Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My Eerie Internet Moment

You probably have no idea that a Slog article I wrote years ago ("How I Outgrew Libertarianism") suddenly and randomly was anointed a week or so ago with widespread online attention via a link on Reddit (which quickly metastasized to other sites). I wouldn't have known, myself, except for the appearance of a slew of new comments here in response to that old posting.

The crowd arrived en masse, like a horde of cicadas. They read and they snarked, and, just as suddenly, they were gone, on to the next momentarily trendy nexus of attention. You can read the couple dozen comments posted here to the Slog, but untold thousands of them sprung up on Reddit, Metafilter, and elsewhere (google for the full picture - and note that there are several separate humongous Reddit discussions). To prolong the cicada metaphor, the din and droppings all played out in remote fields, and it was all completely impersonal.

Almost no one read beyond the one Slog article, or, judging by the conversation, registered that I'd founded a web site some likely visit. And most appeared not to have even read the article closely. Disagreers off-handedly rejected it as poorly-written garbage, while, completing an eerie equilibrium, the confirmation bias of kindred spirits was fed. I didn't perceive much in the way of careful attention or insight. 

But the really jarring thing is that while I'd written the piece with great care, and felt that I'd stated my points quite clearly, not one phrase or idea failed to provoke caustic snarky miscomprehension. Writers aspire, above all else, to be clearly understood, so the degree of utter misapprehension - by commenters who seemed otherwise intelligent! - left my teeth grinding. At this scale, there was no way for me to circle back and rebut. I'd have just been buried in mounds of empty snark.

The strange thing is that, having browsed hundreds of sharply critical comments, prompting me to reread the piece several times, I still can't see how I could have done a much better job of explaining the personal experience I was relating. When people are determined to misunderstand, misunderstanding's unavoidable. Per Maslow's hammer, if all you have is snark, everyone looks like an asshole.

Worst of all were those who agreed with me but tried to reason with the haters, conceding that while the article might have been poorly-written by a conceited shmuck, hey, c'mon, the guy did at least have a couple of interesting things to say. I learned early with Chowhound that haters are nowhere near as bad as defenders. Lord defend me from my defenders.

The scale was inhuman, the snark eviscerating, and the whole episode felt entirely unpleasant (exception: the one guy who posted that i'd helped change his mind, who I chalk up as an anomaly). These "Internet fame" moments demonstrate the utter depersonalization of mass attention - and the sheer vanity behind any effort to "get one's voice out there." At best, one can stroke confirmation bias while irritating the bejesus out of everyone else , but that's a dialectic of little interest to me. Heaven, I think, is a small open-minded following of readers willing to at least entertain unorthodox views. So I sincerely thank all of you non-cicadas for reading along!

See also:
Writers As Clowns....Plus George Benson
Explaining Salinger


Display Name said...

Always a pleasure to read your slog Jim. I see what you mean about the defenders. Especially after reading this:

James Leff said...

Hmm, I hadn't seen that thread. Shrug. I don't see much faint praise defense, just exactly the sort of non-comprehending read, willfully reductive uptake, and vicious, ditzy snark I was describing above.

Either that, or they're correct and I'm sanctimonious and dim-witted with no actual point to make. Perhaps a combo of the two, who knows.

Display Name said...

This is one of my favorite posts Jim and I re-read it from time to time. Especially after I visit my local Whole Foods. Rings true to me. Now I need to re-read the one about the Russian Astronaut.
Thanks for having this Slog it has helped me a lot. It feels like the first time I read Gifts Differing, my favorite book.

Jim Leff said...

Glad you liked it!

I guess I keep repeating the same error. I like to try to spot fallacies and other human foibles. And to make the case for new approaches, you've got to explain why the old ones were non-optimal. And that gets people riled up. And it surprises me every single time.

I keep hoping people will read my stuff and say "Cool, that's interesting, maybe you're right, let me think about it!" But it doesn't work that way (see this short piece: ). They take it personally. People want to feel everything's exactly right as-is. And I've never understood that. As a chowhound, I like to feel that Better always awaits me..

A big problem early on with Chowhound was that someone would suggest a restaurant, and someone else would say, "Oh, even better, try THIS place!" and person #1 would get all huffy about it. It took herculean effort to get people to see how FANTASTIC it would be to discover that all their favorite restaurants are actually sub par.....because in so doing, they'd gain a world of yet greater deliciousness, which is exactly what I figured everyone wanted. How does it help me to viciously defend my blind assumption that everything I'm eating is the best? Shoot, I made a living from my expertise, and I still lived for having all my top picks blown to smithereens by superior finds!

This aggressive clinging has always baffled me, and I have to keep being reminded how pissed off bug reports make people . I love it when people come up with alternative ways of doing/seeing things...even if it reveals that my previous ways were moronic. I think I lack the essential conviction that I'm not a moron. As someone who owns his stupidity, I've always craved having that stuff pointed out to me ( ).

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