A Return to Discussion

Epistemic Status: Casual

It’s taken me a long time to fully acknowledge this, but people who “come from the internet” are no longer a minority subculture.  Senators tweet and suburban moms post Minion memes. Which means that talking about trends in how people socialize on the internet is not a frivolous subject; it’s relevant to how people interact, period.

There seems to have been an overall drift towards social networks as opposed to blogs and forums, and in particular things like:

  • the drift of political commentary from personal blogs to “media” aggregators like The AtlanticVox, and Breitbart
  • the migration of fandom from LiveJournal to Tumblr
  • The movement of links and discussions to Facebook and Twitter as opposed to link-blogs and comment sections

At the moment I’m not empirically tracking any trends like this, and I’m not confident in what exactly the major trends are — maybe in future I’ll start looking into this more seriously. Right now, I have a sense of things from impression and hearsay.

But one thing I have noticed personally is that people have gotten intimidated by more formal and public kinds of online conversation.  I know quite a few people who used to keep a “real blog” and have become afraid to touch it, preferring instead to chat on social media.  It’s a weird kind of locus for perfectionism — nobody ever imagined that blogs were meant to be masterpieces.  But I do see people fleeing towards more ephemeral, more stream-of-consciousness types of communication, or communication that involves no words at all (reblogging, image-sharing, etc.)  There seems to be a fear of becoming too visible as a distinctive writing voice.

For one rather public and hilarious example, witness Scott Alexander’s  flight from LessWrong to LiveJournal to a personal blog to Twitter and Tumblr, in hopes that somewhere he can find a place isolated enough that nobody will notice his insight and humor. (It hasn’t been working.)

What might be going on here?

Of course, there are pragmatic concerns about reputation and preserving anonymity. People don’t want their writing to be found by judgmental bosses or family members.  But that’s always been true — and, at any rate, social networking sites are often less anonymous than forums and blogs.

It might be that people have become more afraid of trolls, or that trolling has gotten worse. Fear of being targeted by harassment or threats might make people less open and expressive.  I’ve certainly heard many writers say that they’ve shut down a lot of their internet presence out of exhaustion or literal fear.  And I’ve heard serious enough horror stories that I respect and sympathize with people who are on their guard.

But I don’t think that really explains why one would drift towards more ephemeral media. Why short-form instead of long-form?  Why streaming feeds instead of searchable archives?  Trolls are not known for their patience and rigor.  Single tweets can attract storms of trolls.  So troll-avoidance is not enough of an explanation, I think.

It’s almost as though the issue were accountability.  

A blog is almost a perfect medium for personal accountability. It belongs to you, not your employer, and not the hivemind.  The archives are easily searchable. The posts are permanently viewable. Everything embarrassing you’ve ever written is there.  If there’s a comment section, people are free to come along and poke holes in your posts. This leaves people vulnerable in a certain way. Not just to trolls, but to critics.

You can preempt embarrassment by declaring that you’re doing something shitty on purpose. That puts you in a position of safety.  You move to a space for trashy, casual, unedited talk, and you signal clearly that you don’t want to be taken seriously, in order to avoid looking pretentious and being deflated by criticism.  I think that a lot of online mannerisms, like using all-lowercase punctuation, or using really self-deprecating language, or deeply nested meta-levels of meme irony, are ways of saying “I’m cool because I’m not putting myself out there where I can be judged.  Only pompous idiots are so naive as to think their opinions are actually valuable.”

Here’s another angle on the same issue.  If you earnestly, explicitly say what you think, in essay form, and if your writing attracts attention at all, you’ll attract swarms of earnest, bright-but-not-brilliant, mostly young white male, commenters, who want to share their opinions, because (perhaps naively) they think their contributions will be welcomed. It’s basically just “oh, are we playing a game? I wanna play too!”  If you don’t want to play with them — maybe because you’re talking about a personal or highly technical topic and don’t value their input, maybe because your intention was just to talk to your friends and not the general public, whatever — you’ll find this style of interaction aversive.  You’ll read it as sealioning. Or mansplaining.  Or “well, actually”-ing.  And you’ll gravitate to forms of writing and social media where it’s clear that debate is not welcome.

I think what’s going on with these kinds of terms is something like:

Author: “Hi! I just said a thing!”

Commenter: “Ooh cool, we’re playing the Discussion game! Can I join?  Here’s my comment!”  (Or, sometimes, “Ooh cool, we’re playing the Verbal Battle game!  I wanna play! Here’s my retort!”)

Author: “Ew, no, I don’t want to play with you.”

There’s a bit of a race/gender/age/educational slant to the people playing the “commenter” role, probably because our society rewards some people more than others for playing the discussion game.  Privileged people are more likely to assume that they’re automatically welcome wherever they show up, which is why others tend to get annoyed at them and want to avoid them.

Privileged people, in other words, are more likely to think they live in a high-trust society, where they can show up to strangers and be greeted as a potential new friend, where open discussion is an important priority, where they can trust and be trusted, since everybody is playing the “let’s discuss interesting things!” game.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the world doesn’t look like that high-trust society.

On the other hand, I think the ideal of open discussion, and to some extent the past reality of internet discussion, is a lot more like a high-trust society where everyone is playing the “discuss interesting things” game, than it is like the present reality of social media.

A lot of the value generated on the 90’s and early 2000’s internet was built by people who were interested in things, sharing information about those things with like-minded individuals.  Think of the websites that were just catalogues of information about someone’s obsessions. (I remember my family happily gathering round the PC when I was a kid, to listen to all the national anthems of the world, which some helpful net denizen had collated all in one place.)  There is an enormous shared commons that is produced when people are playing the “share info about interesting stuff” game.  Wikipedia. StackExchange. It couldn’t have been motivated by pure public-spiritedness — otherwise people wouldn’t have produced so much free work.  There are ordinary, human, social motivations for this kind of engagement: the desire to show off how clever you are, the desire to be a know-it-all, the desire to correct other people — and their more positive cousins, such as obsession, fascination, and the delight of infodumping. Communication based on sharing interesting things isn’t some higher plane of civic virtue; it’s just ordinary nerd behavior.

But in ordinary nerd behavior, there are some unusual strengths.  Nerds are playing the “let’s have discussions!” game, which means that they’re unembarrassed about sharing their take on things, and unembarrassed about holding other people accountable for mistakes, and unembarrassed about being held accountable for mistakes.  It’s a sort of happy place between perfectionism and laxity.  Nobody is supposed to get everything right on the first try; but you’re supposed to respond intelligently to criticism. Things will get poked at, inevitably.  Poking is friendly behavior. (Which doesn’t mean it’s not also aggressive behavior.  Play and aggression are always intermixed.  But it doesn’t have to be understood as scary, hostile, enemy.)

The advantage of this attitude is that it’s a healthier environment for critical thinking. It’s not nearly enough to get you to a rational utopia beyond bias, of course, but it allows errors to get corrected at all, which is important in an age of abundant misinformation.  And it motivates producing interesting original content, which is how you get the raw material for a shared community knowledge repository.

Nerd-format discussions are definitely not costless. You’ll get discussions of advanced/technical topics being mobbed by clueless opinionated newbies, or discussions of deeply personal issues being overrun by clueless opinionated randos.  You’ll get endless debate over irrelevant minutiae. There are reasons why so many people flee this kind of environment.

But I would say that these disadvantages are necessary evils that, while they might be possible to mitigate somewhat, go along with having a genuinely public discourse and public accountability.

We talk a lot about social media killing privacy, but there’s also a way in which it kills publicness, by allowing people to curate their spaces by personal friend groups, and retreat from open discussions.   In a public square, any rando can ask an aristocrat to explain himself.  If people hide from public squares, they can’t be exposed to Socrates’ questions.

I suspect that, especially for people who are even minor VIPs (my level of online fame, while modest, is enough to create some of this effect), it’s tempting to become less available to the “public”, less willing to engage with strangers, even those who seem friendly and interesting.  I think it’s worth fighting this temptation.  You don’t get the gains of open discussion if you close yourself off.  You may not capture all the gains yourself, but that’s how the tragedy of the commons works; a bunch of people have to cooperate and trust if they’re going to build good stuff together.  And what that means, concretely, on the margin, is taking more time to explain yourself and engage intellectually with people who, from your perspective, look dumb, clueless, crankish, or uncool.

Some of the people I admire most, including theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson, are notable for taking the time to carefully debunk crackpots (and offer them the benefit of the doubt in case they are in fact correct.)  Is this activity a great ROI for a brilliant scientist, from a narrowly selfish perspective?  No. But it’s praiseworthy, because it contributes to a truly open discussion. If scientists take the time to investigate weird claims from randos, they’re doing the work of proving that science is a universal and systematic way of thinking, not just an elite club of insiders.  In the long run, it’s very important that somebody be doing that groundwork.

Talking about interesting things, with friendly strangers, in a spirit of welcoming open discussion and accountability rather than fleeing from it, seems really underappreciated today, and I think it’s time to make an explicit push towards building places online that have that quality.

In that spirit, I’d like to recommend LessWrong to my readers. For those not familiar with it, it’s a discussion forum devoted to things like cognitive science, AI, and related topics, and, back in its heyday a few years ago, it was suffused with the nerdy-discussion-nature. It had all the enthusiasm of late-night dorm-room philosophy discussions — except that some of the people you’d be having the discussions with were among the most creative people of our generation.  These days, posting and commenting is a lot sparser, and the energy is gone, but I and some other old-timers are trying to rekindle it. I’m crossposting all my blog posts there from now on, and I encourage everyone to check out and join the discussions there.


On Trying Not To Be Wrong

Epistemic Status: Exhortative

I did not expect Donald Trump to become President.

I did not expect him to win, or even get very far, in the Republican primaries. Like many people, I thought the idea of Donald Trump becoming president was “weird” or “surreal” or “not a thing that happens.”  Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, Hillary Clinton went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI.  Surreal, right?


It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong.

Did polls and newspapers and social media fail to see this election coming? Then those sources just took a hit in credibility.

On a longer-term note, if you know there’s a replication crisis in scientific research, that should be shaking up your trust in published papers.

There may be a crisis in politics. But before we can do anything sensible about that, we need to understand that there is a crisis in credence. If the world looks weird to you and me today, that is not a matter for rueful laughter, it is a sign that we are probably badly wrong about lots of things.

And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.

What this election brought home to me is that I don’t want to be wrong any more.

A lot of things people say and write are not really what they think is true about the world. They’re expressions of emotion or identity or solidarity. Arthur Applebee writes about “the affective center” being the prototypical use of language: gossip, relationship-building, sharing feelings.  Evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller thinks that language, as well as the high intelligence needed to navigate social relations, evolved in humans through sexual selection.  We are built for these “soft” uses of language and thought: to relate, to bond, to politick. Doing that feels good and intuitive and healthy. It feels “human”, because it is.

It is, of course, also not truth-seeking. We have a host of cognitive biases, particularly in these normal, social uses of speech.  Much of it is bullshit, in Harry Frankfurt’s terminology: not so much lies as not about truth in the first place.

But it is possible for language to be used in ways that do point towards truth.  Arguments where premises follow from conclusions — when people are reading to check whether premises follow from conclusions and facts are supported by evidence — actually do hold independently of shifting social contexts.

What that requires socially is for people to do something quite unnatural. Instead of going with the flow (relating, politicking, sharing feelings, bonding), it involves breaking the flow. Nitpicking. Disagreeing. Being dry and technical. Fact-checking.

The motto of the Royal Society of London was “Nullius in verba”, or “Take nobody’s word for it.”  The modern scientific tradition was founded by a small group of people defined by the fact that they would call bullshit on things unless they were demonstrated by evidence.  This is inherently disagreeable — literally, it involves disagreeing.

The contemporary flow of social media works to prevent discussion and argument, while earlier internet formats worked to promote it.

A blog and a comments section, or a forum, or an email thread, is set up to encourage discussion.  One has space to write long-form, multi-paragraph essays, which are stored permanently; and then there is ample space for other people to write long-form, multi-paragraph responses to those essays.  One can respond to specific points separately. One can respond to responses, in long nested threads.  It is good form to cite sources (links and hat-tips).  The social reward for writing is getting a response to your writing. The world of blogs and forums provided an alternative to mass media that was more discursive and more intellectual.

Newer forms of social media inhibit discussion and promote simpler affective responses.

Facebook still allows threaded discussions, but the unit of attention is the like. You get socially rewarded when lots of people agree with you; agreement, being cheaper than response, will wind up being more abundant and hence more dominant, in a sort of Gresham’s Law phenomenon.

Twitter doesn’t allow room for long-form content, of course, and the first-class actions are liking and retweeting: approval and copying.  Tumblr allows for paragraph-long posts, but has such poor threading that it’s difficult to hold a discussion, structurally prefers images and videos to text, and makes liking and reblogging first-class actions. Snapchat and Instagram are deeply unfriendly to text.

And all of the above social media platforms have an endlessly scrolling feed, which makes conversations ephemeral and difficult to reference.

The incentives are against discussion and towards response. Instant emotional readouts, approval or disapproval.  Image rather than language. Copying rather than original writing.

The medium is designed for agreement, not disagreement. People who can’t communicate in a way that will rack up “likes” or “favorites” tend to quietly withdraw.  And that feels awkward, like they’re spoiling the party, like a kind of Puritanism.

But I also suspect that these Puritans, these disagreeable people, have something to teach us. Especially now.  Especially when it’s become clear that “believing” things out of mood affiliation leads to very wrong conclusions about the world.

Humans love to socialize. One of the things that we like to do with leisure and technology is talk to each other. I’m not denigrating this normal human urge, which finds expression in social media.

What I’m saying is that one of the remarkable things that can be done with human intelligence, language, and socializing is to have discussions. Arguments. Conversations. Science is a form of conversation, as is philosophy.  Out of the natural “affective center” of gossip can come something that is a bit more unnatural but extraordinarily powerful: you can come to reliable and referenceable common knowledge.  You can refer back to “oh, yeah, on February 15th Bob did this experiment and on February 16th Alice tried it herself and got the same result, and then Carl found a flaw in the design so it turned out Alice and Bob were wrong.”

It’s not about liking a claim, it’s about being convinced by it.

I’m not talking about something that necessarily has to be high-minded and out of reach, or something that will singlehandedly fix the problems we face.

But it seems really useful now to start having discussions again. On blogs, on forums, on email, in contexts where it’s socially rewarding to disagree and pick things apart, rather than to merge into mobs of agreement.

It’s urgent to figure out what is going on in the world and how we can keep it from hurting us.  And that means our errors need to be corrected.

If this seems kind of dutiful and unpleasant, compared to the warm rush of likes and reblogs and image-sharing, consider that it’s actually kind of fun in its own right to have arguments and discussions and to dig into the nitty-gritty. It’s the nerdy kind of fun that gets a kick out of details, out of facts, out of messing around until things click into place satisfyingly.  It’s the mental equivalent of the kind of fun it is to make things with your hands, or to play games.

The Scottish Enlightenment was a little, well, Scottish.  What are the Scottish stereotypes? A little grouchy, a little ornery, a little stingy.  Hard-headedly practical.  Blunt. In other words, there’s a kind of healthy disagreeableness, that says “don’t give me bullshit”, and “don’t rip me off”, and “I’m sure as hell not going to kneel to you” and “I may not be rich or powerful, but I’m honest”, and “I built machines that work, dammit.”  In a world where liking and agreeing is the currency, I think we are likely to underappreciate the virtues that go with disagreeableness.

I’m going to lean more into disagreement and fact-checking. I’m going to try to appreciate the people who say “not exactly” instead of going with the flow. I’m going to aim to have my discussions in contexts that are actually designed for discussion.  I care about not being wrong, now, in a way I really didn’t before.  And I encourage others to consider doing the same.