Clickers Anonymous

In a post on free speech, Scott Alexander envisions the following scenario:

Alice writes a blog post excoriating Bob’s opinion on tax reforming, calling him a “total idiot” who “should be laughed out of the room”. Bob feels so offended that he tries to turn everyone against Alice, pointing out every bad thing she’s ever done to anyone who will listen. Carol considers this a “sexist harassment campaign” and sends a dossier of all of Bob’s messages to his boss, trying to get him fired. Dan decides this proves Carol is anti-free speech, and tells the listeners of his radio show to “give Carol a piece of their mind”, leading to her getting hundreds of harassing and threatening email messages. Eric snitches on Dan to the police.

His point is that each participant is technically exercising a right to free speech. And yet, on the whole, human expression has suffered. At the end of this demolition derby, each participant probably feels less able to speak freely.

So what do we do? Scott’s scenario is a parable, but it reads like a summary of a real social-media rumble; I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’d summarized a recent Twitter war and changed the names.

Scott thinks we should solve the problem by promoting norms instead of enforcing them. So Bob, for instance, after being called a “total idiot” by Alice, would write a genteel blog post urging people not to call each other idiots. Carol would pen an essay denouncing sexual harassment, but never mention Bob by name. Dan would use his radio show to promote tolerance of diverse views. Eric would have nothing to snitch on.

Each person would focus on championing desired values instead of punishing unwanted behaviors. And over time, as the new values propagated through society, there would be no need to coordinate shaming campaigns or snitch on people, because new norms and pressures would dissuade people from engaging in this kind of rude behavior in the first place. At the very least, free speech abuses would become so rare that we’d be able to punish them effectively through official channels. Instead of targeting random people for widespread sins (“All conservatives are racists! Racists should be fired!”), we’d punish rare violations of widely accepted rules (“Wearing blackface for any reason is explicitly forbidden by the college charter.”)

Alan Jacobs goes one step further. He thinks we should treat this behavior as a kind of addiction, and take the necessary measures to curtail it. Effectively, the people engaged in shaming campaigns would themselves be treated as shameful. Stigmatized as antisocial and unproductive, they would be excluded from polite social gatherings. Good, decent people would teach their children not to tipple, toke, or tweet.

Interestingly, both authors use substance abuse as a metaphor, but to underscore contradictory arguments.

Scott compares social media to marijuana. So many people smoke dope that it’s futile and unfair to criminalize the behavior. By the same token, if everyone’s a jerk on social media, it’s futile and unfair to persecute people for airing controversial opinions. We might not like the behavior–no mother wants her son to be a dithering pothead–but we have to accept that it’s the new normal.

Jacobs goes the crackhead route. Social-media squabbles are so destructive, he argues, and so fiendishly absorbing, that we should counsel our children and our friends to “just say no.”

I’d name a different drug, and ask a different set of questions.

To me, social media abuse looks a lot like alcoholism. Most people get in occasional Facebook feuds, think that Twitter is both fun and a waste of time, and cultivate an image of themselves as web-savvy commentators. Millions of ordinary people also drink too much on occasion, admit that drinking is unhealthy but do it anyway, and choose to see themselves as oenophiles or beerhounds or single-malt snobs. They generally find a way to incorporate both booze and social media into their daily lives, with occasional forays into abstinence or excess.

Some people forswear booze or Facebook entirely, out of proud iconoclasm or stiff-spined puritanism.

And some people, especially but not exclusively young people, have a real problem with self-control, drink till they black out or tweet till they go crazy, cause grief to others and do harm to themselves, and give both drinking and tweeting a bad name.

So what do we do about that last group of people?

Or better yet: what will we do?

I don’t think it’s an accident that people debating these issues glide into comparisons to substance abuse. Connecting social-media use to drug abuse justifies the adoption of a hortatory tone. Here’s how to kick the habit, folks. Here’s how to raise your kids. Here’s how to fight online harassment. Just follow these twelve steps …

But everyone already knows this kind of thing is wrong. People who get in Twitter fights don’t say, “Wow, I just I had an awesome pointless argument with a mob of rando idiots today. Great experience! Really got to blow off some steam.” They say, “Ugh, I got in a stupid fight on social media today.” Then they spend twenty minutes explaining how they were goaded into such an obviously dumb behavior. In the same way, a chronic binge drinker will tell you, “Man, I really overdid it last night,” and go on to explain between bursts of self-deprecating laughter how Charlie kept refilling his glass when he wasn’t looking, and one thing led to another, and you really had to be there, and that’s how he ended up sleeping on the porch floor last night after losing his keys, and boy, wow, he’s really got to stop hanging out with that Charlie character, ha ha, he’ll never make that mistake again, no way.

The problem isn’t just that alcohol is addictive. Alcohol abuse gets paired with tropes and cliches that end up glamorizing destructive behavior. Hey, it’s no big deal, the budding drunkard tells himself. He’s just a party animal who likes to cut loose. Or an artist who’s getting in touch with his creative side. Or a writer, or a rocker, or a working joe who needs a beer to unwind. Or she’s a sharp-tongued socialite living the high life. Or a hard-charging businesswoman burning the candle at both ends.

And you? Well, of course you overdo it at times. What do people take you for, some ordinary boring white-collar office drone? You’re a creature of daring and risk and passion. Drinking is part of how you express yourself.

It all sounds wonderful and edgy and exciting, until you run over the neighbor’s kid, or rape your ex-wife, or ending up sleeping in your sister’s guest room and begging for a part-time job in her pet-grooming business.

And that’s when you realize: all this time you were telling yourself an awesome story about how you were living for bravery and passion and truth, while the normies were a bunch of suckers …?

No, buddy. You were the sucker. You were the one who got played for a dupe, because everyone else who trotted out that party-animal line, they were just having a big old game of make-believe. Only you were dumb enough to take the fantasy seriously.

This is partly why Prohibition doesn’t work. It reinforces the association between addiction and exceptionalism. All the bureaucrats and hypocrites say drinking is wrong, and meanwhile the free spirits are down at the speakeasy, talking about the latest trends and dancing to good music.

I don’t know if Jacobs’s “lecture your kids” recommendation has much effect either, except in a subtle, long-term, hard-to-pinpoint way. My parents told me not to drink or smoke or do drugs. I did so anyway, for all the usual reasons.

Scott’s recommendations? His post is so speculative that I’m not sure what to think. But I wonder if he may have fallen prey, himself, to the twisted logic of addiction.

After, all Scott’s arguing that, as a society, we should frown on certain behaviors–certain speech acts, he might say–including dogpiling, viral shame campaigns, and harrassing people online.

But who approves of this stuff? Who’s he talking to? People who spend all their time on Twitter? Alt-right monsters who pass their days sending pictures of dead babies to feminist bloggers? Professional wokists who think Justine Sacco had it coming? Suey Park? People who send hate mail to Suey Park? He might as well head down to a local frat house this Friday night and start lecturing the drunk bros there about date rape and liver damage.

What matters–what drives the creation of social norms–is that over time, people get sick of bad behavior. They burn out. They wise up. They quit. And they urge others to do the same.

Right now we have two generations who’ve essentially come of age in a state of permanent addiction to social media. It started with blogs, it got worse with Facebook, and it exploded with smartphone push-notifications. Now we’re all slaves to the pleasure center, all looking for ways to retake control. But the bigger problem is that a lot of people are still telling themselves an exciting story, which goes something like this:

Old people just don’t get it. Those stuffy, moralizing hypocrites–white men, centrists, liberals, globalists, establishmentarians–are too crusty and enfeebled to embrace real change. Their tired sermons about speech and social media are just a ruse to help them cling to power. They don’t understand that the authentic voices–the outsiders, the agitators, the agents of unrest–are online now, and that young people, with our social-media dogfights, are going to shape the future. Everyone who truly understands the internet knows that mixing it up online is the only way to shout back at the voices of oppression and build a better world.

So you can spare me your lectures. I’m not some boring, conformist office-drone. I’m a warrior, a renegade, a free spirit, and nothing can stop me from preaching my private truth in my public feed. Yes, it’s draining. Yes, things can get out of hand. But every time some tired, irrelevant scold tries to shut me up, that just convinces me to fight harder.

Which is pretty much the kind of thing young people have always told themselves. The distressing thing is not that twenty-somethings say this stuff. It’s that older people hear the message and take it at face value.

“Sure, I get it,” they say, jumping into the fray. “I agree with everything you’re saying! I even wrote an academic thesis explaining how my generation got here first! And you’re right! Twitter pile-ons are fresh and groovy and totally hip. See? Still got it, baby. This old cat is relevant.”

“I don’t get it,” they say, recoiling in scandalized alarm. “When I was a lad, we respected the norms of polite society and comported ourselves in a civilized fashion. Now, young people think that screaming abuse on social media is what passes for acceptable conversation. These hooligans are going to wreck the country if we give them half a chance. They’re wild and spoiled and uncontrolled, and if we don’t bring down the rod, they’ll never learn.”

And so we get a world where being nasty on social media impresses a lot of people as a form of edgy, vital rebellion, much as getting hammered in the twenties, or high in the seventies, seemed like the fast track to a dynamic life.

The thing is, young people turn into old people. Old people get older. And what looks brave and rebellious in a twenty-year old, and might pass as youthful and modish in a forty year-old, eventually just seems pathetic.

In time, I imagine, we’ll see the emergence of a generation of mature adults who view outrage trolling and Twitter shaming and Facebook fighting as another set of fun but destructive habits, like mixing mystery liqueurs at a house party or spraypainting graffiti on a factory wall. Oh, of course, when they were in college, they did their share of that stuff. They even believed in it. And they have fond memories of the thrill that comes from living at the lightspeed pace of the online gossip machine.

But they’ve also seen people who took it too far. People who got too deep into that scene. People who let it consume them and control them. The clickheads.

Back in college, the clickheads were exciting. They were always worked up about something, jumping into digital battles, riding the highs and lows of the reputation economy. Everyone wanted to be like that. To have that kind of courage and devotion. To rack up all those views and followers. To be involved.

But then … well, it’s hard to say exactly what changed. Years went by. People moved on. It got old. After years of repetitive arguments with strangers, the arguments started to seem a lot less interesting. The followers came and went. The jokes got passé. Services were canceled, data got deleted, trends and communities evanesced like vapid fads. Things that had seemed permanent and important turned out to be frail illusions. All that remains of those old scenes now, the white-hot centers of the cyber zeitgeist, is a muddle of memories and a jumble of numbers. Man, remember that whole Laci Green thing? Remember Hal whatever-his-name-was? Remember doge?

And yet … in this hypothetical future world … there are people who are still into that stuff. Sparring online, day and night. Acting like their feed is the center of the universe. Fighting for their fifteen seconds of viral fame. They’re always talking about some dustup they got involved in that no one else cares about. Somebody outraged them, or maybe they outraged someone else–it’s hard to keep track. They’re boring to talk to and unpleasant to be around. Viral drama ate them alive.

And yes, in this possible timeline of the decades to come–yes, the clickheads still talk about organizing hate-campaigns, ruining a journalist’s reputation, piling on some poor associate professor to “teach her a lesson” and “make a statement.” But people don’t pay as much attention to that stuff anymore, because it all started to seem … well, kind of sad. The hate campaigns backfired as often as they succeeded. The leaders ended up turning on each other, or fell out over obscure disagreements. The authorities stopped paying so much attention, because the public stopped paying attention, because ordinary people got jaded and tired. So someone online is mad about something, they think. Uh-huh. What else is new? Yeah, sure, media outlets still write articles reporting that “Twitter is angry” and that “social media erupted in rage yesterday,” but everyone knows that’s just another form of reality entertainment.

And more time goes by, and subcultures dissolve and reform, and the web outgrows its early reputation as a valiant countercultural frontier. We’re a couple of generations down the road, now, deep into a future in which constant connectivity is as familiar as mass literacy. The clickheads have become figures of contempt and pity, by this time. They insist they can quit the habit, but keep going back. They write essays confessing that their online behavior is actually a worrying symptom of mental illness–and keep going back. They accuse each other of being self-destructive and irresponsible–and keep going back.

Recovering clickheads give public talks about how online flame wars ruined their lives. Maybe they show up at middle schools to warn impressionable kids against going down the same dangerous path. Repentant trolls issue tearful testimonials. Children are subjected to a steady barrage of PSAs and workshops about “posting responsibility” and “knowing when a friend has a problem with social media.” Social-media abuse is connected to a host of personal and medical problems, treated as a synonym for poor social functioning. Outrage-posters from all political factions are stereotyped as overgrown children, unreconstructed basement-dwellers, unprepossessing narcissists. Why can’t they just get it together?

We already see this world taking shape. I think we’re passing out of the “social-media addiction as edgy rebellion” phase and into the “moral panic over an epidemic” phase. Everyone now admits that clickheads are a problem, but people focus on framing the problem in a way that supports pet political causes. (“The alt-right gave us Donald Trump!” “No, SJWs and tumblr liberals gave us both Donald Trump and the alt-right!” “No, the alt-left gave us Donald Trump!” And while we’re at it, did the War on Drugs make the crack epidemic worse, or did the crack epidemic make the War on Drugs worse? Does the opiate epidemic cause social dysfunction, or does social dysfunction exacerbate the opiate epidemic?)

As the generations turn over, even this debate will get old. In everyday life, click-addiction itself will come to seem more important than whatever excuses people give for it. “I don’t care why you’re posting that stuff, I just don’t want to see you ruin your life with it.” Already, I think, we have a silent majority that’s fed up with all the online warriors, or rather, with the behavior itself. People say things like, “I love my sister, but I wish she could control herself online,” or, “I had to go cold-turkey Twitter, it was ruining my productivity,” or, “I’m worried about my friend; he’s getting way too involved in one of those weird online communities,” or, “I wish my husband would put down his phone once in a while; he’s on there all the time, yelling at people online, and it makes everyone in his life miserable.”

So maybe we don’t need to worry about creating new norms around online speech. In some inchoate form, the norms are already here.

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