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Why Twitter is so awful Sooner or later, we all become voyeuristic caricatures

It's his fault (Fox Broadcasting Company)


February 9, 2022   6 mins

When I began writing for UnHerd, I was a nobody with an anonymous Twitter account. That’s less the case now, which is nice in many ways. But there’s a lovely facelessness, and freedom to reinvent yourself, that I miss about being anon. It has left me wondering: is online anonymity really the reason our public conversation seems to have gone mad?

Is the anonymous internet really just a breeding-ground for nutters, extremists and people whose hobby is harassing MPs? That’s the fear behind a recent petition, signed by nearly 700,000 people, calling for the Online Safety Bill currently making its way through Parliament to require anyone creating a social media account to provide verifiable ID.

The petition will be debated later this month. Defenders of anonymity will doubtless point to its importance as a free-speech outlet for whistleblowers, or for those who don’t have much public clout and wish to speak their minds in the “cancel culture” age without repercussion. But how much longer will it last? For free speech no longer commands wide institutional or even public support.

That doesn’t mean I’m against online anonymity. Far from it: last week I cracked and created an anonymous “alt”, out of nostalgia for that feeling of wandering the internet’s weird byways without a comet-tail of public selfhood trailing after me. But our growing unease over the accelerating weirdness and perverse incentives of our digitised public conversation needs to move on from a simple focus on “free speech”.

It’s not a coincidence that for some time now, public support for online censorship has grown steadily more overt on both sides of the Atlantic. And how could it be otherwise, when the entire medium of digital debate encourages ideas to adopt the most extreme and lurid form possible in order to cut through?

Digital culture embraces an increasingly voyeuristic online dynamic, a “pornography of the self” — a perverse set of incentives, that encourages already fragile personalities to offer themselves up as an ongoing psychiatric spectacle, in exchange for money and attention. The results may not be sexual, but have a tendency to grow steadily more grotesque. This can converge with actual pornography, and culminate in outright atrocity, as when seven people were arrested this week following discovery of a bizarre cult that live-streamed human castration for paying viewers.

The ratchet toward this kind of monstrous spectacle is captured by a TV trope named after Simpsons character Ned Flanders. In the early series, Flanders is an amiable and slightly cringe Christian neighbour. But over the programme’s history, Flanders’s character becomes ever more exaggeratedly focused on his faith. The trajectory is so pronounced it’s given rise to a TV trope: “Flanderisation”: whereby a comic character becomes ever more grotesquely defined by a single trait.

Over the last couple of years, pandemic restrictions have virtualised ever more of our personal, social, romantic and professional lives. And with it, something like “flanderisation” has spread. It’s not as though “real life” has disappeared, exactly; but the relation between “real” — that is, non-digital — life and the public discourse has grown steadily more lurid and strange.

It’s not as though Technicolour tabloid headlines are a new phenomenon: the immortal Sun splash FREDDIE STARR ATE MY HAMSTER ran in 1986. And the term “attention economy” was coined even earlier, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, in a 1971 article. Here, Simon explored how to build organisations in a world saturated by information, arguing that attention is a key bottleneck in human culture. That is, the more abundant information is, the scarcer attention becomes as a resource.

Simon believed that people could learn to allocate their attention “efficiently”, among “the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”. But if information felt over-abundant to Simon in the Seventies, that flood became a tsunami with the arrival of the internet. And with that escalation, we’ve been forced to abandon the idea that there’s anything very efficient, rational or wise about how we allocate our attention.

In the brutal competition for clicks, attention is allocated not by reason or efficiency but flanderisation. You can reach a relatively small audience of serious-minded fellow-travellers by weighing an issue thoughtfully and talking reasonably. But for widespread engagement, you need red meat. Scandal; fights; larger-than-life characters; absurd propositions, bad-faith arguments defended to the death. The more grotesque, simplified and caricatured, the more likely it is to cut through.

In this landscape, topics that have serious ongoing repercussions but resist flanderisation will sink without trace. For example, the mere words “agricultural subsidies” will be enough to send many fingers clicking instantly away — and yet the nuts and bolts of post-Brexit farming policy impact millions.

But it’s an issue where the devil is all in the detail. Outside specialist publications, the only way to make people notice would be to flanderise — a difficult task in a complex subject. A spate of farm fire-sales or farmer suicides might attract brief attention. You might get a whole ten minutes of discourse out of a proposal to improve biodiversity by reintroducing wolves in Britain. In the meantime, though, complex issues with major long-term ramifications for the whole country, such as topsoil erosion or upland subsidy regimes, remain of little interest to the general public. Our long-term food security, biodiversity and rural economy are poorer for it.

This fundamental failure of seriousness in public conversation extends even to the question of how we conduct that public conversation. Even as the Online Safety Bill has continued its lurch through Parliament, with the contours of our entire digital discourse at stake, the press focused its investigative energy on whether or not Boris Johnson had a birthday party during lockdown.

The Bill contains provisions to tackle a range of negative aspects of digital discourse, including trafficking, online abuse, and child pornography. But like all regulatory issues with systemic impacts, it’s difficult to persuade people to think about the fine detail — even MPs — and the Bill itself has been under fire from all fronts, including the parliamentary committee set up to scrutinise it.

And when it does manage to consider the issues, they are flanderised. And perhaps the central such over-simplification concerns freedom of speech — for in truth the “free speech” ship sailed a while ago. And if widespread public and institutional support for the idea is waning, this has a simple cause: the digital era has turned what was once a generous ocean of ideas into a grotesque Marvel Studios cartoon sea-battle, between flanderised caricature concepts.

In the resulting bare-knuckle war for attention, it’s not reason that wins. Nor is everyone saying that the best, sanest, or most constructive ideas will prevail. Rather, it’s the most lurid (or aggressively state-sponsored) ideas that make it to the surface, a dynamic which does much to account for absurdist identity politics, hyper-polarised Covid discourse and the roiling underbelly of online extremisms alike. In that noisome soup, anons may be nutters or extremists — but sometimes they’re really just people who prefer to wander the weird byways and be left alone.

Because it’s also not just politics that gets flanderised. Having an online presence, as an individual, creates a similar incentive to flanderise ourselves: that is, to turn your online “self” into a caricature, based on compulsively oversharing whichever features of your personality are the most attention-grabbing. And while this pressure affects everyone, it’s still greater — as I’ve discovered — if you post under a “real” identity.

For young women, that might mean incentives to garner online attention by posting sexualised selfies. For those not blessed with looks or opinions, but willing to invite voyeurism, another option is a warped version of the common human bonding mechanism of sharing personal information: pornography of the self. Those who embrace this online are often women. But the result is less bonding or intimacy than flanderisation: a kind of ritual self-humiliation for clicks.

If you have the stomach for it, a glance at how “e-girls’ are discussed on the lolcow website gives a sense of how such compulsive over-sharing often results less in friendliness or bonding than in cruelty and objectification.

In turn, this toxic dynamic (rightly) fuels concerns about online abuse — as well as calls for online anonymity to be banned. The petition to include provisions outlawing anons will be debated later this month; will it rehash the same old free speech ground again? If it does, we can expect it to be even more reductive and polarised than last time: because the real danger we face isn’t restrictions on speech.

We’ve all seen the escalating campaign against “misinformation” throughout the pandemic. Digital censorship is not just inevitable; it’s already here. We can expect it to tighten. People have already adapted: as the opponents of porn censorship are fond of pointing out, even under a regime of restricted speech people find ways to communicate. They just do so more obliquely.

And nor are anons the problem. Let people wander the weird byways and be left alone, even if they’re nutters or extremists. The internet’s flanderising power would be no less real if anonymous accounts were banned across the board tomorrow.

The real risk is that we go on getting lost in stupid arguments, over shiny but trivial talking-points, and never get the hang of parsing what actually matters in the torrent of information overload. For more serious political currents still run, often with dangerous undertows, beneath the surface of our digital discourse.

If we don’t learn to parse those patterns, we’re entirely at their mercy.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

This is nothing….

Wait till all are on the Metaverse. Then the creepy and weird can get personal and interactive.

“creates a similar incentive to flanderise ourselves: that is, to turn your online “self” into a caricature, based on compulsively oversharing whichever features of your personality are the most attention-grabbing.”

I know this quality – I am definitely the most extreme example of it here, on Unherd. I blame it on my years as a drifter – telling (my true) stories was my survival technique.

As I was always dirt poor during my Road Freak years, and solitary life, the only way to go into a building was to pay for something – and I never had much money – but I wanted to go into any Dive or Honky-Tonk because I craved company, and beer – and just being in a building was great(I lived on foot, outside, for 5 years drifting)

So I would go into a bar and sit next to some guy who looked like he was doing ok – but was living a boring life, and I would and buy the cheapest beer they had and begin talking to him, telling him stories and laughing and joking – After finally finishing it I would say that’s it I have to go – and they would almost always say – Have another beer, I’ll get it…. so I would, and then another, and another…. And then that was enough – do not get too involved… It was not sexual at all – just some Normal having a dull beer, and I would be full of every kind of story of every kind of weirs sh* t from my weird life – and basically it was worth the price to listen to me tell of life on the road and have the company.

I also told stories to my rides, 50,000+ miles hitch-hiked, and one wanted to pay ones way, and so I would tell stories, or talk of what they wanted – also – you often needed to tell stories to get people to sympathize with you so they would not kill you – as that is real out there on the road….

And there…. I have done it again. One day I will tell of some of my weird experiences here – they used to be worth a beer……….

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Shame there’s no Unherd bar, but the Likes are on me.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I’m still hoping that the metaverse’s glaring lameness will cause it to fail


Brad Mountz
Brad Mountz
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

Agree!

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

If that commercial featuring Zuckerberg didn’t cause it to spontaneously combust then nothing will. Not sure I have ever since anything more creepy.

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Weil

“…lameness?”
The Meta is the dream of all dreams for so many people.
Even I….someone who has never been attracted by computer games… am now spending hours each week in a virtual world on my Oculus playing Population One (in real people teams against other real people) and driving around the world on top of the Google Street Maps car.
The technology is astounding. Its like you are in a parallel real world just looking through another persons eyes.
I lose a heartbeat when I fall in the virtual world – or look over the edge of the cockpit of my WW1 plane – despite knowing I am standing on my living room floor.
The reality must give anyone who cannot handle real world relationships an exciting escape and it can only get more real as they take on full body kinetic suits. The possibilities are endless.
The big problem, like the initial introduction of the internet, is that we are a perverted and sinful people especially when there are no obvious consequences. (The consequences are grave, but not obvious.)
The internet gave people the ability to view porn in (what they think is) anonymity. Now we can go to a Metaverse and do obscene acts to complete strangers – so people do.
This is what happens in a fallen world. Amazing developments in technology get hijacked and perverted by those who do not have a Rock to stand on.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

I was going to say count me out of the Metaverse, but where is this place where I can fly a WW1 plane? That sounds great. What equipment do you recommend for that? Visors and goggles?

Dave Corby
Dave Corby
2 years ago

Oculus – Warplanes: WW1 Fighters –
I am looking for Spitfire simulator, forever my favorite since watching ‘The Battle of Britain’ as an Air Cadet.

Kirsten Walstedt
Kirsten Walstedt
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave Corby

I’d actually like to experience some of these VR experiences, but don’t want them tied to Zuckerberg and the always watching EYE of the corporate data gatherers.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

I borrowed a friends oculus quest. It was fun for a week or so, but I found myself using it less and less. It’s hot and heavy and causes motion sickness. I tried a horror game but had to stop because of all the jump-scares.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago

Having watched a little of the winter Olympics, I’d like to have a virtual go at some of those sports such as the skeleton run and the half pipe!

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 years ago

Why is anyone on Twitter?
Membership Is voluntary. Reading some of the comments here you would think it was compulsory! If you don’t like it, if you don’t want to waste your life, then don’t do it.
The only possible reason for participation is attention-seeking. To participate in a medium which is full of attention-seekers, and then to complain that is full of attention-seeking rubbish, amounts to insanity.
The “real conversation” is not online. It is in real life with your family and friends – provided you can be bothered to spare the time for them.

Last edited 2 years ago by Albireo Double
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

I don’t court attention on Twitter and check in once or twice a week as a norm. Very occasionally a bit more. You can find stuff there that you don’t find easily elsewhere – e.g. the real people taking part in the Canadian trucker protest, posting videos as a testament to the truth.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Whenever I read Mary reporting back from the Twittersphere, I feel like a Victorian reading about a plucky British explorer in darkest Africa. I wouldn’t want to go there myself but its fun to read about.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Nice point! Leave it to Mary to combine Herbert Simon with Ned Flanders in an article that plumbs the impact of the internet on the soul. As usual, her writing is superb, eg:

“the digital era has turned what was once a generous ocean of ideas into a grotesque Marvel Studios cartoon sea-battle, between flanderised caricature concepts.“

Without Mary’s articles, I think I may have fled this untoward generation long ago !

Michael K
Michael K
2 years ago

I went anonymous (taking a made-up, but real-sounding name) when the whole cancel nonsense started getting momentum. My positions were often controversial, and I was not afraid to tell people my opinion. But I disliked the notion that somebody who may dislike me, can just Startpage my name, find out where I live and what I do, and possibly write a message to my employer. So I decided to go anonymous, and never looked back.

David Guest
David Guest
2 years ago
Reply to  Michael K

Completely understand this, especially on Twitter. Anyone who is not of the left (either extreme or “soft”) is open to this, being described as “hard right” with consequences for work, friends and family.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

I use a nom de guerre as I have a unique name. It means I can use personal anecdotes without compromising the identity of family or friends. I do have a Facebook account in my name but only now to be in touch with a lifetime of restricted friends and be in closed groups. Since online airing of views degenerated from reasoning into abuse, I only use respectful comment threads. UnHerd has been great for this. I only downvote ad hominem remarks and not things I disagree with so I’ve only done that a handful of times. I read comment threads for personal education and we have some great informative comments on here. I tend to avoid clickbait headlines which is easy if they’re lurid but less so when they are deliberately misleading; of which there are a few on UnHerd, perhaps aided by skewed artwork. If anonymity is banned I should miss being part of this exploring family.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Good points – but don’t discount the possibility that Anonymity could be preserved on the interfaces with a self-chosen alias – leaving legal verification behind the scenes with the site owner.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Yes, I wondered if that was an option.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

I use my own name.

It acts like a sobriety pledge.

It does mean I refrain from sharing personal or family details which might illuminate my opinions for others, but so be it.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Agree completely.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

Agree it encourages respectful commenting. I try to do that out of principle anyway. I would be happier not being anonymous with a relatively common name but from my research, I have found no one else with the same name, and definitely not in this country, we being 2nd generation immigrants.

Dana Jumper
Dana Jumper
2 years ago

Yes, I do the same, for much the same reason. Still I have no problem with the anonymity seekers. I’d rather have to wade thru the crazies and ranters that often flood comment sections than to see fear shut down the discourse. I have no confidence the powers won’t actively seek a way to punish dissent.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago

I came off twitter once I realised that a lot of people were playing it like a computer game. The playbook is basically something like this: say something pithy but controversial and overly simplistic, then get people arguing. It doesn’t help the people arguing but is an effective albeit cynical way to raise your profile.
Twitter is also stuffed with writers desperately trying to flog their stuff using a similar process.
I also found it disturbing the number of people who were prepared to share personal information about mental health, suicide attempts and so on in front of complete strangers.

Noel Chiappa
Noel Chiappa
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

 say something pithy but controversial and overly simplistic, then get people arguing.”
That used to be called ‘trolling’ – and it used to be looked down on.
Noel

Rupert Carnegie
Rupert Carnegie
2 years ago

I usually find myself the most pessimistic person in the room on any topic but not on this issue. I think the gloom is overstated and there are grounds for relative optimism
1/ The historical pattern after the appearance of earlier disruptive communication technology . After the successive arrival of printing, cheap caricatures, newspapers, radio etc there was often a period of personal abuse and political polarisation. After a while, however, a new legal frameworks emerged and – more importantly – people acquired new filters against malign nonsense e.g. the libel laws after newspapers slandered almost all prominent citizens in the early nineteenth century or the more cynical approach to radio commentaries after a period in the 1930s when Roosevelt, Goebbels and Churchill masters the art of speaking conversationally on the radio in a way which disarmed those more used to shouted political rhetoric. After a while rational discourse resumed.
2/ The current legal / tech framework. Though as Mary suggests part of the problem is the sheer volume of views and data which flows towards the reader, I suspect that many of the current difficulties flow from a) the privileging by social media algorithms of extreme views and offensive comments to promote “engagement” and b) the lack of legal discouragement of libels, etc etc because the tech giants are not “publishers”. Both are potentially fixable problems.
3/ The introduction of TV. It is noticeable that the arrival of TV created far fewer challenges than the other technologies. This can be attributed to the carefully thought through legal framework in both the US and UK (until recently). Regretably, there was no equivalent effort for social media.
4/ A sensible debate would be how we “reframe” social media so as to restore free speech with incentives, constraints and institutions which result in something like the status quo ante. Opinions will differ but my ideas would start with

  • recognition that social media companies are running a public square which should be regulated by law not private companies
  • declare illegal any algorithm or system which deliberately encourages polarisation
  • reinvigorate libel laws
  • individuals may conceal their name but it must be discoverable if they make libellous etc comments and are subject to legal action
  • Any comment addressed to or readable by more than twenty individuals should count as a public comment BUT
  • we need moderated sites which act as the equivalent of newspaper letter pages. On these the legal risk would be with the publishing “newspaper” not the individual.
  • Hopefully, this would steer much comment onto these moderated sites
  • It is even possible that most social media debate would become a civilised as on UnHeard – though that may be moving from optimism to delusion.

One can elaborate on schemes along these lines but, as usual and a before, it is about creating balance so that individuals are allowed the maximum possible free speech but that a sensible range of opinion is “privileged” rather than the vicious extremes.
5/ As important, I suspect that people will get wise to the ways of social media and their psychological defences will strengthen. When radio first appeared it allowed some politicians to have a hypnotic effect. After twenty years, listeners became better at filtering what they heard. At present, wildly overstated descriptions – e.g. A has “obliterated” B – will attract more eyeballs. Soon I suspect it will have the same effect as overuse of capital letters in snail mail i.e. the author is assumed to be a nutter.
6/ It is noticeable that there is a considerable growth in opinion keen to defend traditional “liberties” including free speech. This takes many forms. UnHerd is one but so are the Canadian truck drivers. Journalists may mistake Twitter for a balanced sample of public opinion; I find my Somerset neighbours a more interesting barometer. They were vehemently pro-BREXIT and are now showing signs of becoming as enraged about attacks of their “freedoms”. They show little signs of the defeatism of more sophisticated commentators.It will be interesting to watch the development of the Joe Rogan controversy.
It is a New Age but not necessarily a Dystopia. It is possible to be optimistic. There may even be a revival in rational discourse.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Great comment.

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
2 years ago

Brilliant! Might Unherd commission you to develop this into a full-scale piece?

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Agree with J Bryant and Jerry Smith this a marvellous comment both in the optimistic tone and the real sensible suggestions.

D Ward
D Ward
2 years ago

Whenever I see the words “horrific” and/or “vile” in an “opinion piece” or “news” report, it’s usually a good indication that the author is a whinging, virtue-signalling, vacuous, unthinking Wokester. I’m rarely wrong on this.

Last edited 2 years ago by D Ward
Andrea X
Andrea X
2 years ago

Very good, but I disagree on one point. You say:

  • declare illegal any algorithm or system which deliberately encourages polarisation

but that can’t happen without a major change in the way social media and Google in general operate. They reward interactions, so automatically they reward flames and I find it difficult to see how this could be changed.
Perhaps social media as we know it today is just going to disappear (is FB going to be first?) especially if the public becomes immune to the flames, but without them none of these sites can survive as their business model depends on their proliferation.
Perhaps the future is the fee paying website? There were already blogs, but they pretty much succumbed to social media. Will they make a come back? Or maybe everybody will be on substack? The issue will then be who/what you wish to subscribe to as you cannot subscribe to everything under the ether. So perhaps what will replace social media does not really exist yet or it could be that it is not quite so popular for the masses to know it exists.

Rupert Carnegie
Rupert Carnegie
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrea X

I take your point but I think an ads based model could survive regulation of algorithms – though I agree it would reduce the growth and profits of FB et al.
There are historical precedents. After both the East India Company and Standard Oil became significant political forces in c.1770 and c. 1890, they provoked powerful responses and, ultimately, were subjected to creeping nationalisation and break up respectively. They were also forced to abandon some of their most lucrative practices such a trading opium and exploiting local monopolies. Corporate giants can be reformed, tamed and made more socially useful; it is just not easy.
You may well be right about the future evolution of social media. I think it is for us to debate and decide what shape the internet should become. There is no need to be fatalistic.
The issues round personal abuse, anonymity and libel are, of course, separate and require different solutions.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

A bit of a side issue perhaps, but we shouldn’t forget that political campaigning for the acceleration of the Online Safety bill only became intense when parliament hijacked the angry response to the violent murder of MP David Amess by an Islamist immigrant.
Maybe we should legislate against the cowardice of politicians instead.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Barton
Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Maybe we should legislate against the cowardice of politicians instead.

Would that we could.

Only problem is that it would have to be politicians doing the legislating, and politicians … you see where the logic of this leads.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Isn’t part of the problem the need of mainstream journalists to earn a living? They have only so much new stuff to say, but unlike the cacophony of amateurs without filters, they are professionally trained in how to say it without losing the attention or buy-in of the people they have no choice but to feed off.

So it’s the same old mainstream journalists with the same old axes to grind who defacto set up, not a conspiracy, but an informal cabal with the aim of excluding the ocean of voices, because, well, competition is bad for them. And as pointed out by another BTL poster under another article, UnHerd is going the same way, filling up with the sameold people, oldies from the graun, speccie, torygraph, economist etc, because of the relentless pressure to create content, like daytime TV filler, whose aim turns into providing ongoing careers for those who happen to have fallen into the profession, all the while excluding new voices through the cover of avoiding ‘misinformation’. The calls, covertly or overtly for increased censorship, are in effect, career protection programmes, driven by the fear of being overwhelmed by a flood of new viewpoints, however batty.

And from my perspective, there is a split between those with something new to say (whether I personally agree politically with them or not) and those peddling the same underlying rhetoric as always, but captured slightly differently, ostensibly in pieces about new stuff, like one of them repeating Warhol collages. I ran away from the msm, and my ‘nothing-personal-just-business’ message to the refugees of the journalistic world, comin’ over here to UnHerd, engaging with our Marys and Arises is: I heard what you had to say the first time, and it don’t get any better just because you repeat it over here, trust me, so just back off!

So, like that monsterous plant in Little Shop Of Horrors, I’m saying to UnHerd, Feed Me! (but please, something different every time).

Jaden Johnson
Jaden Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I agree that UnHerd has lost some of its originality and distinctiveness with the arrival of some familiar faces from more mainstream publications. It’s not just the need for journalists to earn a living – it’s the need for online publications and spaces to drive ‘engagement’ by constantly refreshing or (too often) rehashing the same story without there having been any substantial developments to justify it, other than the clicks and comments btl. I’d cite the Spectator/Coffee House as an example but there are many others.
I’ve also noticed something else – the presence below the line of subscribers who continue to pay their monthly fees despite being enraged by the content that they’re commenting on. Again, see The Spectator. Of course, being exposed to differing opinions is a good thing, especially if the possibility of having one’s mind changed as a result of reasoned argument is fulfilled but that (almost) never happens. Instead, paying to be agitated and angered in this way is a sort of mental masochism that’s another by-product of social media. Or, as I prefer to view it, anti-social media.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jaden Johnson
Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

I’m not on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Well that makes two of us, perhaps there are more? Perhaps we should form a Cub?*

(*As Herman Goering is reputed to have said.)

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I’m still on fb; I used to describe it as a magazine edited by my friends but nowadays it’s lousy with bollocks and advertising.

Brad Mountz
Brad Mountz
2 years ago

This article launched me to the future where the concept of Metaverse advances and further personalizes the knife fighting that Twitter has become, all virtually, anonymous – fake. Now you will be able to sit with other very beautiful Avatars at the pub, commit a crime or have sex with a digital likeness of someone you are too pathetic to engage in real life. Hell we are already there just in today’s video games. But now it has a name, given to us by a morally bankrupt Mark Zuckerberg and clan who wish to ban access to normalcy. Don’t censor me, but let me censor you and corrupt your morality so I can feel good about how bad a person I am. Billions will be invested to allow us to live an alternate reality, which will create more mental health issues and dumb us down to nothing but pajama wearing zombies with halitosis. Zuckerbergism is the death nail in society as we know it. He created MetaFace out of total insecurity and has become that pathetic villain Dr. Evil, corrupting what he touches.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
2 years ago

We’ve had “freedom from”, but “freedom for” slipped our collective grasp.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

This is so weird.
There’s a lot of strange people online.
What did they all do before the internet?

Last edited 2 years ago by William Shaw
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Badger digging.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Write on the walls of public lavatories?

Ian Moore
Ian Moore
2 years ago

I’ve always been a proponent of taking a common sense approach to commenting/internet activity. Problem these days is that common sense can end up with you getting your collar felt by the long arm of the law.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

The social media platforms are like Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron from Sleeper – they plug directly into human cultural interaction via our biology, bypassing the messy business of setting up that cultural interaction, with it’s attendant risks. But they all just trade off one set of risks with a different set, one humanity is not overly familiar with and doesn’t yet quite know how to navigate. But eventually people will react by either disengaging cold turkey, or setting up filters, using technology to combat the effects of technology.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

Brains learn associations between different pieces of information that you experience over a life time. You are the sum of those associations so the effort you make to experience and explore information makes you who you are. In a perfect world there would be no control on information. Everyone would explore information to make themselves a better person and there would be no disagreement on what a better person is. The world we live in is not like that. People disseminate information that causes damage when it is in the brains of other people. Society can:
1.      Improve education to enable people to better understand the information they access
2.      Convince people that they are in control of the damage caused to themselves “sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you”
Where you cannot do that you are left with censoring information, to everyone or to the vulnerable, and to do that you have to be able to identify the person to censor.
I think platforms such as Twitter should only be able to avoid being the person disseminating information if they can identify the author when society requires censorship.
The problems we have today are but a fraction of the problems there will be in the future and education is currently woefully inadequate.  It needs a complete re-think.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

Surely one should have the courage of one’s convictions and put one’s name to any controversial issue. At the very least, names should be held by those who transmit the site so that hate speech or unsubstantiated facts can be traced and corrected, if need be..
I shouldn’t have thought that this was a forum for whistleblowers to highlight malpractices. It would just generate uninformed responses and get out-of-hand.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

Anonymity is a shelter against the repercussions of vindictive disagreement.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Okay, so technology can numb us all. Maybe it does need reining in. However, is the letter of complaint dead? Are pens going to dry up? Has anyone in Silicon Valley ever sent or received a postcard? Maybe they’ve never licked the back of a stamp.
I seem to recall that in the letters page of newspapers, the letters-to-the-editor page, sometimes a letter would be signed off by the editor: “Name and address withheld by the editor” – because of the sensitivity or delicacy of a particular contributor’s situation.

Everything had seemed pretty civilised by the 1990s. Satellite television and Ask Jeeves and Italian football were kicking a out.
The stamp, the letter, the television, the fax machine, postcards on the fridge, Dame Edna on a Saturday night: these were the things God surely intended. Oh, and Homer Simpson and Flanders and co. perhaps.
The Cold War was over and people just wanted to relax, sit back and enjoy the show. If the telephone in the hall rang, sometimes you just let it ring.

Thoughts about complaining about the offensiveness of certain characters on the Simpsons back in the early/mid 90s probably stayed mere thoughts. The thought of trying to extract oneself from the couch to make it to the chest of drawers in another room, where there might be letters, pens, stamps, then to consult the Yellow Pages, and then to get down to the post office the next day, was much more offensive in one’s mind. It had seemed over the top, mean, to complain about the imperfections in a great human effort to cheer up the human race (via a cartoon).
But nowadays, imperfections are all the rage. Your good intentions be gone.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

Despite the old adage “self praise is no recommendation” I rejoice in the fact that I do not own a ‘smart phone’, and nor do I have any idea what ‘Twitter’ is/was.*

(* Besides the cacophony of little birds attacking the thatch of my Villa Rustica!)

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Tell me your secret – how can you not know what Twitter is? I’m not on Twitter, nor do I want to be, but I know of it’s existance and what it is, otherwise how can I know that I don’t want anything to do with it.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago

I am very old, I live in a remote, underpopulated, idyllic corner of England, that I refer to as Arcadia.

I have no television, hardly ever read a Newspaper and only listen to Radio 3. Thanks to my offspring I am aware of a new plague that describes itself as Social Media, but am rather hazy as to the precise details of how it works.

Besides long conversations with my splendid dog, Diogenes, my main contact with the world is sitting by the fire in our very convivial, if slightly smokey Pub. I rely on other, younger patrons, to keep me informed about what is going on, outside Arcadia.

As you may have guessed the recent worldwide Scamdemic largely passed ‘us’ by. A combination of scepticism, feral disobedience, and cynical humour kept us going, and only a couple of our number were cut down. In their particular cases they were ‘almost there’, anyway, and the ‘Reaper’ just speeded things up.
So there is no secret, just a ‘lifestyle choice’ to use contemporary jargon.

Deac Manross
Deac Manross
2 years ago

I think better than ‘voyeuristic caricatures’ maybe it should be ‘voyeuristic carcasses’. Good piece!!

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

The Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon? Don’t you mean Homer Simpson? He said that in a saturated space such as one’s head, the more you put in, the more you have to take out.

Mike Wylde
Mike Wylde
2 years ago

When I began reading for UnHerd, I was a nobody without any Twitter account. That’s more the case now, which is nice in many ways. Thankfully – and Twitterless is how I’m going to stay!

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

Please world, stop using “cringe” as an adjective.

James Joyce
James Joyce
2 years ago

A bit all over the place, Mary. Your point?
It seems that UnHerd should think again before allowing “Anonymous Amy” to post her tosh, though I seem to be the only UnHerd reader who strongly objects.

Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

James, on the ‘Planet Normal’ podcast they have had regular input from an NHS insider on the true Covid NHS stats which has highlighted the way the public has been abused and manipulated. I have no doubt that if this person were ever found out they would be instantly sacked. I’m sure Amy Jones is running the same risk to give us redacted information.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter LR

Whilst I absolutely take your point, how am I, as a reader, to know that she (if indeed Anonymous Amy is a she) is who she says she is; I have to take her word for it. I can’t check her out, she could be some crackpot from anywhere in the world with no knowledge of medicine or the NHS. I’m not saying this is true, but I don’t know.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  James Joyce

You’re living in the wrong time. You would have made an excellent assistant’ to Tomas de Torquedmada and the Spanish Inquisition.