Posts from June 2015
Internet commenters are among the most informed yet overwhelmed members of modern society. There's a commonly repeated idea among social media companies that engagement drops off at each level—if a site allows consumption without having an account, then consumers will outweigh account holders by some factor (often 80/20 or 90/10); a similar proportion of all account holders actually vote/like/favorite, and a similar proportion of all participants actually create content.
For a concrete example, think of a major publication like a newspaper. Most people who find their way to news content don't have any personal investment in the source. Most of those who have an account or subscription will never hit an on-site share button. And the people who leave comments and get into polemic arguments are rarer still; often something like one tenth of one percent of all site users.
So the largest voices online aren't representative of the attitudes of all internet users. Most people are more moderate on most issues, especially ones that don't affect them directly.
Moderate views don't get much play. Extremists sell more airtime, get more ads, get more shares (especially from people who disagree with them; there is no bad publicity), and often shift the Overton window overall if not counteracted by voices from opposing directions. So a small minority of voices with a large enough soapbox, saying crazy enough things, can often seem to signify a much larger movement than actually exists.
Arguing against extremes is probably futile. Anyone who watches extreme (left or right) mainstream media can recognize the trope of the moderate seeming to waffle against fringe claims that are "not even wrong," that is, based on misunderstanding or misrepresenting the truth, or otherwise missing the point, such that creating a logical response takes more time than the audience has patience. The counter to this approach, if there is one, is to strike at targets in the same general area as those sought by the media source itself. Viewers are driven by bursts of dopamine: from having insanity re-affirmed, or from gaining a little bit of superiority, for example by feeling like you know something others don't or are participating in something that others aren't. Lifehacks, "what you know is wrong," and feel-good feature stories are examples of this latter.
No matter how much people rail against clickbait, it's phenomenally successful. The same story presented with an accurate, but urbane headline will never gain the traction that a story with a click-bait headline will, even if the headline is a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Again, most readers of headlines don't read stories; most readers of stories don't read comments. It's a simple fact that most everything that makes it onto your radar from anything other than specialized sources is flat-out wrong, and in most subject areas you're woefully incapable of recognizing the truth.
What is everyone actually arguing about? The mockery and derision leveled at those outside one's philosophical bubble: what is it actually aimed at, what is it seeking to accomplish?
I suspect, from listening to aunts gossip at family gatherings and so forth, that people primarily use discussion to establish in- and out-group membership. If you'll tolerate a little bit of evopsych, there has probably been some historical value to making sure that there is a coherent consensus within groups, if only for the sake of creating tribal bonds. You say one thing, and I don't have a particularly strong opinion, so I let you talk and present signs of agreement—head nods, engaged body language, "yeahs" and "uh-huhs"—and that signifies to you that we are part of a group. In times of strife, we will form a defensive unit more naturally and effortlessly by virtue of our pre-developed group bonds.
I, personally, have seen this play out in person: sports affiliations, nationalities, minor friendships, memberships in similar organizations, all leading to spontaneous group organization in "throw down" situations.
So far, though, I've only described what is. What should be is a different, more elusive, subject.
The primary value I place in friendships is the ability to overcome one's own nature. In the past, I've called this "the ability to change your mind," but it's more than this: it's about overcoming prejudice, bias; privilege and oppression, and being better than you're supposed to be. If a person can do that, regardless of their other beliefs or circumstances, I'm likely to care more for who they are. Contrast this with dogmatics: if I ask you, "what would have to happen for you to change your mind," and you're not able to come up with an answer in a matter of seconds, I'm mentally marking you as suspect.
Further, just as most people don't participate in most things (I, myself, don't comment on newspapers; don't contribute on twitter or deviantart; don't participate in most media I consume), most people don't engage with most situations in their life. Stand at the edge of any busy street corner in Manhattan, and walk out into traffic—people will follow you, regardless of whether it's safe for them. Engagement takes effort; tribal bonding is practically effortless. Habits, too, tend to be effortless. I had to force myself to smoke cigarettes for the first few days; now I have to force myself to try not to.
Humans excel at doing what they've already done. The brain is plastic, but overcoming a thought pattern strengthened through repetition is one of the hardest things to do. Dopamine-generating click-bait is among the most popular content on the web today; you get much of the same mental reward from reading about how to get your life in order as from actually doing so.
This is where being overwelmed comes into play. The generation and demographic group I most closely belong to spends countless hours reading about how to be better, watching videos and consuming media presenting repetitions of the same themes and tropes over and over: the bad-ass triumphs, this is how I managed to make an embarrassing amount of money doing what I love, and so forth. We are worn out from countless tiny expenditures of will: today, I will get up early and go to the gym; now I am on the train, and should read something edifying instead of vegging out with bullshit. Every one of these non-habitual choices forms a tiny drain on what will we do have, to the point that by the end of the day there's little left for actual, substantive change.
Arguing about pointless shit (or arguing pointlessly about shit) is a drain of similar nature to the above, with the added consequence that it solidifies bullshit thought patterns and makes it harder to think critically about circumstances, and put into effect meaningful change. At this point I could allude to hashtag activism or the meandering lack of purpose demonstrated by the Occupy Movements, but it's deeper than this. We're actively ossifying our thought patterns, as a generation and a demographic, and failing to act meaningfully in any direction. As a group, we care X amount about Y number of topics, but we each care the same amount—and X divided by Z, the number of us in the world, is a tiny fraction of what is required to thrust the spearhead of change.
Further, some number of us care more about some topics, and some negatively: an active point of discussion would be the gender wage gap, which has been said to be either the greatest inequity of our time or a statistical artifact that represents no more than the cumulative sum of the life choices (and lack of social support for said choices) that we make. So we argue and mock and facepalm at the sheer obtuseness of the other side, missing the point that while all this is going on, some small fraction of society is skimming off all of the cream and most of the milk, and maybe there's another fight we should be preparing for?
So why do I nitpick others' feelings with logic? Why do I mock fringe elements in the media? So much of what I see and take umbrage at are exclusionary ideas which, while they may represent actual frustrations, are pointless and intellectually vapid exercises in onanism. I have made an effort to never hate any person, only the things they do (to others and themselves), the lies they tell themselves, the efforts they make that, while making them feel better, don't have a chance of producing results. You are in charge of yourself and it's your duty to try to overcome your nature (whether that means a history of privilege or oppression), because if it matters and has value to other people, they're never going to give it to you. And if you're ready to fight for something, why not put your effort into fighting for a thing that will actually improve your situation? The effort spent in the fight to have me find you attractive, even though you have 50% body fat, would be better spent at the gym; meanwhile, you would be likely to live longer, spend less on medical care, and actually feel better every day of your life.
Meanwhile, if you feel wronged, I can acknowledge your feelings, but if you're important to me as a friend, I want to make sure you are taken care of. Often this means ensuring an actual injustice was done: if someone became your lifelong enemy because of something you did on accident, wouldn't you rather have them know that you were tired that day, or hungry, or just got out of a really painful relationship, than to pretend that their misconception was valid and live life like you are just a terrible person? Turn it around, then. After I acknowledge that what happened was crappy, would you rather believe forever that that person is intrinsically terrible, or would you rather understand why they did that thing, and use that knowledge to help you prevent others from feeling that way in the future?