Weeknotes, Sunday 7th June
Some notes on anger
I’ve found myself getting astonishingly angry over the course of the week. There’s a lot to be angry about, but anger never sits well on me for long. The anger is, of course, well placed. Whether you’re angry about the government’s utter incompetence over COVID-19, the structural and personal racism which oppresses black people the world over, or a famous author’s transphobia (and yes, please, let’s not call it anything else), there is much to be angry about.
I’ve come to see social media in general and Twitter in particular as forces for ill in society, not good. That puts in me a small minority: there’s still plenty of people in tech who see the effects of social media as, on balance, a social good. When you see the impact that the awful death of George Floyd had, amplified to billions of people via social media, then you can see their point. Perhaps, now, we will get real change.
But anyone who has worked in social media management will tell you that the way to maximise your reach isn’t to make well-honed arguments but to to provoke emotion, and there is no better emotion to provoke in politics than anger. Twitter is a hate machine. We mock Trump’s Twitter use, but he’s a master at it, because he understands the fundamental rule: when you have people angry, if you want to reach more people, get them more angry still. Pile anger on to anger, until the world is burning.
Social media spread the news of George Floyd’s death further and with more impact than any other medium in history could have, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. But social media doesn’t give us any way out of the anger. It doesn’t give us any “and now what”. All it can do is keep making us more angry, because it rewards making you feel, not making you think.
But anger alone isn’t enough to solve social problems and, worse still, it’s addictive. It feels good, and it overrides the moral brakes in your brain. Anger drives hate-filled cops as well as justified protests. It’s a way to feel powerful in the moment, to feel in control of things that they have no control over.
That makes it doubly dangerous. Not only does it mean you lose control and do things beyond your own moral framework, but it’s gives you the delusion that you’ve already achieved something. Protestors throwing rocks today will have no more power tomorrow than they had yesterday, but get a sense of accomplishment. They feel like they’ve already made a difference.
Getting off social media
Related to all this: Inspired by a conversation with Phil Gyford I’ve set myself the task of writing something on how to remove yourself from Facebook while preserving the benefits of Facebook.
Technically, of course, it’s easy. There’s plenty of platforms which deliver the functionality of Facebook in a more open and ethical way. The challenge is actually discoverability.
The one unalloyed good that Facebook has brought to my life is that it’s genuinely brought me closer to my family. When your parents are alive, they’re often the glue that binds together you and your relatives. They tell you what’s going on, they keep track of who is where, and who has done what to whom. Then they die, and that bond with the extend family vanishes.
Facebook lets you preserve those bonds, but also makes it easier to rediscover them. Without Facebook, I wouldn’t be in touch with my Aunt Shiela, my dad’s last remaining sibling, who lives in Cypress. I wouldn’t be in touch with so many of my cousins, who prior to everyone being on Facebook I wouldn’t have known how to contact. And none of them would have been able to find me, either.
So the real issue with replacing Facebook isn’t “how do you remake the experience” but “how do you make yourself as easily discoverable”? That’s a much harder one to crack.
Things I’ve been reading
These examples of early computing design are almost heart breaking for me. Machines like the PET had the promise of science fiction about them.
Nearly Half Of The Twitter Accounts Discussing ‘Reopening America’ May Be Bots - there isn’t much doubt in my mind that social media is, on balance, bad for democracy.
I'm fascinated by Ian Schrager - from Studio 54 to basically inventing boutique hotels, via a spell in prison.
I've noticed these meeting notes generated by AI creeping into Outlook at work. One of Microsoft and Google’s key words when talking about AI is “useful” - think of Google calling the Pixel 4 “the most useful phone”.
Unsurprisingly, this had the MAGA crowd foaming at the gills, and even drew a tweet from El Presidents himself.
“What I was hired to do was to create a 21st-century media company,” Lynch told me in his glass-enclosed office on Condé’s new executive floor, once the company’s dedicated gallery space. “Part of that is defining what that means, because they don’t really exist yet.”