Faustian Bargain

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

I had an interesting encounter on Twitter a few days ago, the implications of which have been stirring in the back of my mind since.

I rejoined the fray about a month ago, with the intention of using Twitter very differently than I had before. For one, I only follow news organizations and people that I know well outside of Twitter. Secondly, I try not to get engaged in hot-button social or political issues, since there’s generally not much benefit that comes out of those conversations.

Mostly though, I had intended to keep more of my posting activity focused on useful things – like the stuff I’m building, or how my journey as a freelancer is progressing. On balance I don’t think I’ve really achieved that so far, and I do honestly lament that fact.

And then something interesting happened. In another thread, I was commenting on Gwen Ngwenya’s resignation as the DA policy head (a big deal in liberal politics), and as usual, I tried to see it from perspectives everybody else was ignoring.

Like how she’s a young, bright, capable black woman who just burned a male-dominated organization for being incapable and disorganized, and what if most of the blowback is just a bunch of insecure men lashing out?

Between that observation and the former tweet, somebody actually took issue with me. Apparently, by both commenting on a political issue in a way they disagreed with, and expressing a desire to talk about things other than politics, I had somehow personally disappointed them.

I didn’t even finish reading the tweet before blocking that person, so I couldn’t tell you what the rest of it said, and my life is not served in any way by knowing it. But it did remind me of Ben Hunt’s mirror engagement theory – an idea that more people should really be familiar with.

I hadn’t realized it up until that point, but apparently I’ve become something of a celebrity to a few people on Twitter. I don’t say that in a self-aggrandizing way – what I mean to say is: I’ve said enough things that enough people want to hear, and by following/liking/retweeting the things I say, some of them feel like they’ve entered into a contract with me.

In that contract (which I’m completely unaware of), I need to provide them with the snippets and hot takes that aligns with their existing beliefs, which they will then boost to their own audiences – in return, I get additional exposure and influence.

For as long as I give them what they want, (they think) they’re giving me what I want – and the moment I break that contract by saying something they disagree with, it becomes my fault.

It’s analogous to sports fans – another concept I don’t really go for. I’ve known fans who get really amped up over their favorite teams and players, then take it deeply personally when these celebrities let them down. Of course, these players have absolutely no idea who their fans are – they’re just playing the game.

Twitter flips that on its head in two ways: It makes it possible for anyone to achieve celebrity status (just tell people what they want to hear), and it makes it possible for anyone to provide realtime feedback when they feel like you’ve violated their implicit contract.

The reason any of this is relevant: I’ve been on Twitter for a long, long time. I joined in 2008, back when there were so few people locally, you could count them by hand.

Twitter back then was an absolute treasure. A network full of early adopters that weathered service outages because it meant connecting with other early adopters. Twitter was the counter-culture, an “underground” network where we could be vulnerable and honest, and find empathy and common ground with people all around the world.

And then it started going mainstream. The Obama campaign used social media to take the White House, setting a precedent in US politics. Over time, here in South Africa, as the uptake grew, so did the potential for political warfare.

It’s a great deal for failing news organizations: Twitter is a constant source of drama, easily repackaged as engaging news segments. With political parties joining the fray, it’s now a battleground of ideas. When Bell Pottinger rolled out their social media offensives as part of the Gupta PR campaign, they were playing from a well-established handbook.

Today, Twitter is basically a toxic hivemind. Give it what it wants, and it rewards you with completely undue social influence – a rapid conduit to getting your message out via established and credible news organizations.

There’s every benefit to being a crowd-pleasing hack. Roll out the hottest takes, never apologize for getting things wrong, never back down, never stop making your fans feel like they made the right choice in defending you to their friends.

Create and maintain a caricature of yourself that appeals to people that would rather not put any thought into their own arguments, and will instead impulsively agree with anything that feels right to them – even if completely illogical. Do this, and you’ll end up famous (and possibly, wealthy).

But it’s a Faustian bargain: You can never be your honest self, and you must always please the crowds that give you power. Displease the hivemind, and it will literally ruin your life.

You’ll get harassed off the platform, then your personal information will be dug up and routed to people that take absolute pleasure in making your life miserable. It’ll kill your brand, your business, and in some cases, may even drive you to kill yourself.

Given the way those incentives are set up, it’s no surprise that South African Twitter is slowly becoming more toxic as it enters into the mainstream. It’s old-school pedagogy reinvented for modern technology. A true flattening of the hierarchy that never stopped to question if the hierarchy had any merit – if there was a reason we only let certain people have major platforms and massive social influence.

In any case, this is what we have to deal with. For my part, while I will occasionally apologize for not meeting my own goals, I’ll never apologize for having complex opinions, or being honest in their expression.

This means I’ll never be popular, but I’m 100% okay with being myself. At the end of the day, that’s far more important to me.

Late-stage internet

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

Here’s a cheerful thought for you as we head into 2019:

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot.

Max Read, Intelligencer

That’s from this beautiful rundown on Intelligencer – essentially a laundry list of all the ways in which the Internet has disrupted human connection.

It doesn’t even mention the pre-social media scourge of email spam, which at one point accounted for over 90% of emails sent worldwide. Every platform has its spammers, all eventually learning roughly the same thing: That gaming the system is profitable. But like any single-minded attempt at extracting wealth, it leaves the entire ecosystem in disarray.

Simply put, the web is no longer human. It’s been co-opted by machines, optimized for our most basic impulses, reinforced by the massive accumulation of the resulting wealth. The tech boom has left a wake — empathy, humanity and truth, receding into history.

I wrote that a year ago (here, on Medium) almost hoping that 2018 would signal some sort of reversal of the trend. It was published in the middle of peak blockchain hype, during which I had a great deal of optimism for the way public chains might address the scourge of fake news.

(It hasn’t happened, and now seems less likely than ever)

I first got online in primary school, and the internet has been a massive fixture in my life. It’s where I learned the skills that landed me my first job, it’s where I’ve built a career and relationships that now span decades. I’ve always thought of the internet as a net benefit – that connecting lots of people from all over the world was a fundamentally good thing.

On the longer scale of history though, it was really doomed from the start.

Within the first few weeks of starting my first job, somebody pointed out something that I have since come to accept as a fact: That without porn and advertising, the internet would be a handful of boring websites and productivity tools.

Porn has a unique effect on technology: in that it drives the development and adoption of new things faster than any other drive, which I guess makes sense given that we’re human. If you want to know more about who we are as people (and I kid you not) PornHub’s Insights blog is recommended reading.

It’s the advertising that did us in, though.

For as long as there’s been audiences, there’s been ad sales. For as long as those ads were “external” to us (they existed in a context that let us clearly differentiate reality and advertising), they were mostly harmless.

The TV ads of the 1950’s embodied this, with the content and tone mostly being conversational – not unlike how a salesman would pitch you in person.

Archive.org has a fantastic collection of these. It might amuse you to know that even back in 1954, TVs were sold on size. This RCA Master 21″ TV commercial illustrates it beautifully:

From archive.org

Advertising has changed over the last 50 years, though. Modern ads present a supernatural version of reality: The models are photoshopped, the food is fake, products are sold on emotion and status rather than practical considerations. Here’s an ad from 2017 – see if you can spot the differences.

Which again, is largely fine if you understand that you’re being advertised to – between segments of a TV show, breaks in the news, before a movie, before a YouTube video. Being able to put the information in the proper context is what’s important here – and it’s that exact thing that’s been under attack most recently.

Influencer marketing is my second-least-favorite form of insidious advertising. It’s simple: Gain a loyal following and then subtly promote products without actually promoting them. Just make them part of your “lifestyle” on whatever social platform you’re on, and make sure the purchase links are readily accessible.

It works, too – far more than any other form of marketing.

Influencer marketing definitely has it’s social downsides (among them, collapsing the distinction between identity and brand preferences), but I can’t be too upset at this. This sort of marketing reaches the same demographics as tabloids and daytime TV talk shows – people who are easily influenced and apparently see no downside to that.

My least-least-favorite form of insidious advertising has to be Native Advertising – news and editorial functions incorporating paid content under the guise of being news.

That was in 2014, and the practice hasn’t slowed down at all. It’s at the point now where people cannot distinguish between news, and content designed to provoke a response and rake in ad dollars.

In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News, and others

Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed News (link)

That was in 2016, the year we reached some truly ironic situations: Like a for-profit content site publishing sober analyses on news media consumption patterns. At the same time, public interest in the concept of fake news reached sky-high levels, as it helped put the former host of the Apprentice in the White House (the moment reality finally broke).

You want to know the best part though?

People are basically losing interest in the concept altogether. Fake news is now just another part of daily life – another thing to watch out for, like 419 scammers and encryption ransomware.

This is 2018 now. The internet is awash with fake news, churned out by dodgy operations that capitalize on the weaknesses in anti-fraud algorithms on display markets (like Google AdSense). Any place where content can earn money, people are gaming the algorithms (to terrifying extremes). Social networks, desperate for engagement, are slow to act on containing any of this.

All of it ultimately driven by advertising. Businesses want to reach people, people are spending time online, and so the ad dollars flow.

It might have been better if the internet was just email and porn. At least we wouldn’t be questioning whether or not we share the same reality – an actual problem that surfaced during the Kavanaugh debacle.

There is a state of the world where Kavanaugh assaulted Ford in 1982, and there is a state of the world where he did not. Pick one. Now. And once you’ve picked, you no longer co-exist in the same political reality as someone who picked differently. You are truly – and I mean this in a very literal sense – in different worlds.

Ben Hunt on Epsilon Theory (link)

This is why I think we’ve reached late-stage internet. For the longest time, the internet was an escape – a world that existed beyond the physical world, where the same rules didn’t apply, and people were free to explore and experiment.

Then it crept into the mainstream, with the confluence of incentives from hardware manufacturers, ISPs, news organizations, tech startups and advertisers drove the internet into everyone’s home, then everyone’s pocket.

Personally, I have it down to Obama’s election as the moment the internet went mainstream (he used Twitter to great effect). As soon as anything can be used to wage political war and influence the outcome of a public event, its impact makes it mainstream by definition. Tobias Stone calls it “The Great Cyber War“, and it’s hard to disagree.

And so now we’re here: The internet, a daily reality for most people in the connected world, is a primary mode of engagement. The badly-designed incentives and tradeoffs that put ads everywhere, and encourage malicious actors to skirt the rules for cash, consistently weakens our ability to trust what we read. And then there’s the politics, in which it’s essential that one side hates and fears the other, with well-resourced propaganda machines moving their operations into the most effective theater of operations the world has ever seen.

With any luck, we’ll end up in a future where Twitter bots troll the algorithmic influencers and leave the rest of us alone to get on with the business of being human.

Definitely not missing the bird

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

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

This post is more than a year old. The information, claims or views in this post may be out of date.

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.