In 2019, a Twitter user named @maplecocaine unleashed this piece of wisdom onto the internet:
Each day on twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it
— maple cocaine (@maplecocaine) January 3, 2019
The tweet resonated with so many people because it captures the cyclical nature of social media. Every day the internet focuses its destructive energy on a small group of people, often leaving only smoldering wreckage behind before moving on to the next thing that temporarily catches its attention.
Recently, Geoff Shullenberger wrote a piece for Tablet Magazine that beautifully captures this phenomenon in much greater detail:
Regardless of which side wins any particular battle in the recurring speech wars, both parties to the conflict end up reinforcing the power of the overall system in which the drama is enacted. And so a pattern emerges that is larger and more consequential than the specifics of the latest political flare-up. It is not the arguments or ideas of any political group, but the structure of the digital platforms that sets the tone of the culture as a whole.
And what is the structure? It is an arena for perpetual conflict driven by an accumulation of grievances collected in a mass program of decentralized surveillance. We are incentivized, by the coded logic of the social media platforms where public engagement now takes place, to find reasons to hate each other. The algorithms that encourage and reward particular behaviors on Twitter and Facebook play on our deepest human instincts and desires to create spectacles of symbolic violence and sacrifice. Much of the time, the violence and spectacle has the appearance of a game or a light amusement. To take it too seriously, therefore, is to risk being an alarmist, and likely of the reactionary sort. But it is precisely the gamelike aspect of the platforms that keeps us playing. Playing and paying because the point, finally, is profit.
I cannot recommend this piece enough. It identifies precisely what drives so much of the conversation on social platforms. The platforms are calibrated to appeal to the basest instincts of human nature, and the masses demand a blood sacrifice on a near-daily basis. The platforms are ready and willing to serve one up, and make a buck on the side while doing so. Lives are destroyed (some justifiably, others not so much). The rich get richer. The house always wins.
I also think it’s worth noting that this thinking applies regardless of your beliefs on politics, “cancel culture,” or social issues. The drivers of conflict transcend ideology. The rewards and punishments are often the same.
I’m not saying don’t use social media but if you’re going to step into the ring, at least know what outcomes the ring is designed to achieve. As our discourse becomes increasingly polarized, it’s important to consider what incentives drive us and, if necessary, maybe take a step back from the keyboard before we (myself included) dunk on that terrible, terrible tweet.
A few things I’ve made recently:
- For Culturally Relevant: I reflect on one year of making this podcast and what it’s like to be a DIY indie podcaster these days.
- For YouTube: I reviewed Inception on the occasion of its 10th anniversary with Patrick Willems.
- For Truth vs. Hollywood: Joanna Robinson and I begin our discussion of the Best Picture-winning film, Argo.
Some other things that are worth reading on the internet:
- Speaking of people destroying each other online, the Washington Post has a good summary of that whole Harpers letter thing, and Isaac Chotiner has a characteristically revealing interview with the guy behind it.
- Eleanor Tremeer wrote about the sexist legacy of the Star Trek universe.
- Zack Beauchamp explains what’s going on in Portland right now and why it should upset us all.
- Shirley Li examines the crisis in the voice acting industry that’s going on over race.
- David Beard explains the story behind a striking photograph of an Indonesian COVID victim.
- Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman at Buzzfeed examines how Facebook is “hurting people at scale.”
- This New York Times Magazine feature begins with a shocking statistic: “Today, 1% of the world is a barely livable hot zone. By 2070, that portion could go up to 19%.” What are the implications of this monumental change?