Definitely not missing the bird

Next week Tuesday (27 November) will mark the 1-month point since I decided to completely ditch Twitter from my daily routine. On Tuesday itself I’m likely to be very busy, but I wanted to take a moment to write some feedback on this experiment.

I can confidently say I don’t miss it one bit. The trade-off just wasn’t worth it: For every connection that was worthwhile, there were at least 20x more knee-jerk reactions and vapid hot takes, and 100x the volume of neurotic, click-bait psychic garbage swirling around a monetized trash compactor explicitly designed to make people feel angry. It felt like mental chemotherapy except it was also giving me cancer.

Twitter had basically become an abusive relationship. For the slim chance that something nice might happen, I was hanging on through torrents of garbage that made me jealous, depressed, despondent (specially the South African political feeds!), and ultimately self-destructive.

Granted, there are much better ways to use Twitter, and there are definite upsides to staying informed. Keeping abreast of major news stories is the easiest form of social currency there is, and it’s a great way to stay updated on interesting projects and useful tools. I was using it badly – as an actual social network.


Even the rage engagement is not real rage. It’s a faux rage. No one writes a snarky reply to @realdonaldtrump because they’re really engaging with The Donald. No, they’re posting to their mirror engagement crew, who they know is also in a rage engagement with @realdonaldtrump. It’s not even virtue signaling. It’s pure entertainment. It’s a simulation where they can “engage” with the President of the United States in the company of their supportive mirror engagement crew. Plus dopamine!

Ben Hunt, A Game Of You

Many months ago an old friend of mine asked me about my daily Twitter habit. He also has a Twitter account, but does maybe one post a month related to projects he works on. I explained that Twitter was becoming the national conversation platform – it was the place that journalists, newsmakers, political parties and influencers converged, and being part of that was probably a smarter move.

It turns out I was wrong, for the reasons so neatly encapsulated in A Game Of You. While there was real engagement (and real connections formed), so much more of the engagement on social media is effectively a simulation: Yes, you’re technically “engaging” with the accounts of notable people and organizations, but in reality your voice isn’t actually heard – and every post is just increasing the risk of damage.

It’s also increasingly performative. The US dealt with this years ago, and South Africa is just catching up to it now. Smart, unethical people have realized that the more outrageous shit you post, the further it circulates, the more it boosts your profile, and the greater opportunities it opens up for you. Yes, it comes at the cost of poisoning the well for everyone, but that’s a small price to pay for quasi-celebrity status.

Then there’s the short-term thinking effect, which has probably been the biggest learning for me over the last month. Twitter (or any fast-paced information environment) doesn’t so much inform you as constantly trick you into thinking you’re learning – but really its just reinforcing the stuff you already believe.

Since quitting I haven’t technically had more time to think, but I’ve been able to think through ideas that take a lot longer. Among them, I’ve been developing a sort of mini-philosophy for how I see the world (more a statement of principles and arguments at this point), and it was only after reasoning through lots of examples I came up with better explanations for things. Hot-take shitposting in humanity’s garbage compactor would have been of little help there.

(Core to that is measuring rules and behavior on a voluntary-coercive axis and balancing it for the maximum liberty of the individual, but that’s better suited for another post.)

P.S.

Then there’s The Noscript Show! Every week, I co-host an hour-long livestream on which we just decompress and unpack the stuff going on in the world. On every successive episode we’ve improved on our production quality, while sticking to the principle that we script absolutely nothing on the show – and it’s a lot of fun to do.

Swinging a double-edged sword

It’s been an interesting few weeks in terms of freedom of speech, and what that means on the internet. On 31 August, YouTube made a small but significant change to its advertising policy – it set new guidelines for monetizeable content, and included rules specifically against offensive content.

In a lot of contexts, that’s pretty justifiable: It shouldn’t ever be the case that a system is put in place that rewards hateful and destructive speech. Under the previous system, ad revenue was pretty much a direct correlation to viewership, and controversy is a constant driver of viewership.

For example, it would be possible to create a YouTube channel that featured nothing but trolling and baiting other people, and not only would you get a response to that, you’d actually be rewarded for your efforts with ad revenue. That cannot possibly be a reasonable thing to reward – it directly fans the flames that make YouTube an unpleasant place to be.

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Trouble is, “offensive” is an extremely subjective and rapidly-moving target – nowhere more so in the US, with college campus politics and ludicrous entitlement driving a new generation of offenderati. A recent, glowing example of this was a Lyft passenger who berated the driver for being racist, simply because the driver had a Hawaiian bobblehead accessory in his car:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3763921/Woman-berates-Lyft-driver-racist-Hawaiian-bobblehead-doll-dash.html

That’s one element to consider. The second is how quickly instances like that are used to fuel internet mobs – groups of people with internet access and nothing better to do. They’ll gang up, post harassing messages on social media, try unearthing private information about their target, and generally try making their lives miserable.

If that Lyft driver in the article above was on social media, he would have been targeted with death threats, his information would have been made public, he’d probably be barraged with phone calls and texts for being “racist” – none of his fault, and all of it perpetrated by what I can only imagine is a mentally unstable woman.

That behavior – distasteful as it is – is a fantastic driver of “engagement” on these platforms. It drives eyeballs to videos, it drives comments (albeit bad), and it drives uploads – mainly rebuttals and rants. And YouTube is, in my opinion, justified in trying to protect themselves from that. Not only because advertisers will be insisting on it, but also just because it’s the decent, human thing to do.

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But because everyone’s so easily offended, and because people can be rallied up into attack mobs, there’s a very real downside: The systems by which YouTube enforces this policy are largely automated, and there’s basically no preemptive defense. If you say the wrong thing on YouTube, or you upset a group of people (maybe no more than 50 people, even), they can rally against you and flag all your videos for inappropriate content. And after a certain point, the system simply starts demonetizing your videos.

That’s a bit of a slap in the face to the people that work on producing great content for YouTube. It takes a lot of effort to build a channel and an audience, and the ad revenue from that was what made it viable for a lot of content creators to keep doing that. There’s a large overlap between the people that are passionate about creating YouTube content, and the people that believe strongly in the views they’re sharing.

And since we’re now living in a world where simply existing is offensive to some people, it’ll become harder and harder for those content creators to justify spending so much time and effort producing content for YouTube (which already takes 45% of all ad revenue), when it’s so easy for someone to get a hate mob together and torpedo your earnings.

YouTube is by far the largest platform for community-driven speech in the world, and they’ve swung a bit of a double-edged sword here. They’ll likely end up with a profitable network, but at the cost of burning down a vital square for public debate.

Meaning that the final holdout just bit the dust. Facebook has been tailoring their algorithms for years, designed to put profitable content in front of you. Twitter’s losing the battle for their independence, and will have to start making larger compromises pretty soon if they want to remain relevant. And now YouTube has thrown their independent content producers to the wolves.

Kinda makes you long for MySpace a bit.