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Transcending algorithmic outrage
A practical approach to curating your attention and distilling truth
Twitter and other Web 2.0 platforms are engineered to maximize your time and attention on their apps, thus driving advertising income. Such an approach has numerous unintended consequences, the most immediate of which is rewarding polarizing, emotional, or contrarian opinions at the expense of nuanced, reserved, or conventional ideas. The former baits you to engage: to denounce people you disagree with and to extoll those that attack hated adversaries. It’s paramount that you understand the game that is being played, or you will fall victim to it. The information that you consume on these platforms is not delivered to you in a neutral way: it is engineered with the express purpose to enrage you, shock you, offend you, or otherwise bait your sustained attention and engagement. There is a cumulative effect that is even more damaging: over time, uncritically consuming this algorithmized information changes how you think. Much of the polarization in society today is attributable to precisely this: Web 2.0 virality dynamics reward and reinforce groups that love to hate each other. Much has already been written on the societal danger of mainlining social media. Rather than explore this, I intend to instead offer advice on how to consume algorithmatized information in a way that not only avoids these risks, but is a net positive for you the way that it has been for me.
Twitter and other Web 2.0 platforms are enormously valuable. Instantaneous access to the smartest and most influential people has never been easier. I have made truly incredible friends on Twitter… people I never would have come across in my daily life who I went on to meet in person, forge enduring relationships, and make better personal and financial decisions. Yet in many ways, I’ve been successful at this in spite of Twitter. To succeed, I’ve had to forcefully resist the tremendous pressure to engage in the kinds of things that are rewarded on Twitter. While this may seem overstated, it actually requires a great deal of self-discipline to consistently not engage with those who, for example, call you names or belittle the things you care about. Despite my best efforts, I still fail sometimes. Opting out of Twitter’s algorithm games also means accepting that I will never have a big account. Rather than fame or fortune or endorphins, I’ve made the conscious decision to reject these and use Twitter to be a better informed person.
All-consuming flame wars, emotional appeals, and populist contrarianism are how you go viral on Twitter. I’ve witnessed it personally. Several friends have taken this approach: using Twitter as a platform to emotionally deride popular villains, or to make wild claims. While my account has sputtered along, theirs amassed giant followings. Even failed predictions, when sufficiently shocking, can net the purveyor of such failures with hundreds of thousands of new, doting followers. The losers in this scenario are the followers themselves. These uncanny dupes are being manipulated for engagement and their worldviews are being melded and warped to serve as ample engagement fodder for their adversaries. Both sides are being groomed to hate (and thus engage with) each other by the algorithm to serve the desires of the almighty god of engagement.
My goals for you, then, are twofold: to save yourself from the poor life decisions that uncritical consumption of Twitter can result in, and to maximize the real upside that these platforms can offer.
The first lesson is to be wary of big accounts. With rare exceptions, big accounts are by definition winning the engagement games on Twitter. The way that you “win” is by participating in this deleterious spiral that I described: posting emotional appeals, contrarian falsehoods, or deriding popular enemies to amass a large horde of followers. These followers, in turn, are deluded into an alternate reality primed for further outrage and engagement.
You need to unfollow and mute these big accounts to release their shackles on your brain. Exceptions to this rule are accounts that are large due to some acclaim outside Twitter or Web 2.0 engagement incentives. In other words, if you follow the large account of a famous musician or chess-master, that is acceptable because their accounts grew for reasons extrinsic to Twitter’s algoritmatized outrage. These aren’t people who are being rewarded for manipulating you.
You need to be constantly managing and updating the reputation of those you follow. When they make predictions or forecasts, you need to actually follow up and see if they materialize. If their forecasts don’t come true, you need to look back to their account and see if they offer a contrite explanation. Do they acknowledge they are wrong in an honest way? Admitting you are wrong requires courage and justifies your continued attention. Or, do they (for example) dilute their past prediction into something unprovable or create some new drama that distracts from their mistake? Such dishonesty warrants no more of your time: these people are merely playing algorithm games and are unworthy of a single additional unit of your attention.
It is essential to follow and pay close attention to people who have a different worldview than you. Numerous times, I have found mistakes in my own assumptions by carefully considering alternative points of view. For example, during the Hong Kong protests, I was (and remain) an ardent supporter of the pro-democracy activists. Yet, in retrospect I romanticized the protesters and wasn’t honest with myself about real excesses I saw within this movement. Reading reports of anti-mainland Chinese slurs and insults from protesters spurred me to talk to mainland Chinese friends about whether such an element existed within this group that I had idealized. Indeed, I spoke with a mainland Chinese friend who had even traveled to Hong Kong to participate in and support the protests at great personal risk, and she herself was a victim of insults hurled at her for being a Mandarin speaker. By recognizing my own bias in support of the democracy protesters and by dutifully following and considering the point of view of its critics, I was able to resist the impulse to reflexively dismiss criticism of the protesters and instead gained a more nuanced and better informed opinion.
When surprising claims are made, you need to actually take the time to check whether they are true. This seems simple, but almost no one actually does it, they just keep scrolling their timeline looking for the next algorithmic dopamine hit or consoling echo within their digital chamber. I was recently reading a book written by a Twitter guru that I am quite critical of (as part of my effort to expose myself to divergent worldviews). Therein, the author describes what he views as the state control of Western media:
[In] 2021, Ukraine was widely reported to be a corrupt country full of Azov Battalion Nazis. By mid 2022, those reports would have been reclassified as “disinformation” and pushed down to page 10 of the search results
I was surprised by this claim: was it truly “widely reported [that Ukraine was] a corrupt country full of Azov Battalion Nazis” prior to Russia’s invasion? This was certainly surprising to me as I had no such understanding of Ukraine from that time, despite my interest in the area. The author cited two articles to support his claim, so I read each in their entirety. The first article was from the Guardian, that describes the Azov Battalion as representing “volunteers,” “a minority among the Ukrainian forces,” and that it is of concern to Ukraine’s government “due to the far right, even neo-Nazi, leanings of many of its members.” The second article from Time describes how this same Azov Battalion used social media to inspire other far-right groups overseas. While both articles are certainly troubling, neither supports the sweeping claim of Ukraine being understood as “a corrupt country full of Azov Battalion Nazis” and instead the problems with the Azov Battalion seemed to be a widely known problem even among the casual observer of Russia’s invasion. In fact, paging through the New York Times just two weeks ago, I found a prominent report further describing the troubling aspects of Nazi symbols within Ukraine’s army. Indeed, such reporting wasn’t forbidden or labeled as “disinformation” at all. For whatever reason, the claims this author made didn’t match the sources he was citing, and I revised the credibility I assigned him to reflect that.
Twitter is designed to pump your veins full with the information equivalent of high fructose corn syrup to fatten you up and sell you for slaughter to their advertisers. At minimum, you must opt out of this system. Failure to do so will turn you into a contrarian crank like it did to so many of my friends. You will make bad personal and financial decisions. You will constantly be wrong, but rather than acknowledging and learning from it, you will open Twitter for your next dopamine hit on some fresh new contrarian outrage to be wrong about. Perhaps your swelling follower count will offer solace to your advancing brain rot.
On the other hand, if you are disciplined you can actually learn and thrive from the information on these platforms. Few succeed on this path, as it requires you to disengage from emotional Twitter bait, constantly update the credibility of the people you spend your attention on, follow up on forecasts and predictions, be mindful of your own biases, and to do the hard work of cross verifying claims made. This is a significant time commitment, and quite frankly, many are better off reading professional journalism with long track records.
But if you’re like me and want to see for yourself the beating heart of the internet, this is the way.