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.
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.
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.