningfully contribute or gain much insight from the more in-depth posts. I am posting this in violation of that prior decision, because for the first time since joining LW, I have had a realisation that felt profound enough to write up and ask the community for input/guidance on. However, I still am new and haven't made much progress on the Sequences since logging off, so if when reading this you feel that I am not familiar with or misunderstand some key concept, it's extremely likely that you're correct. Please let me know which concept I need more work on.


Preface II

The contents of this post are general and deal with the nature of the Internet, social media and (American) society. I was inspired to write it by considering the recent events in American politics. I consider myself apolitical and I think I have done a good enough job of keeping this post clean of the mind-killing stuff. However, this is hard to evaluate independently, and the third part skates dangerously close to being straight up political commentary. I strongly ask that if you think I have not done a good job at cleaning this up, and  that the post is too political, you disregard considerations of politeness and let me know directly.


Preface III 

As I mentioned, the realization  that prompted me to write this post felt profound to me when I had "assembled" them in my mind. But now upon inspection they feel somewhat trivial. I'm also not really referencing any hard sources here - this is primarily guessing and speculation. So it's entirely likely that everything I've written up here has already been covered by somebody I'm unaware of, in much more detail and with a lot more thought. Please let me know if there's something like this (or if you see how the toy models I describe here could be extended).
 

Thought I - Fraying the Barrier

As most people reading this post are probably aware of, Twitter has recently permanently banned Donald Trump, the acting President of the United States at that time, from its platform, referring to him having incited a riot in the US Capitol and the risk of him inciting violence using Twitter further. These events, depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, may represent a private corporation legitimately enforcing its Terms of Service, a victory for the forces of sanity, democracy and the greater good, a heinous act of political censorship and violation of the First Amendment, or an attack on a legitimately re-elected leader of the free world. They also may represent many other things, and I think that they represent a newly opened, wide, gaping crack in the imagined barrier between two areas of social interaction: online and offline. 

If so, this crack would be very far from first. As with many important historical processes, the breaking of this barrier has been going on, arguably, since the Internet was invented, and was so overarching and wide that it was, potentially, only possible to notice as an afterthought. But still, at first I believe these two areas of interaction to have been seen distinctly. It was possible to immerse yourself in the internet to dissociate from real life, to escape. It was possible to hide from your real-life inadequacies and mask your insecurities behind anonymity. Potentially, it was even possible to act with impunity, avoiding consequences for verbally assaulting someone, or for violating copyright. The internet was great, dark, unregulated and separate from the respectable and safe real world. 

But order abhors chaos, and the real world began colonizing the digital frontier pretty quickly. Video games, previously the domain of basement-dwelling, NEET, poorly socially integrated males, were Gamergated into a mainstream form of entertainment that played by the mainstream rules of what was considered inclusive, fun, moral and acceptable. World of Warcraft used to be played by the fat unpopular kid at school, Fortnite is played by every kid at school. Piracy, still extant in developing countries, moved over to be replaced by convenient, legal and socially acceptable VOD, music streaming services and Kindle Store in the developed West. Paying money to people on the internet for apparent services or goods went from being a surefire way to get swindled to being an entirely legitimate (and in the pandemic, preferrable) way to purchase and consume.

But until somewhat recently, I think there was still the notion that information shared and discussed on social media was somehow less "serious" than the information discussed in person and in "traditional" media such as newspapers. As the example of the US Capitol and Trump's subsequent deplatforming shows us, not any more. Importantly, whether the information truly is less consequential or not is irrelevant - the mainstream public opinion is now pretty safely and consciously inoculated with the notion that it is not. 

Thought II - Social Media, Emphasis on Media

As I remarked above, the information that is shared and discussed online and through social media and offline are now understood to be just as consequential (or actually, depending on how much you believe in the power of newsfeed-adjusting algorithms to radicalize and convince, more). This has an important implication for the way social media are understood.

Up to now, social media existed in a curious superposition between the online and offline. It was clear to pretty much everyone that they were ways to check up on users other users cared about and find out what they think. These users could be acquainted in real life, in which case social media were facilitators of actual social interactions, or not, in which case they were facilitators of  parasocial interactions. But above all, they were facilitators, tools, platforms. The referees, architects and maintenance crews of the stadiums on which social games were to be played.

Under assumptions of inconsequencial social interaction online, this approach to modelling social media is perfectly valid. And probably when the political turmoil susbides (and in niche social media where their nature kept it at bay, i.e. LinkedIn) it will continue to be so to an extent. But where interactions are primarily parasocial, consequences are high and the personnel of social media companies have to compare Democrat-adjusted protests with Republican-adjusted protests and their policies pertaining (protests? riots? demonstrations? even the choice of words is an ideological minefield!), I think an alternative approach exists.

Instead on emphasizing the "social" aspect of "social media", I propose we emphasize the "media". Facebook and Twitter are the new NYT and CNN. Their moderation teams and newsfeed algorithms are editorial boards that determine their political slant. Their users are stringers - freelance journalists that generate textual, visual and audio content, and either get disapproved and struck down (or even "fired" and deplatformed) by the editorial board, or approved, published, and paid in validation and social capital.

If that model is valid, it is important to note that up to now, most social media are headquartered and likely recruit from the Bay Area in California, a place associated with a distinct kind of political cause, which I tend to call "American Neoliberalism", but is sometimes referred to as "Progressivism". If it continues to be valid for some more time, one possible implication is that in some time, an opposite set of social media will arise, with headquarters and personnel recruited from conservatively slanted area - a "Bible Belt Valley". Gab and Parler seem to be first instances of this move, headquartered in Pennsylvania and Nevada, both heavily contested states in the 2020 US election.

Another insteresting consideration is what services/websites/companies we can consider "social media". Here are criteria that appear important to me, but I'm not sure if the list is well-formulated or exhaustive:

  • There is moderation that at the very least is able to remove individual posts and users, or potentially adjust which posts which users see.
  • There is a quantified measure of social capital, such as likes/reposts/upvotes. It should be easy to "digest", compare between users, and influence social impact.
  • Posts (and ensuing social capital) should be distinctly associated with a stable "user" entity that carries over from post to post (imageboards such as 4chan, notably, fail this criterion).

Thought III - American Activistocracy

Despite not being American (I was born and grew up in one of the republics of the former USSR) and only visiting the US for a very insignificant amount of time, I encounter Americans and products of their intellectual labor quite a lot (to a significant extent because I work in a multinational corporation, and English is my primary language of communication). There was an aspect of American political/ethical behavior that I never quite understood, until the current events have prompted me to generate a model.

(Note: I have also seen people from elsewhere than America demonstrate these behaviors, and when I say "Americans", I also include these people. I do so because the people that did behave like that in my experience originated from the most Americanized segments of their respective original societies, so I am still convinced that this is a distinctly American phenomenon.)

In my experience, people from elsewhere tend to separate their political (and to some extent even generally moral) convictions from their daily activities, and express them in specficic circumstances (their religious gatherings, voting booths, political rallies). These do not generally impact their consumption habits (both "physical" and media consumption), their employment preferences (barring cases where people in question work directly for political or religious institutions) and only to some extent impact their socialization. 

On the other hands, in my experiences Americans tend to integrate their political and moral convictions into every facet of their lives. They are aware of the fact that every dollar spent on a product lands into somebody else's pocket, and they make sure that these pockets are aligned with their political cause. Even for market-level remuneration, they refuse to render professional services to a client that doesn't align with their moral values. Personal is political in every dimension of their lives, and they navigate them never quite taking their eyes off of their robust and advanced moral compasses.

For a pretty long time, I could not explain this to myself, until I had read that what prefaced the Trump ban was a letter to the Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, signed by around 300 Twitter employees imploring him to do exactly that. Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist, proposes that the American society is founded on a fundamental distrust of executive authority, and characterizes the US as "a state of courts and parties". While I tend to agree, I think that my observations above can be explained if we strengthen Fukuyama's proposal - by proposing that American society is founded on a fundamental distrust of authority, period. 

If one expects that politicians, even democratically (assuming one believes this to be the best process available) elected, are not to be fully trusted even when they are chosen based on their friendliness to a cause one believes in, voting and campaigning becomes simply not enough. If one expects that the judicial branch of government, even if just, cannot cover all ground and protect the law in its entirety, trying the suspects in a court of public opinion becomes the second best option. The work of a politically active American is never done, least of all at the voting booth.

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Congratulations on making your first Less Wrong post about a relatively current political topic and not being downvoted! You may be the first person in history who achieved this!

I agree with Ericf that the Americans you meet (as a non-American) are not a representative sample. In my opinion, there is still a chance your observation might be valid, only less strongly.

On the other hand, coming from former USSR, maybe it is more about your culture, where people who had strong political opinions and couldn't resist the desire to express them publicly, were killed for a few generations. Then again, who is the neutral party we should compare both USA and former USSR to? Western Europe is probably different from China, which is different from India, etc. I guess my question is whether the proper adjective for the "Activistocracy" should be "American" or rather "non-post-Soviet" or... what?

Internet has become mainstream, this has caught some people by surprise, and it is not going away. This part is obvious. The non-obvious part is whether and how some parts of the internet could remain non-mainsteam in long term. (So far, 4chan is doing well. But tomorrow, it may be cancelled, who knows. 8chan is already gone.) Uhm, "non-mainsteam" is not the right word here; you can have debates on obscure topics as long as they don't trigger the public. Perhaps "offensive to mainstream" is what I am trying to point at; especially the kind that makes someone pick up the phone and call your boss, and at some moment can make someone at Visa or MasterCard pick up the phone and call your ISP telling them it is a nice business they have and it would be a shame if in the future they couldn't accept credit card payments. Maybe the future of controversial discussion is private invite-only networks. Which feels uncomfortable, but it kinda makes sense: you cannot have something 100% user friendly and keep the public away. At the very least, the content should not be linkable, and screenshots should be deniable, otherwise you are one tweet away from publicity.

Shortly, there is a difference between "large parts of internet have become mainsteam" which is okay and inevitable, and "anything on internet can get into the spotlight of public opinion, and be destroyed if deemed unacceptable" which seems wrong, considering that a few decades ago, Less Wrong itself would be similarly socially unacceptable (either for atheism or for debating polyamory). The problem is not normies coming to internet, but normies judging the entire internet.

The "Bible Belt Valley" sounds interesting, but first they need their own credit card company, then their own ISPs, and only afterwards their web pages will be sustainable in long term. Which leads to the question: what are the forces that drive Visa and MasterCard on "the right side of history"? Without knowing the correct answer to this question, it is difficult to predict the future of the "Bible Belt Valley".

Congratulations on making your first Less Wrong post about a relatively current political topic and not being downvoted! You may be the first person in history who achieved this!

Hah, thanks. At the risk of stroking my ego one too many times - can I ask you to speculate on why that might be the case?
What I mean is - I'm sure what I wrote has some meritoric value (I would've kept it to myself otherwise), but I expected this post to do similarly to how other comparable posts do on LW (first-time post, political topic, not a lot of hard analysis and abstraction, not a lot of sources linked to). Hearing that this isn't the case is surprising.

I agree with Ericf that the Americans you meet (as a non-American) are not a representative sample. In my opinion, there is still a chance your observation might be valid, only less strongly.

Possibly yes, I agree. But as I had noted responding to Ericf, some (American) decisionmaking seems to be driven by exactly the same sampling bias error I made. Indeed, the Twitter letter to Dorsey that apparently spurred him to act on deplatforming Trump was reported as signed by 300 people - Twitter employed around 4600 as of 2019.  Cancel culture seems to follow the same pattern at least sometimes - Kevin Spacey definitely got tried in the court of public opinion (and boy did he lose) faster than any accusations made it into court of law. 
I wonder if it's the sampling bias again, though - that is, only the minority of cases when people got cancelled by a minority of politically active Americans gets reported. I guess to verify, it would be useful to have a "cancel watch" to trace a large number of shitstorms on Twitter and see which ones followed up with some real-world action. But that would be a lot of handiwork. Any idea as to how this could get verified more elegantly?

I guess my question is whether the proper adjective for the "Activistocracy" should be "American" or rather "non-post-Soviet" or... what?

Yeah that's a good one. It doesn't seem to me that Western Europe is like that, but I don't have good exposure  to that culture. Hobbes definitely had more influence on European politics I think, with European governments being a lot more socially oriented (public healthcare, education, transportation...), "big" and leviathanish, compared to the US. The leviathan-ness is a very heavy factor in post-USSR politics - I wrote a pretty long comment on my model of it here. So that would leave a lot less space for such citizen activism in both cases.
Canada and the UK could be interesting cases to verify - Canadian and UK governments have some more public initiatives I think. Have there been any high-profile Canadian/British cancellings?

The problem is not normies coming to internet, but normies judging the entire internet.

I'm not convinced these are different things, to be honest, not in the American (non-post-Soviet?) case. When normies believe it is upon them to take a moral stand about everything they see and do, because their government won't, whatever they come to will be judged. The internet included.

Which feels uncomfortable, but it kinda makes sense: you cannot have something 100% user friendly and keep the public away.

I agree, this maps onto some of my ideas about that. From what I know, Tor has become somewhat useless for "truly" illegal activity - pretty much all drug trade in Russia happens through it, drug related imprisonment rates are insane anyway - but it might become "the next internet" by virtue of being hard enough to configure and navigate for the general public. But obviously, that frontier is ultimately gonna get colonized too, so yeah, possibly it's gonna be invite only - or we're just going to be passing emails across heavily filtered mailing lists. 

The "Bible Belt Valley" sounds interesting, but first they need their own credit card company, then their own ISPs, and only afterwards their web pages will be sustainable in long term

A kind-of-sustainable alternative to this seems to exist, and this usually involves ISPs in countries that are ideologically opposed to whatever place is cancelling you. 
Consider The Daily Stormer, it's a neo-nazi blog that got under fire after Unite the Right. After hopping registrars and hosters for a year or so, they got set with a Chinese registrar/ISP and have been alive since. 
Parler seems to be following suit in some sense, they have moved to a Russian host. Reuters reports that whatever is left of 8chan, 8kun, is also hosted there.
Obviously, this will only work if whatever free speech you disseminate on that platform doesn't affect the internal politics of the country you're hosting in, so that's a factor. Here's The Daily Stomer's Andrew Anglin acknowledging pretty much that:


After the CDN ban and the registrar ban – which are both coming soon for Parler and a bunch of other MAGA related sites – they are going to be in “CHINA PLZ HALP” territory.

That was easy enough for me, as I’ve always been relatively pro-PRC, or at least not anti-PRC. I think these sites that have been promoting all of these idiotic theories about China being behind the problems in the US are going to be met with a lot less friendliness than I was.

 

Which leads to the question: what are the forces that drive Visa and MasterCard on "the right side of history"

Here's what seems interesting. Both the Eranet that hosts Daily Stormer and DDOS Guard that hosts 8kun and Parler are extant "clear" companies, and while I don't know for sure, I imagine they can work with mainstream payment providers. At the very least, Visa and Mastercard work in China and Russia very well in general, so it's not like the ideological opposition would cut you off per se.
I think it could be the absence of an opposing voice. There is enough people to coordinate in threatening to not use their Visas or MasterCards anymore if [insert badwrong company] is allowed to use it, but there isn't enough people to threaten the same if [same company] is deplatformed. And yes, that potentially implies a vicious circle - to potentially estabilish a platform to coordinate, you need a platform to coordinate. I think the kinda-sustainable platforms like Tor or hosting in ideologically opposing countries I mentioned above could serve as ways to break that circle.

I expected this post to do similarly to how other comparable posts do on LW (first-time post, political topic, not a lot of hard analysis and abstraction, not a lot of sources linked to).

What? You expected to be downvoted and you had the audacity to post anyway?

From my perspective, it was the length of text, the dislaimer at the beginning, the fact that (at least how it seemed to me) you didn't obviously attack anyone, and the few interesting ideas in the article. Plus you had the luck that someone else didn't write a horrible comment "inspired by" your article, which could have also reflected badly on you.

it would be useful to have a "cancel watch"

No idea how to do that on Twitter (the amount of data there is insane), it just reminded me of a "cancel watch" for higher education.

What? You expected to be downvoted and you had the audacity to post anyway?

No, prior to your comment I had no idea that posts like this got straight up downvoted. I knew that it wasn't going to cause a furore of any sort, because 


(first-time post, political topic, not a lot of hard analysis and abstraction, not a lot of sources linked to)

but I expected that posts like this probably get one or two upvotes and maybe a single comment and nobody notices them.

 

No idea how to do that on Twitter (the amount of data there is insane), it just reminded me of a "cancel watch" for higher education.

I wonder how they're doing it. They do request that readers email them with a list of cases, but that's a prudent step whatever methodology you use, there would always be cases you haven't noticed. If they're just listing suggestions from readers and relying their on own networks and twitter feeds, that is too bad, no good way to scale it up.

I think your point 3 includes a sampling bias error. The thousands-millions of Americans who do not separate their political and professional make the news, and the tens of millions of examples of Americans separating the two generate only a few news articles. This also applies to personal connections: people who do not separate are way more likely to evangelize their position than those who do.

Also, too, there is a history of direct consumer activism stretching from the cancel culture of today, through the boycotts of the Civil rights movement, the prohibition movement, ::the 1800s, which I don't have a ready example for::, and the Boston Tea Party.

Actually, good point! I do agree I'm probably exposed only to an overrepresented fraction.

But at the same time, looks to me like a lot of decision-making processes are also based on the same sampling bias error. Kevin Spacey lost pretty much every acting contract he had the moment he got cancelled, Harvey Weinstein only a bit slower.

If one expects that politicians, even democratically (assuming one believes this to be the best process available) elected, are not to be fully trusted even when they are chosen based on their friendliness to a cause one believes in, voting and campaigning becomes simply not enough. 

I don't think that the high class view of what democracy happens to be in the West was at any time that it's just about having an election every four years. 

"The work of a politically active American is never done, least of all at the voting booth."

I think this is a great point. The tradeoff to democracy is constant friction of iron on iron, power on power (separation of powers). The benefit of which is a lack of tyranny and clear laws.  Montesquieu (grandfather of the US constitution) argues that for a democracy to thrive, there needs to be a love of virtue; of putting aside personal gain for the community or there would be too much friction. 

In the end there was a tradeoff. Democracies have constant struggle, as power is prevented from being entrenched. Do we adapt to it and thrive? or get bogged down? Is the downside protection worth the added prolonged stress to the system? Can a  system thrive with constant stress and lack of social decorum & lubrication? It's a great experiment.  

Like with life's U-Curves, I suspect that some medium stress is good. Constant stress (or no stress in despotic gov) without a frictionless tonic will deteriorate the gears and crumble the links in the power chain. 

 

In the end there was a tradeoff. Democracies have constant struggle, as power is prevented from being entrenched.

This is interesting. I'm not familiar with Montesquieu, but does he stem from any political tradition that was significantly opposed to Hobbism and socially contracted "leviathans"? Because this sounds like something Hobbes would abhor, like, something almost made out as a gigantic middle finger to Hobbes.