The Problem With Outrage Quoting

I’m fairly careful to limit my intake of social media to people who say reasonable things. This is in part a survival strategy for Staying Sane on Social Media. However, this still leaves a fairly large vector for things which unbalance my mood and make me less effective at the main stuff I’m supposed to be doing: outrage quoting.

This is where a person who is themselves reasonable sees a very unreasonable thing, then quotes it to express their outrage at it. There’s also a variation on this where the person quotes it to make fun of it. The latter isn’t quite as bad as the former, but both do have the following problem: one is still being exposed to the crazy stuff one was trying to avoid.

Actually, it’s a bit worse than that—the people one follows are specifically filtering through the stuff from the unreasonable people to find the craziest stuff that they say. This can be extremely unbalancing to one’s state of mind. As I talked about in Social Media is Doomed, human beings aren’t designed to deal with a large number of strangers. We deal with people by acclimating to them, but it takes time and is harder the more different sorts of people we need to acclimate to. Even when we are careful to keep our reading to a set group of people to whom we’ve acclimated—there’s no requirement that these people agree with each other or with us, only that we’ve acclimated to them—outrage quoting constantly introduces new people to our notice who are saying crazy things that we haven’t acclimated to. This is extremely stressful to human beings.

Also, please note that I’m not talking about being exposed to new ideas as being stressful. There are some circumstances in which that can be stressful, but usually it’s quite manageable. I’m talking about running into expressions of ideas we’re not used to. Perhaps we know somebody who will say #KillAllMen and we’ve gotten used to this eccentricity. There is no new argument to be found in a person saying, instead, #CastrateAllMen (I made that up; who knows, perhaps I will have actually come up with an absurd example that the universe didn’t beat me to for once). But if we’re used to the former and not the latter, the latter will be far more stressful to run into. There’s a new person here, and people are complex. They’re also dangerous. A stress reaction to having to deal with a new person is actually entirely appropriate. Best case scenario is a big drain on your emotional energy is incoming.

Except that this being a one-off quote means that actually, a big drain on one’s emotional energy isn’t incoming because you don’t actually need to get used to this new person. You’re almost certainly never going to see them again. And therein lies one strategy to help mitigate the stress from encountering outrage quoting: focus on how this is a person you’ll never see again and how they don’t really matter.

I don’t have any other good suggestions, other than be careful about people who do a lot of outrage quoting. But certainly I think the golden rule applies, here: be very careful when quoting to make sure that one isn’t outrage quoting. For example, when I wrote a humorous blog post about that CNN article on cuckolding (CNN’s Love of Cuckolding), I started it off with explaining why it doesn’t matter and isn’t worth stressing over. And I’ve stopped myself from quoting outrageous things often enough that it’s now becoming a habit to not quote outrageous things. Still, it’s something I always keep in mind—if I’m quoting something, what effect will seeing that have on the people who read what I write?

Facebook Had a Bad Year

Having recently talked about how Social Media is Doomed and Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison, I just saw this article: 2017 Was a Bad Year For Facebook, 2018 Will Be Worse.

The article is mostly about taxation, but it does mention this:

Facebook has reacted nervously to Palihapitya’s accusations, saying he hadn’t worked at the company for a long time (he left in 2011) and wasn’t aware of Facebook’s recent initiatives. But I can’t see any practical manifestations of these efforts as a user who has drastically cut back on social networking this year for the very reasons cited by Parker and Palihapitya.

To outsiders and regulators, Facebook looks like a dangerous provider of instant gratification in a space suddenly vital to the health of society. It’s also making abuse and aggression too easy — something the U.K. Committee on Standards in Public Life pointed out in a report published on Wednesday. Sounding one of the loudest alarm bells on social media yet, the panel urged the prime minister to back legislation to “shift the balance of liability for illegal content to the social media companies.”

The article also talks about concerns related to targeted advertising.

I haven’t talked about targeted advertising, but its problems are partially related to the problems of push-based social media. One part of targeted advertising is only showing advertisements to people who might want to see them. This is a net-positive for all involved, since irrelevant advertisements are just a waste of everyone’s time. The part that’s about figuring out how to manipulate people into buying things they don’t think are a good idea, though, is far worse. It’s also related to the fundamental problem of push-based media because it’s trying to get around the adaptations people made to their environment in order to live in peace with it. Unfortunately from the advertiser’s perspective, those adaptations involve a great deal of not buying things; and hence the temptation on the part of advertisers to upset that balance which the viewer has constructed for himself.

I’d like to reiterate that my point is not that social media is evil, but rather that the push-based social media as we know it today is fundamentally flawed for human use; this makes changes to it inevitable. What form those changes take is less clear, but they are certainly coming.

Another Perspective on Facebook as Social Poison

This is a follow-up to my posts Social Media is Doomed and Staying Sane on Social Media.

I ran into an article which discusses what a former facebook executive said about Facebook’s effect on people:

Palihapitiya’s criticisms were aimed not only at Facebook, but the wider online ecosystem. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”

He went on to describe an incident in India where hoax messages about kidnappings shared on WhatsApp led to the lynching of seven innocent people. “That’s what we’re dealing with,” said Palihapitiya. “And imagine taking that to the extreme, where bad actors can now manipulate large swathes of people to do anything you want. It’s just a really, really bad state of affairs.” He says he tries to use Facebook as little as possible, and that his children “aren’t allowed to use that shit.” He later adds, though, that he believes the company “overwhelmingly does good in the world.”

Here’s the original video, in case the article goes down, or if you’d like to verify The Verge’s description of what was said:

(I haven’t verified it myself, mostly because mention it as a good expression of a concern I already have, and not as information supporting a conclusion.)

The ability social media gives to people to form instant mobs is something I haven’t talked about yet, but it’s another major problem that social media brings with it. Mobs are dangerous things; technology which allows them for form more readily is certainly dangerous. There is yet another element of push-vs-pull social media at work, but only in degree. Pull-based social media (i.e. social media where you have to actively go look at someone’s feed rather than there feed being pushed in front of you) still drastically reduces the amount of energy necessary to whip up a mob, but not as much as push-based social media. (To recap: Facebook, Twitter, etc are push-based social media while blogs, etc. are pull-based social media.) Much of the difference comes from speed: in pull-based, you have to get others to go look at the inciting material, and they will get to it when they get to it. In push-based media people can repost/retweet/etc the inciting material and spread it much faster. The faster it spreads, the more people will be having an emotional reaction to it at the same time.

There is a flip side to the information hose that push-based media causes, though, which is that no one has a good enough memory to drink from the information fire hose of push-based social media and keep track of all the things to be outraged about. This mitigates against the online mob-forming tendencies of push-based social media, in that a mob’s ire will usually not be directed at any particular target for any great length of time. Burning something requires both intensity of heat as well as duration of the heat being applied; anything can withstand a blowtorch applied for only a ten-thousandth of a second. And in fact savvy miscreants are learning how to use this to their advantage in order to avoid blow-back from their misdeeds.

To be clear, it’s not that I think that push-based social media is an unalloyed evil; only that it is fundamentally incompatible with human nature. My contention is not that push-based social media is impossible to use well. My contention is that push-based social media is simply too much strain on a human being for human beings to continue using it in its current form. I don’t think that Facebook et al will die off, but rather transform into something with so many content-curation tools as to effectively be pull-based rather than push-based. I.e. they will become something dissimilar to what they are now, though possibly under the same name.

Social Media is Doomed

That’s a slightly click-baity title, so let me clarify: I mean social media not in the sense of all ways of talking with people on the internet of any kind, but rather the giant platforms people typically mean when they say “social media”: Facebook, Twitter, etc. And when I say doomed, I mean, in their current form. I strongly suspect that there will be a Facebook corporation (or whatever it’s called) in 50 years time.

Social media is currently organized around a push-model of media delivery. Basically, it uses notifications for when people say things to you. And it does this regardless of whether you know them or not. This is not long-term viable for human beings. Conflict is deeply stressful to us, and we’re reasonably good at settling into mutually acceptable patterns with people we regularly come into contact with—especially family members. Though even there, plenty of people aren’t good at it and these relationships don’t all last. push-based social media forces us into contact with people in a relatively intimate setting with whom we haven’t developed the patterns of interaction which let us be comfortable with each other. And that just doesn’t work.

People not wanting to argue with random strangers in an intimate way is often ridiculed as “wanting to seal oneself in an echo chamber” but it’s basic human nature: people don’t have the energy to accommodate themselves to a large number of people, and worse social media contacts are often quite temporary in nature. Developing a mutually accommodating relationship to a person is often a waste of energy because they disappear from one’s life in 6 months.

For this and other reasons, social media where you interact in an intimate way with people you should be interacting with in a formal way is a disaster. It is simply against human nature.

Of course when social networks are relatively young this doesn’t cause as many problems because the members of the network are self-selected and most people just don’t run into that many people. Thus the network gains a lot of strength of this not-long-term-viable approach in terms of early growth. But eventually the downsides emerge; Facebook, for example, has become an excellent way to hate your family, friends, and neighbors. It’s also, apparently, an excellent tool for kids to bully each other with, and especially for girls to bully other girls with. I won’t use facebook for basically any amount of money, but its addictive properties do keep many bound to it.

The result is very likely going to be the platform’s gradual shift away from push-notifications to pull-notifications. Push notifications for private direct messages, since that’s the same thing as mail, email, SMS messages, etc. But pull notifications for other things, like status updates. The other thing is that on more personal networks like Facebook, people are likely to generally adopt rules of politeness very similar to teatime rules—do not under any circumstance discuss contentious issues.

The problem from Facebook’s perspective, of course, is that this reduction in engagement is bad for their bank account. For at least a fair time they were experimenting with showing you the things other people liked, in addition to showing you what other people shared. That’s really what eventually drove me off of Facebook, actually. And I notice that Twitter is doing it too. In fact the twitter phone app as become basically unusuable because of it. Between that and their constantly showing me the “in case you missed it” tweets, the phone app has become dysfunctional. Sure, it’s serving twitter’s ends and not mine, but I’m getting close to uninstalling it, in which case it will serve no one’s ends. I’m a little odd in that I analyze this sort of thing, but I’m not odd in my reaction—people burn out all the time.

So when you put all this together, it’s an inherent problem social media faces—growth and maximum engagement are achieved only by running hard against human nature. And you can only do that for so long before human nature revolts. As I said, I don’t expect that Facebook and Twitter will all go out of business—heck, there’s still a MySpace for crying out loud—but I do think we’re going to see big changes.

Blogging, by the way, is far more in accord with human nature because it is a pull-type medium. You go to a blog and read it, or read it in your RSS reader (I use newsblur).  It is convenient to take or leave as you find interesting and useful. It does not, therefore, introduce demands that you accommodate yourself to someone who probably won’t be around in six months anyway.