a few thoughts on internet conformity

So a study came out saying that social media causes conformity.

1. I actually almost avoided talking about this story, because it would seem to play too much to my biases, and that’s always boring.

2. I’ve seen people complaining (on social media, naturally) that this study can’t possibly be right because they see plenty of fights on social media. But the point of a study is a) to say things with methodological rigor, and that’s not methodologically rigorous and b) the point is not that arguments don’t happen but that they have a tendency to happen less than they would absent social media, and perceiving a relative reduction like that is very, very hard to do intuitively.

3. One of the basic points that I make about elite internet culture is that it is a culture– a culture that doesn’t like to think of itself as one. That’s often taken as this inflammatory position, but I’m really just pointing out that, despite all the diversity among the people who write the elite internet– the people who write, edit, and lead the kinds of online publications that set the conventional wisdom and define the mood for internet obsessive types– there are commonalities, affinities, and most especially, a shared vocabulary. And talking a particular way has everything to do with what you talk about and how.

4. None of this is nefarious. In fact I think it’s inevitable; I can’t imagine an inherently social enterprise like internet writing not becoming a culture, with social expectations and socially defined– and enforced– norms for its members.

5. But there are consequences. The most obvious ones are political. But there’s also simply the aesthetics of internet consumption. I find the professional internet a frighteningly boring place, in part for reasons that David Sessions and myself have laid out recently. But even besides the economic incentives for everyone to be writing about the same topics, there is the incredibly boredom of when everybody in the Twitterati develops the same attitude towards a show, celebrity, or piece of writing. The elite internet is never worse– never– than when the people who create it decide that so-and-so is just the worst. When everybody suddenly decides that someone is a schmuck, it leads to the most tiresome and self-aggrandizing forms of  groupthink imaginable. Take, for one example, Nic Pizzolatto. I’m not a big fan of his show and I’m not interested in protecting him. But when the entire cool kid internet seemed to decide together that he’s the worst, it led to the most boring kind of writing the internet produces– eye-rolling, affected with weariness, entitled, aggrieved. Boring to read, boring to think about. It’s a version of We Are All Already Decided. Or when everybody suddenly decided that the previously untouchable Louis  CK was suddenly a bad guy. I never thought CK was that good before, don’t think he’s that bad now, but more importantly don’t like reading a concert of the same opinions represented with the same aggrieved and entitled tone. And it crops up again and again, often with musicians or other producers of culture, but usually with pretensions to political critique. And I just find it produces boring, aggravating writing.

6. As a political guy, I dislike the conformity because it excludes minority opinions in a political context that badly needs them. As a typical self-defined special snowflake of a personality, I dislike the conformity because I think adults define themselves through their rejection of popular opinions and because I find the world much more interesting when it is filled with idiosyncratic, difficult, combatitive people. But most importantly for me, as a consumer of internet writing I dislike the conformity because it leads to my least favorite kind of internet writing. When writers online are asserting the aesthetic and political stances that all savvy, decent people share, they are at their absolute worst, playing to the worst tropes and tendencies we associate with online life.

7. From my perspective, and I’ve felt this for a long time, the issue isn’t a lack of fights. The issue is what defines who is perceived as having won a fight. The danger isn’t that people will stop arguing. The danger is that people have come to see arguments as having been won when one side convinces the most people. That is a problem that I find much more worrisome than a reduction in the number of arguments, and one that I find deeply, deeply entrenched in the culture of arguing as an online practice. On social media, arguments that attract the most supporters are usually treated as ipso facto the correct arguments, even when there are systematic biases that incline the majority to support those arguments. The formal systems of assent on social media, your likes and favorites and reblogs, contribute to this dynamic. I can’t tell you how often I’m in an argument with someone online where they will point to the existence of a large group of people who disagree with me as proof positive that I’m wrong. This assumption, that the truth is whatever the crowd holds to be true, has seeped into the collective unconsciousness of the internet. If we want to encourage a more open, interesting, and politically productive debate on social media, changing the definition of argumentative success has to come first.

8 Comments

    1. I think people like me might be part of the problem on that.

      I don’t have HBO and have mostly fallen out of the habit of scheduled TV watching. It’s not that I don’t watch anything, we do a fair amount of DVD/Blu-ray, but I think below a certain threshold it’s easy to just not catch recurring programs. Similarly, the show is long enough that it’s not like I can just subscribe to the RSS feed and catch a three to five minute episode in some down time.

      So basically it’ll take someone telling me “hey there’s a good episode you should watch” to get me as a viewer. That may change at some point, but it will probably take a few more times to pull that off. So if they support it and want it to continue

      On the other hand, that can be done without disparaging those that aren’t fans or claiming consensus or the like.

  1. “the professional internet”

    I obviously know what you’re saying here, but because in 2014 this potential category is so all-encompassingly massive, maybe we ought to define our terms a little more precisely?

  2. “The danger isn’t that people will stop arguing. The danger is that people have come to see arguments as having been won when one side convinces the most people. That is a problem that I find much more worrisome than a reduction in the number of arguments, and one that I find deeply, deeply entrenched in the culture of arguing as an online practice.”

    This seems like something bigger and more instinctive than simply Internet culture. To change the definition of argumentative success and win that meta-argument, wouldn’t you have to convince most people that their definition is wrong? Or, haven’t you already won then?

  3. “I find the world much more interesting when it is filled with idiosyncratic, difficult, combatitive people.”

    One of the reasons you see so much conformity on social media is that among certain types of commenters (ie, known people using their real names and possibly the name of the company they work for) there are workplace repercussions for having an opinion that’s counter to a social media mob. It is just not worth engaging or arguing if it means getting the Eye of Sauron on you, and having that Eye potentially engage your employer. In some cases, technically nobody is supposed to be engaging in politicized arguments, but as long as you’re on the side of the majority nobody is really going to care because there’s no negative attention. To have a minority opinion, hoo-boy, you better be independently wealthy or have a backup plan career-wise, because no employer is going to look into the nuances of your argument or your interesting, idiosyncratic demeanor if you cross a mob and they come for you. And these mobs hunt for sport.

    So, if you agree with the majority opinion, you join in. If you disagree with the majority opinion, you keep quiet. And that results in the embarrassing echo-chamber that social media has devolved into.

  4. I think that our simplistic understanding of democracy contributes to the efficacy of argumentum ad populum (and not just online). People seem to think that >50% of the voting population (in a bipartisan system) have the authority to elect the president because >50% of a group determines truth.

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