Silent majority

The great biographer Robert Caro once said, “Power doesn’t always corrupt, but power always reveals.” Perhaps the same is true of the most powerful networks in human history.

Social media has not corrupted us, it’s merely revealed who we always were.

~ Mark Manson from, https://markmanson.net/social-media-isnt-the-problem

There’s a lot of good—writing, concepts, anecdote, data—in this article. But the thing that leapt out at me was something I’d already known, but seem to have forgotten… or, if not fully forgotten, I’d failed to connect it to other things in my model of the world: The idea of the silent majority.

About 90% of the people participating on social networks, are not even participating. They’re simply observing. It turns out that the other 10% are the people with extreme views; not “blow stuff up” extreme, but simply more towards the opposing ends of whatever spectrum of views you care to consider.

Two things to consider: First, boy howdy guilty as charged! I’m on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn— but the only content I post is related to my projects. I don’t engage with anything, reshare… or even, really, participate unless it’s related to a project. *face palm* Woa! I’m literally a member of the silent majority. Perhaps you are to? If 10 of you are reading, then 9 of you are just like me.

Second, because math! If you look at the stream we all like to say, “it’s endless!” Right. There must be thousands of posts, right? I’ll pause while you do math… right. If there are only thousands of posts for me to see, I’m clearly not seeing all the activity from the millions of people. Sure, some of that is the platform filtering, but I have the feeling that the numbers hold true: If everyone posted a lot we’d have thousands of times more stuff flying around.

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The Ice Age persists

The algific talus slopes where relic species persist are steep, built atop limestone—itself a relic from a time, half a billion years ago, when a shallow tropical sea covered what’s now the Driftless. The porous limestone is easily eroded by even slightly acidic water, including rain. As a result it holds numerous caves, sinkholes, cracks, and fissures. These networks of open spaces deep in the hillside were never compromised by glacial steamrollers, and are crucial for the “breathing”—slopes’ respiration.

~ Gemma Tarlach from, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/ice-age-midwest-driftless-geology

There seems to be something special about Iowa. Pockets of Ice Age biodiversity, and Vonnegut, must somehow mean something. Atlas Obscura started as an ecclectic collection of interesting points scattered about the Earth. It’s grown to—in my opinion—rival Wikipedia in the context of places. And then it started producing these place-specific, in-depth articles.

In the endless sea of click-baity, bullet-listed, double-spaced individual sentence fragments posing as a “post” on some social network… because, honestly, a paragraph block of text just scares the shit out of too many people, so we’ll just

space out the phrases

so our feeble minds understand

what the bite-sized thoughts are supposed to be.

I digress. Over decades, I’ve found sources on the Internet that are continual fonts of wonder and joy. I follow them using RSS, and I’m better off for it.

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All social media have their issues

All social media have their issues. The “walled garden” character they create is the antithesis of the traditional Internet philosophy of openness. They are actually consciously designed to be addictive to their users — one company that consults on such issues is actually called Dopamine Labs — and they tend to soak up a huge amount of time in largely profitless strivings for likes and shares. They promote bad feelings and bad behavior: I saw a cartoon listing social media by deadly sins, with Facebook promoting envy, Instagram promoting pride, Twitter promoting wrath, Tinder promoting lust and so on. It seemed about right.

~ Glenn Harlan Reynolds from, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/12/03/twitter-facebook-social-media-bias-political-poison-blogosphere-instapundit-column/2183648002/

It’s a good article with more nuance than any of my usual rants.

BUT

Just go look at that page—presuming it doesn’t disappear, or disappear behind a pay way, etc.— it’s horrible. ABSOLUTELY HORRIBLE. And that page is an example of the “open web” I keep going on about? Sheesh, the cure [get thee onto the open web] is as bad as the problem.

Anyway, I don’t know what to do other than to go on doing my best to create something which I think makes the world a better place. (I also started writing on Substack, and I do as much as I can in the big room with the ceiling that’s sometimes blue and sometimes black.) Thanks for reading!

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Deeply held beliefs

This book is complicated and ambitious. But there’s one thread in particular that I think is worth underscoring. Crawford notes that the real problem with the current distracted state of our culture is not the prevalence of new distracting technologies. These are simply a reaction to a more fundamental reality: “[W]e are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value.” In the absence of strongly-held answers to this question our attention remains adrift and unclaimed — we cannot, therefore, be surprised that app-peddlers and sticky websites swooped in to aggressively feast on this abundant resource.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/07/15/from-descartes-to-pokemon-matthew-crawfords-quest-to-reclaim-our-attention/

Turns out Crawford was interviewed by Brett McKay, another person I’ve often quoted here. I’ve not yet listened but the episode is Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.

Originally I thought “social media” itself was the problem. Eventually it became clear to me that social media is the symptom. People want to be fed saccharine lives through their phones because they’ve never been taught that they need to consciously make decisions about what’s important to them.

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Barely noticeable

The authors note that a core resource of the digital economy is the data produced by users of services like Facebook and Google, which can then be used to train machine learning algorithms to do valuable things like precisely targeting advertisements or more accurately processing natural language. The current market treats data as capital: the “natural exhaust from consumption to be collected by firms” for use in training their AI-driven golden gooses. Lanier and company suggest an alternative: data as labor. Put simply, if a major platform monopoly wants your data to help build a multi-billion dollar empire, they must pay you for it. Offering a free service in return is not enough.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2018/01/17/on-seriously-rethinking-the-digital-economy/

Well, that would change everything.

Imagine I changed the sidewalk in front of my house to have plates that moved slightly as one walks across it. I’ve rigged the plates to absorb some of the motion created during walking to generate electricity to offset my electric bill. Let’s assume further that the movement of the plates is barely noticeable. Perhaps something seems a bit “off” when you walk past my house, but nothing bad happens to you; you don’t fall and you don’t get tired, but you do work just a little harder when walking past my house.

What happens when we scale up that “harmless” little modification to include everyone, walking everywhere?

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Breathing Room

To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.

~ Cal Newport from,
https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/08/25/focus-week-give-your-brain-some-breathing-room/

This tension is not only real, it’s necessary. You need to have this tension; it’s a critical component of how you assess the world by choosing what to filter in and what to filter out. The difficult part, of course, is if you don’t intentionally manage this balance.

How many things just pop in front of you each day? Are you happy with that amount?

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Seneca on Social Media

Over a billion people currently use Facebook — many at the cost of anxiety, lost honor, personal freedom, and certainly time. If asked why, however, many would reply, “why not?” The service is free, conventional wisdom tells us, so no matter how minor the benefits (which tend to orbit around a generalized fear of missing out), they’re still more substantial than the cost. But as Seneca points out, this assessment is misguided because it ignores the human toll of social media.

~ Cal Newport, from https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2016/03/11/seneca-on-social-media/

I generally try to suppress my urge to pounce on opportunities to talk about the well-known downsides of social networks. But a Seneca-CalNewport two-for-one is simply irrestible catnip for me. Here, Newport is referring to the value of one’s own time. That’s the human “toll” that so many people—as far as I can see at least—don’t factor in.

I think I am ready to give up fighting the fight; I’m done [or at least, I really should get a grip, and learn to be done] beating the drum about the evils of social networks. Know what I’m going to do instead? Double-down on creating things on the open web and let people decide what they want to do.

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Common Sense

It’s easier for Artist Today to post to Medium than it is to build her own site so Artist Tomorrow has a place to live when yet another publishing platform dies or becomes watered down by crap. It takes hard work and conviction to build your own thing — and it takes relationships, which are greater investments than ad dollars.

~ Steven Pressfield from, https://stevenpressfield.com/2017/01/common-sense/

I’m nobody. Nobody’s asking me why I’m not posting on Medium. Although, come to think of it, people do ask me why I don’t post on LinkedIn, and some people ask why I left Facebook… Anyway, you didn’t ask, but you’re still reading.

Truth be told, all the problems come from you, the aggregate readers (viewers, etc.) on the Internet. You have avoided doing the slightly-harder-than-droolingly-easy work of finding and following the things you care about. It’s easy to open an account on feedbin.com and to start following what you want to read. (And if something doesn’t play well with FeedBin, then it’s not actually on the open Internet and I encourage you to shun and shame it.) If you actively follow the things you care about, (using the Internet and software of course,) then you don’t need the middlemen; you don’t need the search engines and the social platforms.

Aside: Exactly ZERO percent of the stuff I share and talk about on this blog is discovered by search engines or social networks. (Just checked, and I have 485 things queued up as “that’s interesting, I should read it more carefully and look into it.” It was 486, until I created this post.) The kernels are found through my actively following many hundreds of different things. I receive exactly ZERO email newsletters [that’s a lie, I route a precious few into FeedBin :] Sure, I may go down search engine or social network rabbit holes learning more. But the things I care about I follow intentionally.

Once you start following things, you might even grow to love those things. One day you’ll realize that you even value those things so much that you voluntarily throw some money at them to support their work.

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Sabbaticals are not the solution

What is it about digital addictions that make us think the occasional break will suffice?

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/09/03/digital-sabbaticals-dont-make-sense/

Weekly sabbaticals make no sense, sure. But less frequent sabbaticals are powerful. Take a week off from—whatever, email, social networks, etc.—and your addictions are made obvious. Nothing surprising there. The question is: Do you then consciously bring the addicting drug back into your life?

That’s not hyperbolic soapboxing; That’s a real question for you to consider.

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Dive deep

The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.

~ David Brooks from, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/opinion/brooks-the-art-of-focus.html

I’m not sure I’d call the longing I seek, “terrifying.” But “longing” certainly fits. This idea of finding something that pulls you so strongly as a way to brush away attempted distraction fits closely with the old platitude to, “have a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside you.”

I used to think of my attention as a flashlight; as a thing I needed to narrow by focusing—narrow to illuminate a smaller area with increased brightness. I’ve always found, though I spent years in denial—you know that river in Africa?—that the more I tried to force my attention onto things, the more I felt anxious and uncomfortable. Somewhere around episodes 8, 9 or 10 of John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis there’s a discussion of what exactly is your attention. Hint: It’s not like a flashlight that you can intentionally point, and then having pointed it your mind will focus on that target.

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