The State of the Art

So… big changes have been afoot. I’ve been lurking, and one of the lesser changes around here is that I won’t be lurking anymore.

I’ve been writing a book, which now is done, publication date still unknown. I’ve been writing more for Cato’s audience. I’ve been writing here and there a bit. I’ve been keeping busy, more or less.

But basically… I still wasn’t writing as much as I wanted. Something about it requires a kick in the pants, and that’s what you folks can be at your best. A good solid kick in the pants. Just like I need.

CK MacLeod suggested that by way of reintroduction I should offer some thoughts on the state of the art in blogging. Here they are.

1. The Structures Have Changed

Everyone of a certain age remembers the old-time blogosphere. It seemed to have appeared magically, fully formed, on the afternoon of 9/11. A shoulder to rant on. It was exactly what we needed.

Less than ten years later it was mostly dead. But for that short while it was glorious.

The old-time blogosphere died because of changes in how we aggregate. Professionalization didn’t kill it. Professionals were in blogging before, during, and after the golden age, and while “I do nothing but blog, and I get paid for it” was unknown in the early days, that wasn’t the killer either.

Here’s what was.

In the golden age, organizing one’s blog reading was a solitary activity. News aggregators weren’t social at all. Aggregators could work well or badly, and they came and went. The key is that they were run by you, for you. A good aggregator was like a good toilet: unobtrusive, solitary, and clean.

Aggregators were tools, not communities. Feedback, such as it was, went directly to the blog, to which one had already in effect pledged one’s allegiance. The blog was the community.

You all have mostly carried on in that tradition, even as the old aggregation process faded away. For that I salute you.

Today, though, and for most who make Reading Stuff on the Internet a big part of their unstructured time, the community exists not at the blog, but at the aggregation site, which is to say that it’s social: It’s Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, Reddit, and the like. When people write nowadays, they write with an eye to that.

In social aggregation, other people mostly put stuff in front of you. And that stuff becomes the community, through algorithms that most users don’t understand in the least. I don’t pretend to either, but I can say this: Much of it is tuned for outrage; the offhand remarks of others are taken as telling, revelatory, and final.

The reading experience is impersonal and optimized. The desired product is not a reflection, but an emotion. OMG. LOL. WTF.

Or just: TRASHY.

It’s also a business. To be specific, it’s a Target, not an antique shop. Don’t like it? There’s a Costco down the street. Their selection is slightly different, and you may always affiliate with it instead.

The winners in this environment are quick, funny, accessible, shocking, and conventional, at least to the audience at hand. (Yes, you certainly can be shocking while being conventional. It’s the easiest thing in the world.) The winners are memes.

Memes are never discursive. They are never ragged about the edges. A good meme ends a discussion before it begins, because that’s what it’s been artificially selected to do. Even disagreeing with a meme seems somehow in bad taste. And so we don’t disagree, and anyway there’s no one around who would disagree (thanks, social aggregation!), and then false memes proliferate. Not that the old way was perfect – it certainly wasn’t – but nobody fisks anymore, and for that we ought to be ashamed.

The results speak for themselves, and the damage goes beyond mere memes. Do you all remember the piece in Slate that said spooning was sexist? That’s a symptom too:

As you know, this is a stupid thought only an intentionally provocative person would think, and the Internet let the author (whose name we’re also not printing, because we’re not rewarding this kind of thing) know exactly that. At some level, you’ve got to admire the guts: this guy had to have known that no person with real problems on this Earth shared this thought, and yet he spent hours of his human life writing about it before disseminating it on a big media platform with his face next to it.

But it’s still profoundly stupid. And he knows it. And he printed it anyway.

And why?

Because the metric is messed up. The metric rewards Spooning Is Sexist.

Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat—the kings of metrics on the web—tried to warn us about this last year.

“The click had some unfortunate side effects. It flooded the web with spam, linkbait, painful design, and tricks that treated users like lab rats. Where TV asked for your undivided attention, the web didn’t care as long as you went click, click, click,” he wrote in TIME. “In 20 years, everything else about the web has been transformed, but the click remains unchanged, we live on the click web.”

Bingo.

I confess that I’ve Tweeted way more than I should, and I intend to cut back. I want a return to a chattier, more discursive, more local blogosphere. I thank you for leaving the lights on here.

2. Fuck Civility Though. Seriously.

As some of you may already know, I left this space when it dawned on me that I was having essentially the same tiresome conversation over and over again. It went something like this:

Me: Here are some public policy ideas. Here’s what I think of them.

They: What he really means is FYIGM. Because that’s what libertarians think!

Me: Here’s a book I read, and here’s what I think about it.

They: Which is to say, FYIGM.

Me: “FYIGM’ is a gross misrepresentation of everything that I stand for.

They: What he really means is FYIGM.

Me: No, really. I really don’t mean that. Really!

They: That’s just secret libertarian code for “FYIGM.”

Me: Ugh.

They: Hey look, here’s somebody else saying “FYIGM.”

Me: I’m not going to talk about it.

They: Well. We already know what you think.

It’s the same beast, I suspect, that eats the progressive ideology and craps out Spooning Is Sexist. Dealing with it got real, real old. But the worst part about it was having to maintain the stifling pretense of civility.

I’ll explain what I mean.

When a speaker claims he’s being civil, it’s not a pure win. It may seem that way, and for a long time I told myself that it was. But it isn’t. To claim civility is to forfeit the stance of righteous outrage entirely to the other side. It practically begs the other side to take it on.

That is, civility makes the other side worse. Because anger shows that you care.

The other side gets to say, in effect: I care enough to forfeit civility. Definitionally, the civil one can’t do that. Ever. To insist on civility is to appear perpetually shallow and disengaged. Civility sacrifices earnestness.

So… I ended up agonizing a lot about how to be nice to people who hadn’t the slightest intention of returning the favor. All to no good end. It ended up getting presumed, I think – because I was trying to be civil – that I must be pretty smugly satisfied: in favor of the status quo, or at least of the most FYIGM aspects thereof.

And not even all that committed to those! After all, I wasn’t righteously angry.

Having a proper conversation requires, perhaps, some strategic ambiguity about our intentions. And that’s the course that I intend to take: strategic ambiguity. I do hope that I have some other, more interesting conversations in me. And if it happens that you don’t? Then you, dear reader, may go fuck yourself.


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Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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48 thoughts on “The State of the Art

  1. Literally all week I’ve been thinking, “OK, we’re making some progress here, lots of solid content and man do I love fixing typos …. but I wish Jason was still writing posts.”

    Welcome back. You’ve been missed.

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  2. Welcome back J.
    Civility on the interwebs? Horrors. Perhaps you worry too much about offending someone? Who cares. No need to get real excited. If they can’t see your point and they are reasonably intelligent, and you’ve tried several times, they either can’t or won’t. Either way. It doesn’t matter and isn’t worth your add’l time.

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  3. Welcome back.

    Having an ideologically mixed commentariat is not easy because what seems natural and good to one person is evil or at best neutral to another. There is a tendency to believe that other intelligent people can’t look at the same fact pattern and come to a different result or that people believe in stuff you find abhorrent in good faith.

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  4. First of all, I’m thrilled beyond my powers of articulation to see you back. This is not, in my mind, a “small” development. The intellectual heft of the site has just been re-elevated palpably. I’m going to try to keep up with you, and beg for your patience when I fail as I surely shall.

    Second, I’m entirely with you on the power and effect of memes. While amusing, they are not discourse. They should be treated as jokes, with the same gravity assigned to them as we assign a Jimmy Kimmel monologue.

    Third, comments generated to numerous past examplars of your writing demonstrate more than anyone else’s the frustrating nature of the phenomenon I’ve called “Thinking in Shorthand,” which you eloquently illustrate in the complaint that anything someone who identifies as a libertarian says becomes translated into “FYIGM.” I’ll not begrudge a firm response to any repetition of such. But…

    Fourth, I absolutely 100% totally disagree with you about civility in discussion. Like you, I’m confounded that so many people comport themselves such that they cannot disagree without also being disagreeable. But recall that these digs were once called “The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.” Whatever the other taxonomic problems, the “Gentle” prefix to the last word in spoke to a culture of mutual respect and cordiality, a culture which I deeply wish to preserve and foster.

    It can be done. You and I have had many disagreements on diverse substantive matters over the years, Jason, yet I do not recall that either of us has ever written or spoken a disrespectful word to one another. Nor do I anticipate that we ever shall.

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    • It can be done. You and I have had many disagreements on diverse substantive matters over the years, Jason, yet I do not recall that either of us has ever written or spoken a disrespectful word to one another.

      It can be done, yes, but it’s much, much easier with some people than with others.

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  5. Yay!

    That would probably be more convincing if I had bothered to go over to your other blog more than once or twice, but that’s a whole other address I have to type in.

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  6. Awesome! Welcome back Jason!

    To insist on civility is to appear perpetually shallow and disengaged. Civility sacrifices earnestness.

    When I think of those whom I view as most “civil” around here – the people who tend to keep their levelheaded cool nearly all the time, even when baited or provoked – I don’t see those people as shallow and disengaged at all. I see them as genuinely-thoughtful and admirable. I wish I were more like them, as sometimes I’ve lost my cool and I’m not proud of it.

    That’s not to say that there’s necessarily anything wrong with losing one’s cool and becoming uncivil once in a while, which is often at least understandable – and sometimes inevitable, and occasionally even admirable.

    But it’s still not the general ideal, to me.

    In fact, in my experience, uncivility tends to feed into your first header – its “desired product is not a reflection, but an emotion”.

    I ended up agonizing a lot about how to be nice to people who hadn’t the slightest intention of returning the favor. All to no good end.

    Ah, I see the issue. Being civil need not mean being nice (though it can!) Nice is simply the ideal mode of civility, but there are others.

    Sometimes, being civil means knowing your limitations (of patience and stamina, primarily) and knowing your opponent; outlining the points of agreement, and bluntly agreeing to disagree on the rest without needing to draw blood or fight to the last breath. As in real life, walking away from an unproductive and pointless fight is sometimes – probably often – the best choice for all concerned.

    Some interlocutors, through experience, will prove impossible to get even as far as “agree to disagree”; with them, it is ‘civility’ to simply not engage them at all. Not every challenge deserves a response; sometimes, even if the argument itself does warrant a response, the person wielding it has proved themselves to likely be an unproductive debate partner for you, and not worth the trouble of engaging*. If the argument they are making is a good one, a better-matched interlocutor will put it forth sooner or later, and you can engage it then; or address the argument itself in a later post of your own. “Civility” in this case is simply letting the other person say their piece, which may stand or fall on its own merits, sans any direct response from you.

    In short, pick your battles; save your powder; take a deep breath, and try to see the funny or absurd side.

    And please stick around, this place is better with you here.

    *note that this person does not have to be a bad person, nor arguing in bad faith; there are simply some people whom by dint of temperament or life history will never, ever see eye to eye. And that’s OK. It’s 100% possible to show respect and civility to someone else by choosing to not engage in repetitive, destructive patterns of social intercourse which make both of you unhappy.

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    • Hey, nice avatar!

      In a related note, the young woman at the record store made me feel like the world’s oldest living man the other day by looking at me like I was speaking some strange foreign language or just delusional when I asked if they sold 45 adapters.

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  7. tl;dr: FYITTGMACSNIHTGYAMIM (Fuck You, I Tried To Get Mine And Couldn’t So Now I’m Here To Get Yours And Make It Mine)

    More seriously, welcome back. More intelligent thinkers here is always a good thing.

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  8. Really glad to see you back! I first discovered you over at BHL where you quickly became one of my favorite writers. And when I became disappointed / disillusioned with them relative to their stated mission, I followed you over here.

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    • I think it’s the idea that everything is worth critiquing on a large level.

      It’s not enough to say “I like ketchup on my eggs.” It’s not even enough to say “if you haven’t been putting ketchup on your eggs, you’re missing out.” Until recently, “You’ll never believe what this person put on his eggs!” was sufficient, but it’s fallen into disfavor.

      You now have to say “If you aren’t putting ketchup on your eggs, you’re doing it wrong.”

      For this specific case, it’s getting that treatment for “sleeping with your life partner? You’re doing it wrong.”

      Until recently, how two people slept with each other was considered something that would be crass to critique.

      But here is an essay that comes out and says “nope, you should be touching butts”.

      Not “this is a matter of taste”. Not “this has made my life better”. This is “You have been doing it wrong.”

      If you want a lot of hits, find out something (SOMETHING TRIVIAL!!!) that 57% of the country does and doesn’t even think about it. Then write an essay explaining how they’ve been screwing it up.

      Not only will some people feel aggrieved, you’ve got 43% of people who will jump in and say “hey, me and bae have been touching butts and we think it’s a lot better”, “my spouse and I sleep in such a way that our feet are at the other’s head”, “this essay offends me because my wife and I sleep in separate twin beds!” and, suddenly, you’ve started a food fight.

      Which, if it involves clicks, is monetizable.

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      • I don’t follow. I mean, none of this is new. It’s supposed to be amusing/satire (“semiotic violence”? Really?) – I mean, it’s not all that funny, but that’s neither here nor there. If I re-publish “A Modest Proposal” under my own byline, it’ll get a lot of clicks too. Same as it ever was.

        I mean, we humorously had The Great Sandwich Wars (UR DOIN IT RONG) around here. God help us if the larger Internet world got wind of it. We’d look like a buncha idiots too.

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        • They’re calibrating their clicks, though. If you publish something political/partisan, eventually people will say “oh, they’re from THE OTHER SIDE” and stop going there. (“Can you believe what they said at Kos/Redstate???” is played out. It’s no longer sexy.)

          This is a full exploration of the whole “toilet paper under/over” debate as they mine for more things that people have preferences for (even strong preferences for) but preferences that, to this point, have been unexplored.

          But it’s like a super-saturated solution. Add a crystal that says “the way that most people do a trivial thing (and have always done this trivial thing) is wrong” and, suddenly:

          https://youtu.be/BLq5NibwV5g

          Soon, they will discover the next thing that is, effectively, the over/under toilet paper debate.

          And we will see this argument all over again.

          Until it is no longer sexy.

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        • If I were in a particularly cynical mood, I might speculate that people are overreacting to this one for two reasons: one, the Internet is full of ridiculous crap and for whatever reason, this one just happened to be the last straw. It’s “provocative”? It’s “stupid”? It’s “attention-seeking”?

          Why, yes, it is; and so is almost anything that seeks to amuse or entertain, to one degree or another.

          The other is that the piece uses terminology associated with hot-button issues that all right-thinking people normally treat as Very Serious, specifically sexism – but it’s using those terms and concepts in service of a fundamentally (and intentionally, IMO) Very Unserious argument – and moreover, one made by a gay man, who really should be progressive enough to know better than to make jokes about Very Serious matters!

          Not only do some people feel baited and switched, they feel they’ve been had using some terms that are normally-sacrosanct from (non-right) humor and satire; and moreover, have a nagging feeling that those terms (and by extension, themselves) are being disrespected by this silly, stupid, attempted-humorous usage.

          So the Against Spooning Guy somehow becomes emblematic of All That Is Wrong With The Internet Today. Poor bastard.

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  9. I can honestly say that, when I saw the lead in for this post I cheered. I’m very happy that you’ve dropped by and probably a very lousy roommate for cheering while my roomie sleeps in the next room.

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  10. I think there’s something to be said for a concept analogous to primitive accumulation here.

    Facebook started off as a bunch of elite college students – conversations tended to be about cult films, pirated music, poking fun at the administration, etc. Then it branched out to include all college students, then anybody with a pulse. Now, it’s Walmart.

    Myspace started off as teenagers who were into music. A friend commented to me once that Myspace was about showing people how cool you were, and Facebook was about showing people how smart you were.

    This site – along with our parablogosphere – started off the way it did and was guided by a certain cultural capitalism that has been transformed somewhat over the years by both economies of scale and the replacement of original contributors. Whether true, whether false, or whether just an artifact of my being too busy nowadays to track sites outside this one, I feel like what remains here is in a sense all that remains of that original culture. The Atlantic at least has fundamentally transformed into something that no longer seems relevant, for every thought-provoking article at the Daily Beast, there are at least ten cringe-worthy ones, and I haven’t heard anything from any smaller, amateur sites in a long while.

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