Social Media Was a Mistake

Top Stories of the Year: #1

I’ve been counting down the top stories of the year, looking back at the big events of 2018 and reviewing my coverage of them.

At the top of the list this year is what we have discovered about the impact of digital media on our public debate—particularly the second wave of digital media, which is dominated by social media. It is not turning out well.

The age of digital media is dominated most obviously by Google’s earned dominance as a search engine. It has some competitors but is still orders of magnitude better for most tasks, so everybody uses it, and that gives Google a huge impact in terms of directing people toward and or away from specific websites.

But what if the company is inclined to use its power for evil?

Google’s internal culture has been laid bare by James Damore’s lawsuit alleging employment discrimination. The picture we get is a corporate culture of lockstep ideological uniformity, enforced by censorship, badgering, and blacklisting….

“Peer bonuses” that were supposed to be used to reward Google employees for outstanding work performance were also used, with management approval, to reward them for arguing against heterodox political views, while something called “social pecking” was used—”unambiguously,” in the words of one Google vice-president—to gang up on dissenters. If you read through the whole complaint you see what this kind of “pecking” looks like, and it looks a lot like—well, it looks a lot like angry political Twitter, complete with people lobbing obscenities at each other over politics….

Google is a private company and can create its own little enclave of mandatory wokeness if it likes, Damore’s lawsuit notwithstanding. The problem is that Googlers are not content to keep this ideological policing within their own walls.

If what happens inside Google is a portent for everything else, that’s not good.

The Wall Street Journal has a crazy report about the constant and bitter political bickering inside Google, leading with the story of how animal-rights provocateur Ingrid Newkirk was disinvited from a talk at the last minute—she was literally in the Google parking lot—because she offended a different leftist pressure group inside the company.

The Journal piece is behind a paywall, so check out John Davidson’s summary at The Federalist…. “Like other tech companies, Google has cultivated a college atmosphere in the workplace. It seems the company has succeeded, but only in the sense that its workplace has fractured into competing identity groups.”…

What goes on inside Google is a model for how they think the world should work. It is their little utopia, and it is working out just like most utopias run by the left, with everything descending into rancor, tribalism, and woker-than-thou contests. And the reason this is important is because Google, more than any other company, is the one creating the rules for how the rest of us share information in this era of re-centralized Internet media. So their utopia is also our utopia.

In a direct refutation of those who claim that people on the right can’t like Star Trek, I used an analogy from Star Trek to explain Google’s stifling vision.

In this episode, the Enterprise investigates a planet where everyone behaves with a kind of creepy placidity and orderliness. After he is captured by the locals and then rescued, a glassy-eyed Lieutenant Sulu gushes that it is a “paradise.” (So he’s pretty much like George Takei today.) When Kirk goes to investigate, he finds that strangers are asked, “Are you of the body?”—the “body” referring to the body of society, an ideal of collectivist conformity, all of it run from above by an all-knowing visionary leader named Landru.

But it turns out (spoiler alert) that Landru has been dead for six thousand years. What runs the whole society is a giant computer, an artificial intelligence programmed by the original Landru to keep his utopian society going in perpetuity—and wirelessly connected to everybody’s brains to do their thinking for them.

So what Kirk finds is a powerful, omnipresent computer network with a funny name and utopian pretensions. You see where I’m going with this, right? Just substitute, “Are you woke?” for “Are you of the body?” and you’ll get the idea….

If you think I’m just paranoid, consider a leaked video from Google that basically confirms our worst fears.

The proposal is for a system that would track users’ behavior, not for the purpose of helping them pursue their own preferences, but for the purpose of altering their behavior to meet some larger social goal…. The immediate implementation seems a little less threatening—it always does—consisting of a kind of New Year’s resolutions program, where you pick a goal, and the volitional ledger uses every interaction to nudge you in the direction of that goal. But the goals are “suitable targets” chosen by Google that emphasize trendy lefty obsessions like environmentalism and locally grown food….

The whole thing culminates in Google creating a system of behavioral engineering, patterned on genetic engineering, designed to push us in the direction of—what? Well, it’s going to push us toward “Google’s values as an organization.” And we know from recent experience that Google’s values as an organization include conformity to the woke cultural orthodoxy of the contemporary left….

I agree with Jim Kirk. The plug must be pulled.

The plug-pulling I have in mind is about users changing their own decisions and giving centralized digital media companies less power over them. It does not mean antitrust action.

There are some on the right who are responding to this by calling for Google to be regulated as a monopoly. That’s the best way to ensure that nothing changes. Regulating search engines as a public utility would tend to freeze the leading company in place, as regulators did with AT&T back in the day, and discourage new competitors from entering the field. Instead, let the market do its work. All the things that make me outraged about Google’s crusade for Political Correctness also strike me as signs of enormous weakness for the company, both internally and externally.

In that regard, I’ll refer you back to my ultimate refutation of the hysteria over tech “monopolies.”

But I did conclude that social media was a mistake. I was already worried about the recentralization of digital media. The current dominant role of social media is the culmination of that trend.

Do you remember what that blog era was like? It felt like liberation.

The era of blogging offered the promise of a decentralized media. Anybody could publish and comment on the news and find an audience. Guys writing in their pajamas could take down Dan Rather. We were bypassing the old media gatekeepers. And we had control over it! We posted on our own sites. We had good discussions in our own comments fields, which we moderated. I had and still have an extensive e-mail list of readers who are interested in my work, most of which I built up in that period, before everybody moved onto social media.

But then Facebook and Twitter and YouTube came along and killed the blogs…. A few of the best and most interesting blogs became full-fledged online publications, but a lot of the small, quirky, one-person amateur bloggers moved onto social media. That turned out to be a big mistake, because what the era of social media has done is to recentralize the media. Instead of a million blogs—what Glenn Reynolds of “Instapundit” fame called an “Army of Davids“—we now have a social media economy mostly controlled by three big companies: Twitter, Facebook, and Google.

So we get shadowbanning, totally arbitrary Twitter suspensions, and Twitter throttling the traffic of people they don’t like and controlling what articles you can and can’t tweet links to. We traded the old mainstream media gatekeepers for new, worse, less publicly accountable gatekeepers in Silicon Valley—a new breed of pinch-nosed Puritans with pink hair, piercings, and tattoos, who will shut us down if we don’t use the right pronouns.

The point is not that this is censorship and they should be regulated. The only thing worse than social media controlled by petty tyrants in Silicon Valley is social media controlled by petty tyrants in Washington, DC. In any case, regulation is unnecessary. These platforms have power and influence because we gave them power and influence. The moment enough of us stop doing it, they turn into MySpace.

(This was my rallying cry to quit Twitter, which I did for six months. I am back now, unfortunately, but only because I lost a job and feel the need to be a little more regularly visible to other people in the media business—who are all obsessively on Twitter. Believe me, I’m trying my best to get back off again.)

If you think fears about where social media is going are fanciful, bear in mind that China is already way ahead of us in trying to turn the Internet into an enforcer of the police state, by way of “social credit” scores.

As both the private and public components of social credit expand in China, there’s legitimate concern the system will end up creating an “IT-backed authoritarianism” unlike any other. One independent journalist has already been barred from buying plane tickets because of court fees related to his work, for example….

In a sign that the government is using the social credit system to deepen its control [on] civil society, social credit is being harnessed to crack down on “illegal social organizations.”… The regulations state that one’s social credit would be affected if they were found to be involved in running such an organization. But what makes a “social organization” legal or illegal in China sometimes has a lot to with its political stance. China has cracked down on foreign-funded NGOs, while the same ministry attacking “illegal social organizations” recently required that the legal ones include Communist Party “building” in their charters to “ensure their correct political direction.”

I noted a particular lesson from this for our own public debate.

What is interesting is that a lot of this is non-political and is more like the financial credit score in the US, rewarding some forms of good behavior by lowering costs and reducing barriers for people with responsible habits. But what makes this so ominous is precisely the integration of these aspects of life with politics, in one seamless measure of a citizen’s compliance and conformability.

One of the trends of the current era is the attempt to break down the barrier that separates the political from the personal and to show our disapproval of other people’s political views by blocking the offenders from normal, non-political activities like being able to hold a job or join a club or get into a school. China’s social credit score is a more consistent, “IT-backed” implementation of this approach.

The difference between China and the US is that we are doing this to ourselves. The problem isn’t really Google or Twitter or Facebook. The problem is us.

For example, there is the fact that people use Twitter to create a self-enforcing police state where they inform on their fellow citizens to the authorities. This eventually led me to ask: “what if the problem with social media isn’t the medium, but the ‘social’ part?”

Every social media company sells itself to us by talking about how they’re bringing the world together and helping to “build communities.” Mark Zuckerberg talks about this sort of thing endlessly. But what if all this community-building is the problem? What if it is just functioning as an engine of conformity, tribalism, and small-mindedness?

In other words, what if the problem with the Twitter mob isn’t Twitter but the mob? The PR hype for social media puts a lot of emphasis on the value of getting people together in large groups. But if we observe how people actually behave in large groups, we might question the wisdom of doing so.

Let’s start, by way of contrast, with how people tend to behave when they acquire information on their own. When you read an article, or god forbid a book, you are inherently alone. The author and his arguments are there on the page and you absorb them, think about them, react to them, with no audience to influence you or judge your reaction. It is just you and an idea….

Put people into a group, however, and what happens? People in this kind of public exchange are no longer talking to one another. They’re playing to the crowd. To be more exact, they’re playing to their crowd. They’re talking for the approval of the mob, whether it’s the woke social justice mob or the trigger-the-snowflake, anti-PC #MAGA mob….

Ellsworth Toohey, the apostle of conformism and villain of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, expressed his ideal as a world “where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought in the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbor who’ll have no thought—and so on…around the globe.” She understood well the temptation to see a new or controversial idea and, in deciding one’s reaction, to wonder how others will react, how it will stack up against the consensus of one’s social group or intellectual clique. In the era of social media, there is no need to wonder, because the group’s response will be algorithmically collated, reinforced, and broadcast across your social network with lightning speed, in the very same medium where you probably heard about the new idea in the first place. Social media functions to collapse the distance between private thinking and the verdict of the crowd, because the crowd is always with you.

That literary analogy gives us grounds for a certain degree of optimism. The Fountainhead was set in the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, another high water mark for the acceptance of totalitarian conformity among the intelligentsia. But the novel itself is proof that these demands for conformity will be met with powerful statements in defense of freedom and individualism.

This is true even in places like China, where the legacy of totalitarian control is much stronger and is currently strengthening—but where the head of a prominent think tank recently denounced Xi Jinping’s cult of personality and called for a Chinese “Enlightenment” to make it “a modern, secular, and rational nation-state.”

I noted that this was evidence that the legacy of the Enlightenment is “far from spent,” and this year also saw some prominent debate and defense of Enlightenment ideals. This is a time when we particularly need to go to back to basics and ideological foundations, and that’s exactly what some of us are doing. It’s happening haltingly and with many errors and confusions, but we are at least asking some of the right questions.

I’ll sum up more of that debate after Christmas, when I round up some of the best articles published in The Tracinski Letter in 2018.

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