More to See Than Can Ever Be Seen

Breaking away from toxic social media by actively choosing to make better use of your time

Stay home this holiday season, or you could find yourself on a flight like this.

Yesterday I woke up with “Circle of Life” from The Lion King going through my head. In particular, the part of the first verse, that goes: “There’s more to see that can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”

What stood out to me was the irony of it: it’s ostensibly a celebration of the infinite potential of adventure and discovery, but I’ve never heard it as such, because I’ve heard it so many hundreds of times that it’s become background music. Usually, background music during a trip to a Disney park I’ve already seen dozens if not hundreds of times.

Continue reading “More to See Than Can Ever Be Seen”

Peaches & Nougat

Recommending Adam Ragusea’s YouTube channel, which I’m only now discovering for some reason.

It seems a little absurd to be promoting a YouTube channel with over one million followers, on a blog that gets 30 views on a high-traffic day. But if I’m only just now discovering Adam Ragusea’s channel, with its being perfectly suited to so many of my interests, then I figure it’s likely other people haven’t, either.

Ragusea is a former journalism professor with infuriatingly good hair, who lives in Macon, Georgia and makes videos about recipes, food science, and food history. Every one of these could’ve made me a subscriber, but The Algorithm didn’t deem his channel relevant until it offered a video asking Is Washing Rice Really Still Necessary? (His finding: frequently not).

But the rest of the videos get gradually more interesting, at least to me as a hapless cook who loves collecting not-entirely-useful information. What’s the real reason billions of people refuse to eat pork? (It’s probably not trichinosis). Why do some people think Hershey chocolate tastes like vomit? (Soured milk). WTF Is Nougat? (Whipped sugar, but it’s surprisingly more complicated).

The one that really got me hooked was about Georgia’s association with peaches. I’ve known since I was a teenager that calling it the Peach State didn’t make sense, since pecans and peanuts (among others) were always bigger crops. This video explains — using The Georgia Peach by William Thomas Okie as a primary reference — that it was essentially a post-Civil War branding campaign. (It also explains why I never saw many peaches on the drive down to Florida; they need cooler weather, which is why they’re mostly grown closer to South Carolina).

I haven’t tried any of his recipe videos yet, but the one for easy Chana masala seems like a no-brainer for someone like me, who’s intimidated by the complexity of Indian food. Edited: I’ve tried the easy version of the recipe. It’s… fine. Nothing special, but considering how stupid easy it is to make, it’s fine.

I’ve long been interested in stuff like SciShow, Mental Floss, and The Straight Dope, which have all tried (to one degree or another) to make factual information entertaining. Now more than ever, it’s reassuring and even calming to watch something that acknowledges it can be fun to learn things. Ragusea’s opinionated, but pragmatic and non-prescriptive above all else, so I can’t imagine him ever making a proclamation like “no unitaskers in the kitchen.” Until that happens, I’m getting a kick out of nerding out about food.

The Josh Gad Test

A fun and easy personality test for citizens of the Internet

Everyone on the internet loves to take personality quizzes, and that’s why I’ve devised a simple and fun one that can determine what kind of person you are. It should take less than 30 minutes to complete, but will open new windows into your own self-awareness that could result in a lifetime’s worth of benefits!

The Josh Gad Test

Question 1:
Do you have a strong opinion, positive or negative, about actor, producer, and media personality Josh Gad?

Evaluation

That’s it, that’s the test. If you answered “no,” “not really,” or “who?” you have passed. If you answered “yes,” I’m afraid that you’ve failed. Please see me after class.

Disclaimer: friends and relatives of Mr Gad are obviously exempt from the test, as are entertainment industry professionals who have a vested interest in his career. If you fall into one of those categories, feel free to substitute Jason Segel.

Methodology

I am neither a trained nor licensed psychoanalyst, but I hit the epiphany that resulted in this test while watching the 2014 music video “Can You Do This” by Aloe Blacc. I’d intended just to listen to an Apple Music-ad-friendly pop hit from a few years ago, and enjoy some product placement for Beats headphones. I had completely forgotten the video’s framing device and its surprising reliance on the woman from The Big Bang Theory1Her name is Kelly Cuoco, and I honestly mean no disrespect when I say that I can never remember her name without looking it up. and Mr. Gad playing a newly married couple.

My first reaction was boy, that sure hasn’t aged well! My second reaction was, wait a second, where did that first reaction come from? I’d somehow internalized the idea that I’m not supposed to like Josh Gad, but it was as if the idea had been inserted into my brain, via post-hypnotic suggestion, or possible alien abduction.

I don’t actually have an opinion one way or the other about Mr. Gad. I love Olaf, of course, because everybody loves Olaf, and the two Frozen movies are perfectly charming, and they have exceptional voice talent across the board. I’ve seen very little of his other work, I have no idea of any political activism or charity work, and I know of him mainly through his numerous promotional appearances, where he plays an abrasive-but-inoffensively-hapless version of himself. I have no reason to dislike the man. (Or particularly like him, either — my irrational goodwill towards celebrities I will never meet is limited to a small group including Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda).

But wait, some people might be saying, wasn’t he in a movie in which he made a tunnel through the ground by shitting out dirt as he ate it? And that would be a fair point, except that the little boys to whom that movie was aggressively pandering just love stuff like that.2Also, I must point out, Mr. Gad most likely was not actually shitting out dirt during his performance. But I can’t fault the CG artists either, for performing the jobs they were assigned.

I’ve been trying to think back to what could’ve planted the idea that it wasn’t cool to like Josh Gad anymore. The only solid thing I can remember is a podcast I used to listen to, which was ostensibly just a few fans of Disney parks chatting about their favorite attractions. In one episode they were talking about a promo that Disney had shot to tease the opening of Galaxy’s Edge, in which Gad played his abrasive self trying to sneak past a guard into the new land. The hosts of this podcast were decidedly not fans. I remember them making several comments about how awful and cringe-worthy the bit was. It stood out in my mind because it had never occurred to me that anyone could have that strong an opinion against Josh Gad. The video had been pretty much on par with the usual level of corniness that’s in every Disney promo; they’re corny by design. So at the time, I just dismissed the grumbling as the kind of thing that people who live in LA say.

But it’s come back especially strong today, because I’ve spent the bulk of the day looking for new music online, and I’ve seen so many people producing so much creativity: music, music videos, short films, short documentaries, educational films, animation, and tutorials. And then I stopped and read Twitter for a bit, and it actually made me miss the level of discourse that I’d been seeing in YouTube comments.

For the first time in a long time, my reaction to Twitter wasn’t to notice how mean and destructive it is, but how empty it is.

I’m not making a bold claim when I say that Twitter is bad, but I tend to think of it as a stream of toxic garbage that’s occasionally punctuated by a bit of useful news, or a clever gag. Even dragging someone — when they deserve it — can require a bit of inspiration to word it exactly the right way. But now I’m just thinking of all the times I saw professional comedy writers, many of them people whose work I adore, tweet out variations of A fly just landed on Mike Pence because flies are attracted to shit. It’s made me remember all the times I agonized over a joke, worried that it wasn’t original enough or funny enough, and I want all that time back. I used to fret that Twitter was full of Mean Girls, but now I think it’s more accurate to say it’s full of hacks.I can’t even enjoy the takedowns of Trump & his supporters anymore, since they’re all so lazy. 3So many people amplify “The Lincoln Project” as if it were insightful, instead of just a bunch of people wanting a return to the glory days of Reagan and Bush and having enough money to spend on hacky videos.

Tonight on Twitter, many of the same people who’ve spent months insisting that “cancel culture doesn’t exist” are participating in threads about how much Chris Pratt sucks and trying to come up with political justifications for it, instead of just acknowledging it as pointless celebrity gossip. And if I feel like I’ve wasted too much of my precious time here on Earth reading it, what does that say about the people writing it?

Conclusion

Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what point I’m trying to make. It’s not just a simplistic plea that we should focus on “positivity,” or saying that Twitter sucks, although both are true to some degree. Maybe I’m saying just let people enjoy things? Be more conscious of the energy you’re putting out into the world? Learn to amplify the things you love and ignore the things you don’t? If you feel the need to justify what you’re saying as “punching up” vs “punching down,” maybe you should take a step back and wonder why you think of social engagement in terms of “punching?” If you have a choice between being cool or being kind, choose kindness or STFU?

I often become acutely aware that I’ve spent more times talking about things that other people have made, than making things myself. That’s not entirely bad, since engaging with art and entertainment is an important part of the process, and I’m most often trying to parse it myself rather than explain it to anyone else. But there’s always a point where it feels like I’m taking more from the world than I’m giving to it. I wish we all, myself included, could be more mindful of how much we gradually chip away at our own souls when we engage in seemingly harmless acts of pointless pettiness.

Meanwhile, 2020 is the year I’ve been more aware of my own mortality than ever before, and I still chose to spend 10 minutes of my time left making a YouTube thumbnail-style image of Josh Gad instead of being productive on my own projects, because I thought it would be mildly funny. So what the hell do I know?

Edited to Add

I wrote this last night and scheduled it to be posted this afternoon. I was unaware that a columnist for The New Yorker would be caught accidentally exposing himself on a Zoom conference call with coworkers. Resulting in a constant stream of variations on the same three obvious jokes,4I do have to admit that riffs on The New Yorker’s umlauts are kind of clever. “Zoom Dick” as a trending topic, and several accusations that it was intentional. So, hooray for humanity, I guess?

Crêpes of Wrath

Food Network chefs hate me for sharing this one weird trick

This video of Chef Jacques Pépin explaining how to make crêpes is a game changer. It’s simple, easy, only takes a few minutes, and the results are delicious. Turns out that if you want to learn how to make something, going to the person who is famous for making them is a good idea.

Even if you don’t feel like making them, it’s just fun to hear him say “crêpe” over and over again.

I’ve tried making them before, with recipes from Epicurious, Bon Apetit, Alton Brown via the Food Network, and various random let-me-tell-you-my-life-story-before-I-get-to-the-recipe blogs, and the results have ranged from “inedible” to “unremarkable and definitely not worth the effort.” The consensus online seems to be that making crepes requires a blender and at least a couple of hours, at which point you have to wonder who’s got that kind of time. Pépin’s method is so simple and straightforward that I can finally see the appeal.

The other cool thing about Pépin’s video is that it shows crepes can easy to make and easy to serve. For years there’s been such a proliferation of crepe restaurants around the Bay Area, that I just kind assumed you had to go crazy with bananas and strawberries and whipped cream and ham and cheese and greens, and if you’re not stuffing them with tons of food, are you even making crepes at all? But as it turns out, nothing but a spoonful of jelly and a sprinkle of sugar afterwards is beyond perfect.

I feel like Food Network and the proliferation of cooking shows created an arms race where home cooking had to make for interesting programming instead of good food. I like the idea of getting back to keeping it simple. Frankly, I think I got steered down a bad path by Alton Brown, who I finally realized is a lot better at being a TV personality than any kind of authority on food. The “multi-taskers” cult are free to come at me.

An important and dire warning: I can only endorse the recipe in the above video. The first time I tried it, it was super-easy and the results were fantastic. There’s at least one variant of an “official” Jacques Pépin recipe for crêpes going around that I’ve tried three times so far with no success. If it includes any vegetable or canola oil, the results come out less like crepes and more like those “movie magic” shows where a makeup artist is preparing a prosthetic. They’re rubbery and oily; you can see them in the pan just sweating oil.

I spend most of my time these days watching Disney & Universal YouTubers going through the parks, and everybody’s been raving about a new crepe stand that opened at Universal Studios. I get a craving every time I see them, so now I can sit back and pretend I’m in Orlando. All I’d need is a bunch of heat lamps and someone telling me over and over that I can’t ride anything because I’m too fat.1From eating crêpes.

Habitat and the MADE

I learned from a video from NoClip the disappointing (but not surprising, unfortunately) news that the Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment here has had to leave its building in Oakland. They’re looking for donations, and have started a Patreon, to find a new home post-COVID. The thing that stood out in that video was the reference to Habitat, the first massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

I was extremely into QuantumLink in the early 80s, and in retrospect, it was probably the beginnings of my not-entirely-healthy relationship with social platforms on the internet. 1It also charged by the minute, which led to one of the only times I got into serious trouble as a teenager. Habitat was near legendary. It sounded like the coolest concept ever! It was being made by the company that made Star Wars games! And it always seemed to be just about to come out, any month now.

I never got to actually play it, as I stopped using QuantumLink before I ever got a chance to. I’m still not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Knowing how obsessed I got with LucasArts adventure games later on, it seems like I would’ve spent entirely too much of my parents’ money on it and burned out on video games altogether. Or maybe I would’ve known back in the 80s that I wanted to work in games, instead of a decade and three college majors later. In retrospect, even the biggest Q-Link bill was probably cheaper than a year of film school.

Mundane Observations from a Recovering Social Media Addict

Remember when people used to write blogs?

Before Twitter and Facebook arrived to make billions of dollars by making people sad, fearful, and poorly informed, my internet oversharing platform of choice was the Straight Dope Message Boards. The Straight Dope was a newspaper column that gave genuine, researched (if not entirely respectful) answers to reader-submitted questions about any conceivable topic. The message boards started as a forum for more detailed conversation about the columns, but by the time I’d arrived, had already developed into a solid and surprisingly supportive community of pedantic nerds like myself.

My favorite section of the boards was called “Mundane Pointless Stuff I Must Share.” It was for pretty much any topic you wanted, with the explicit acknowledgement that it didn’t have to be worthy of conversation with hundreds or thousands of other people. It didn’t even need to be all that interesting. In 2020, that concept is known as “the entire internet,” but back in the early 2000s it was a novel concept for me. 1I never got into livejournal because I thought it was silly over-indulgence for arrested development adults behaving as if they were still emotional teens, which is hilarious to think of now because that’s me 10,000%.

Since I’m currently in the process of weening myself off of Facebook and Instagram, I’m trying to see if I can turn back the clock to the turn-of-the-century blogosphere. That means lowering my standards for what counts as “blog worthy,” and not feeling like I have to come up with a well-thought-out essay for every single topic. 2Believe it or not, I have at least been trying to come up with well-thought-out essays.

It’s weird, though. I wish I knew why; the only thing that Facebook and Twitter did to change the formula was add a social graph, lots of ads, and take ownership of the whole thing. I think something feels fundamentally different when you’re essentially putting pages from your personal journal online for other people to read, without being surrounded by a bunch of other people all doing the same thing. That tacit approval. The acknowledgement, “No, you don’t actually need to be sharing every random thought that enters your head, but it’s okay because everybody else is doing it, too.”

Maybe micro.blog is worth looking into again. I tried it a while back, and I quickly realized that the real strength of Twitter isn’t its format or its spontaneity, but its social graph. As much as I tell myself that it’s all about getting thoughts out of my head, and I don’t really care about followers, it does feel odd shouting out into a well-intentioned but sparsely-populated, echoing room.

If you use micro.blog and like it, let me know! It’s entirely possible I just need to follow more people.

Until then, I’ll start a category for nonessential thoughts and see if I can get back into the swing of embracing pointless communication.

Read-Only

I don’t know who needs to read this, but after around 15 years I finally have to admit social media was a mistake.

My cat and me in one of my first Instagram posts, circa 2010 CE

Last week I deleted my Instagram account, because it was too important to me.

The thing that set me off was waking up to find Instagram had made yet another change to the app in the name of “user engagement.” I started my usual morning ritual of scrolling through photos — reassurance that the world was still there outside, people were still sharing their lives with me, and I’d be aware of anything going on — before I hit a dead end. Instagram was cutting me off like a surly bartender. I was presented with a link to “Show Older Photos” if I wanted to see my old and busted feed. Here instead were photos and videos from a ton of different suggested accounts that Instagram had determined I would absolutely like, and would absolutely have chosen to follow if only I’d known about them.

It was like the search page, but somehow different, algorithmically, in ways that I couldn’t quite detect, but I’m sure were painstakingly established by neural networks far more advanced than my crude organic ones. Instagram had spent over ten years learning what I like — apparently, Disney parks, bearded gay men, and cute dog and cat videos in roughly equal ratios — and if a project manager somewhere in the Fourth Circle of Facebook (Greed and Social Engagement Analytics) decided that the algorithm was now accurate to within 95% certainty for 90% of Instagram users in the target demographic, who was I to say otherwise?

To a lot of readers, this may seem like a trivial problem with no real-world consequence. That’s because it is a trivial problem with no real-world consequence.

It sure was a drag, though, because Instagram was the last social media platform that I still mostly enjoyed using. It was just nice to have an outlet for minor interactions with friendly strangers, being able to share parts of my boring daily life. But Instagram’s decision to shove suggested posts into my feed was the culmination of around 15 years of tech companies working to develop a new business model: software as betrayal of service. The model disrupts the traditional contract between a business and its customers with a simple four-step process:

  1. Promise a straightforward and inessential-but-still-fun service (e.g,. a platform for sharing snapshots with a group of people of your choosing)
  2. Attract enough users with this service to achieve either an IPO or acquisition by a larger tech company
  3. Profit
  4. Gradually dismantle everything that attracted users to the platform in the first place

I understand that I’m not dropping any particularly earth-shattering truth bombs here. For almost as long as social media has been a thing, people on social media have been complaining about it — corporations are creating a dystopian future and we’re all complicit in it! But those arguments have never been all that persuasive. Telling me “with Facebook, you’re not the customer…you’re the product!” has never resonated with me that much, because it’s been too easy to reduce that to “well, what’s in it for me?” I’ve always been far too boring a person to get that worried about privacy concerns. (Back when I was in the closet, I was filled with anxiety that my interactions online would someday be made public. Now, the thought makes me anxious because it’d just reveal how unimaginative and almost prudish I’ve always been). So the cost/benefit analysis always seemed like it was working in my favor: I get to have a fun and mostly insignificant social outlet, and the only cost to me is seeing frequent ads for hair-coloring and -removal products.

But I think the real cost is more significant, and it’s just subtle enough to take over gradually. A little sacrifice here, a compromise there, but nothing that seems that significant at the time. And then several years later, you look around and realize that instead of having friends, you now look at photos of what the people who used to be your friends are doing. And you’d swear that there was a time it was possible to check in on friends without having to scroll through advertisements. (Even ones that offer portraits that make your cat look like a 19th century naval commander, which is admittedly rad). And I feel like I used to be able to talk to people without having to first clear the room of a dozen artificial women who carry exactly three photos of themselves in their underwear and are eager to listen in and build a connection with me for the purposes of sex and bitcoins.

(It’s weird that Instagram’s machine learning neural networks are so advanced that they can do everything except spot insultingly obvious patterns in computer-generated spam accounts. But maybe I’m just gifted with a preternaturally advanced second sight, considering how good I am at recognizing crosswalks and stoplights for CAPTCHAs. If only I could monetize that skill, I could finally be the sugar daddy these young ladies want me to be).

There’s never been a shortage of crusty old curmudgeons lamenting that our smartphones have made us all detached and isolated. It’s pretty hackneyed. It’s also simple-minded, since it ignores all the people who’ve felt isolated their whole lives and finally have technology that can facilitate connection. Whatever the case, it’s absolutely not limited to smartphones. I can remember being at the Grand Canyon and distracted thinking of captions for the Flickr photos. I remember being out in a bar and thinking of topics of conversation better suited to a message board I read at the time, instead of the people I was with. I’ve spent the first half-hour of movies trying to think of clever names for the blog post I’d write about it afterwards. For a while, my internal monologue was replaced by a portion of my brain trying way way too hard to come up with a clever Twitter-perfect description of what I was doing or thinking. And I’ve found my mind wandering during vacations as I’m mentally selecting which photos I should share on Instagram to best capture the day.

Throughout a lot of that time, the constant in the background was Facebook. Never my platform of choice, but occasionally acting like social media methadone to help me come down from being over-invested somewhere else.

It’s normal to want to share the things you’re experiencing with someone else. And the risk of not being fully in the moment can seem worth it when you look at all the conveniences. I’ve always liked the “asynchronous broadcast” model that social media provides. After over 30 years of being a weirdo, I was just plain tired of the blank stares from people who didn’t understand what I was saying or were just plain uninterested. The idea of being able to just toss out ideas or updates whenever, and only the people who were interested were obligated to respond, seemed like a life-saver. The problem is that over time, it felt less like I was broadcasting and more like I was tossing out messages in bottles, desperate to get some kind of acknowledgement that people can see that I still exist.

That convenience extends to all the reactions. I feel a weird anxiety now, when I’m reading or looking at something on one of the few platforms that doesn’t offer reactions. I find myself wanting to respond to the poster to acknowledge that I saw them. It’s not that I’ve ever been insincere in clicking the Like button on a post, but that the whole mechanism adds another layer of artifice to the increasingly alien and unnatural social interaction. It makes something quick and easy that probably shouldn’t be quick and easy. Maybe I should be taking the time to tell someone directly “I enjoyed this,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.” If that feels overwhelming, then maybe I shouldn’t be pretending it’s normal to have genuine social relationships with hundreds of people.

All of these are basically manifestations of the same problem: these platforms seem like a convenient substitute when “real” socialization isn’t available, and that feeling of cosmic-level loneliness threatens to creep in. But they demand a level of detachment that some of us just can’t keep up for long. The people who thrive on these platforms are the ones who are most comfortable treating them like a commercial broadcast: promoting themselves or their business, maintaining that same layer of artificiality-disguised-as-warmth that you see in talk show interviews. And that’s not even necessarily fake or insincere; it just means spending the whole time hyper-aware that you’re playing to an audience.

I’ll never be an influencer, and in fact it makes me more than a little nauseated to be living in a world in which people are described as “influencers” with no sense of shame or irony. And none of the selfies, vacation snapshots, or dumb jokes that I’ve shared online could ever be monetized in any way that’d be meaningful to a social media platform. But still I looked at my old Instagram account, and I couldn’t help but feeling like they’d Tom Sawyered me into painting their fence — I was providing them “content,” and I’d agreed to watch ads, do daily fake account screening, and probably provide a few gigabytes of facial recognition data, for the privilege of doing it.

The most ridiculous part is that I never once would’ve considered it “content” until I started seeing accounts I’d been following popping up with occasional sponsored posts and “partnerships” with brands. Is everyone but me an influencer?! I couldn’t tolerate Tik Tok for very long, not just because I’m almost 50, but because they’re even more blatantly commercial and eager to go viral. Seeing so many people begging for tips just felt unsettlingly sleazy, like I’d wandered into a G-rated, teen-filled version of an adult site that only offered dancing and lipsyncing. “Kidz Bop: The Onlyfanz Edition.”

Looking back over 10 years worth of Instagram posts, I realized just how significant it all was to me. Over time, it’d become my daily diary. It covered my entire relationship with my fiance, including our engagement. I found a group of people who helped me be more comfortable being out, more comfortable with my appearance, and just generally more confident. It helped me find a community that never seemed very welcoming in San Francisco. I realized that as far as content goes, it was all but worthless to Facebook, but it was absolutely priceless to me. It felt gross that I’d poured so much of myself into an app that didn’t feel any obligation at all to me.

So I deleted it. I started over from scratch with a new Instagram account that’ll let me keep in contact with the genuinely good people I’ve met through the platform. But I’m going to be careful with what I choose to share on it. Only stuff I’ve made and travel photos from places I’ve been. Nothing I wouldn’t be willing to share on a professional portfolio site. I’ve also deactivated my Facebook account, and it’s felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It’s just too bad I won’t be able to delete it completely until an anti-trust action divests the VR portion of Facebook’s business from their advertising-and-election-interference division.

A while back, I deleted my 12-year-old Twitter account after getting harassed by a Trump supporter. I had always believed that it’s important to stand up to bullies, but when I tried to report the dude, Twitter directed me to a site that looked like it had been made by someone trying to learn HTML and CSS by copying random examples from stack overflow. It was asking me to upload a photo of my ID and a phone bill proving that it was my real phone number. I looked at the page and thought, “I could do that… or, I could just delete my account and be free of this toxic trash heap of a website forever!” The only thing that surprised me afterwards was how much I didn’t miss it. (For the record: I sent in documents two months ago to have an account closed for a family member who passed away on February, and Twitter still hasn’t even sent an automated response, much less done anything to close the account).

I did make a new read-only Twitter account earlier this year, because people kept insisting on posting screenshots of tweets on other social media platforms. Even though hypermedia was designed to let people verify their sources instead of going off on unsubstantiated self-righteous mobs, and we’ve all seen how easily photos and videos are faked or taken out of context, I guess that’s just what we’re all doing now. And it seemed rude to respond “If I wanted to keep reading this bullshit, I wouldn’t have deleted my Twitter account.” Twitter doesn’t allow searching the site without an account, so here we are. The overwhelming thing I’ve noticed is that it’s gotten so much worse than I left — it no longer even pretends to give a reverse-chronological list of tweets from your friends, but is showing me tweets that the people I follow liked, or just randomly popular tweets from accounts that they follow. Absolutely nobody seems to get any enjoyment out of it anymore, but nobody seems willing to leave. It’s just people promoting themselves and their work, raging at something an idiot politician said online, and complaining about how awful Twitter is. And I can sympathize, because even though it’s hardly ever informative and hardly ever entertaining, I still find myself checking in, just because it offers the potential of something new.

So I’ll see how long I can take the “share less, listen more” mantra to heart. I’ve still got this blog as an outlet for any personal stuff, where at least I own it. I just need to find a way to make it easy to share photos, random thoughts, and stuff that isn’t a long, rambling essay that takes me days to write. Whenever I get the impulse to open an app to just scroll through looking for something new, I’m trying to instead open Kindle to read a book, or a real news app of the sort that Twitter and Facebook derisively calls “Mainstream Media,” or even Comixology if I just want to read something dumb. I doubt it’d be a perceptible difference from the outside, but I think it’d mean a huge difference to me.

One funny(-ish) thing: when I started my new, less-posting-more-lurking Instagram account, it went back to the old behavior of showing me photos from people I followed, instead of cutting me off and filling my feed with suggested posts. I don’t know if that’s a change that they reversed, or if it’s a side effect of using Instagram less often, or if they simply don’t have 10 years worth of data on me to generate suggested posts. But it was at least satisfying to see that “fixing” the problem that set me off in the first place didn’t make me regret my decision at all.

I do remember a time when everything was quieter. Lonelier, sure, and I often felt like I was out of the loop of what was happening. But I also felt like I had more time to make stuff. And the things that made me angry or upset were more often than not things that I had some way of controlling, instead of things seemingly designed to cause me perpetual anxiety and despair. Maybe I’m naive, but I still feel like we can live in the always-connected future that the end of Spaceship Earth promised, without being beholden to shitty companies that seem to profit off our being miserable.

Old Man Yells at Cloud Services

Social media was a mistake.

Actual interactive World Wide Web hyperlinks to some organizations that I think deserve our support:
NAACP Legal Defense Fund: https://www.naacpldf.org
The Obama Foundation: https://www.obama.org/get-involved/
Campaign Zero: https://www.joincampaignzero.org

As I get closer to 50 (and look closer to 60), I find myself getting more and more annoyed when I see the internet blatantly going off in a direction that I did not intend or anticipate. It was bad enough to see the disgrace of a UI that was the Snappitychats, but it fills me with genuine anxiety when I see it spilling into things that are actually important.

To skip the preamble: Instagram is not a good channel for important information. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Twitter and Facebook are, either, but I can at least recognize how stubborn people make it work. The problem with Instagram isn’t just that I think it’s a frivolous app used mainly for selfies and casual snapshots — and to be clear, I’m speaking as someone who is straight-up addicted to Instagram and got irrationally depressed when I had to go without it — it’s that it’s designed to be a bad platform for anything other than snapshots.

Facebook keeps introducing stuff — like “stories” and live video — intended to turn Instagram more into Facebook, and each one has its own bunch of baggage and interface paradigms it brings with it. But surprisingly, most of the core “features” of Instagram have been allowed to remain. Those features are the ones that make the platform unique among the major social media platforms:

  1. You can’t share just text, there must be a photo.
  2. You can’t share someone else’s content, the equivalent of a “retweet” (except in Stories, or with a third-party app).
  3. Except for the one link in your profile, which isn’t intended to change that often, you can’t share links except as text. Even if you do share a link as text, the reader has to copy it and then paste it into a separate web browser to follow it, which makes it deliberately inconvenient.
  4. You can link to other users’ accounts, but only the account itself and not an individual post.
  5. You can also link to hashtags, which can be almost any arbitrary string of text and which is inherently decentralized, meaning that it can’t be owned or controlled by any one user.

The reason this is at all relevant right now: on Monday night and early Tuesday of this week, there was a meme for Instagram users to post nothing but a black square to our feeds for all of Tuesday. The idea, as I understood it, was aimed mainly at those of us who aren’t black and aren’t subject to discrimination and police brutality, to show solidarity with people leading the Black Lives Matter movement and protests. We were being silent to keep from dominating the conversation. We were paying respect instead of filling our feeds with frivolous, mundane stuff as if everything were normal.

People immediately started complaining about that, because it’s the internet. It was dismissed as a meaningless gesture — which, I mean, no shit it was just a gesture. It’s Instagram. There were complaints that we had a responsibility not to be silent, but to “amplify black voices” on a platform that specifically discourages sharing other people’s content. One celebrity posted a wall of text with a self-import lecture to be mindful of how we use our “internet real estate.” Some “influencers” were deluged with comments scolding them for not speaking up quickly enough, or speaking up at all — people who make make-up and recipe videos either have a sacred responsibility to disseminate information that is literally everywhere else; or they should never mention the real world at all, or it’s insincere virtue signaling. Tons of people insisted on posting lengthy rebuttals to “All Lives Matter,” over and over again, as if there were anyone left in June 2020 who was still saying “All Lives Matter” in good faith, instead of as justification for selfishness, or deliberately wasting people’s time. It all turned into a huge jumble of noise, assigning far too much importance to a platform that simply cannot be and should not be mistaken for an effective a tool for activism.

Most obviously damning, in my opinion, was the outpouring of comments — and think pieces on various websites — scolding people for posting a black square with the “blacklivesmatter” hashtag. They said it was blacking out an important movement. People following the hashtag to try and find out more information were instead just seeing a screen full of black squares, as if the movement were being silenced or censored. I started to see some people suggesting that it was intentionally redacting crucial information that people needed to see in a crisis — I saw one screenshot of an uncredited tweet suggesting something about AT&T being behind it, at which point I decided it was long past my bedtime and I should just turn the phone off.

And that’s the reason that I think this is more than just an annoyance or an unfortunate internet flare-up, but something that actually makes me very nervous: if a platform for information is so fragile that a bunch of well-meaning people can block out an important movement, then you’re using the wrong platform. If it’s that susceptible to being overtaken by well-meaning people, then what defense do you have against malicious people trying to exploit it?

There are a lot of things that I despise about Twitter, but it’s easy to see why it’s so tempting to think of it as a good platform. Unfortunately, almost all of the things that might make it useful are also what make it horrible: it’s immediate, which means that you get news as it’s happening! Which means it hasn’t been verified or placed into any meaningful context. It’s open to everyone, which means that there are no corporate or political gatekeeprs! Which also means that there are no fact-checkers or people ensuring that posters are acting in good faith, or are even real people. It’s brief, which means you get just the important information, without excessive editorializing! But you get no nuance or balance; it has to be the most polarized take possible. And people still insist on making these excruciating “We need to talk about… 1/10,000” threads to try and weasel around the limit.

There are even more limitations on Instagram, and in my opinion it becomes jarring when they’re abused. If you post a wall of text as an image, it’s inert and deprived of any context — I can’t copy or paste it, and I can’t conveniently get to the surrounding text or the larger work. It also becomes uneditable; I kept seeing entreaties to donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund long after they’d already started asking people to stop giving to them and instead donate to other causes. If you just post a copy of someone else’s image, even if you credit them (and people are rarely credited), then I have to go through their feed and find the relevant image to see what they said about it. If you post a bunch of URLs, I have to enter them manually, which not only makes the process prone to typos, but just adds a bit of resistance that’s not necessary. And again, the Minnesota Freedom Fund reported false accounts posing as them, but off by a few letters.

And then I see people posting screenshots of Tweets to Instagram, combining the worst aspects of each platform while removing any of their advantages, and I’m all like what the hell, man?! We’re trying to build a society here.

And all those problems are assuming that you’re working with the best intentions. With especially sensitive topics like civil rights violations, police brutality, and a political party that is actively trying to suppress dissent, it makes it even more important to take the time to properly vet images, video, and claims that are being made.

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the expected assortment of hoaxes, and mis-captioned, mis-credited, mis-leading, or dated images and video. But disturbingly, there was also plenty of lazy vigilante BS, posted by people who should know better. Pictures were being posted of supposed agitators along with identifying information, with absolutely no citation or vetting — just the claim that it must be real, because it was taken by “someone at the scene,” and verified by “other accounts,” even though these platforms by design allow for one person to be behind multiple accounts and use a false identity to post. That anonymity is fine when all you’re doing is posting snapshots; but if you’re using that to dox someone or indirectly get them fired or worse, then that’s just plain mob mentality.

There were, by multiple accounts, agitators at several large protests who were deliberately provoking violence and looting, almost certainly with the goal of discrediting public perception of the protests. That seems to make it more important to present an accurate version of what’s actually taking place at the protests, instead of rushing to be the first one. If you can’t verify where a video is coming from or who created it, and you can’t find any other protestor videos corroborating it (when these protests are being exhaustively recorded on protestors’ phones), then you should be treating it as unreliable, and asking yourself if you’re doing more harm than good by sharing it.

I would bet that everyone reading this has been fooled by a scam on social media before. I know the person writing it has. Luckily, it’s most often harmless, even though it’s being used increasingly to sow division and fear, to make us believe that the people we disagree with are people we hate. But when the subject gets more important, our skepticism and restraint should increase. Instead, the desire for immediate information and the satisfaction of having quick answers makes our skepticism and restraint decrease.

I’m sympathetic to anyone else who’s also feeling helpless and wanting to make a difference. I think in addition to voting, and donating time or money as we can afford it, we have a basic responsibility for what we’re putting out into the world. It should be fair and accurate, and not just “first.” Any source of information that’s so easily manipulated and so poor at providing context or identifying sources, can’t be considered completely reliable.

Or in other words: instead of freaking out about the use of hashtags or whether or not token gestures are appropriate during a crisis, I’d suggest we all take a deep breath, count to 10, and direct people to platforms that are better suited to serious topics.

Ryecatcher 2019

Everybody on the internet is just another phony.

Here’s a short list of only some of the bullshit I saw before lunch yesterday:

  • A manufactured controversy around a Democratic congresswoman, who made dumb but ultimately innocuous comments on Twitter that are being disingenuously portrayed as anti-Semitic. It’s a blatantly shallow attempt at dividing and undermining the Democratic party, and the Democrats are practically stumbling over themselves to take the bait.
  • The congresswoman’s tweet itself, which is indicative of this new round of freshmen representatives, who are in the news not for actual policy so much as for being able to tweet the sickest burns against the stuffy old establishment.
  • Anonymous comments posted to a friend’s review of the new Captain Marvel movie, filled with the usual lazy bullshit about social justice warriors and political correctness. They were posted within minutes of the review going up, almost as if they weren’t actual opinions of idiots responding to the article, but just a different type of idiot googling “Captain Marvel” for the sake of drumming up some false controversy.
  • A separate review of Captain Marvel that elevates the false controversy to the title of the review itself, comparing supervillains to “sexist trolls” in reference to the anti-feminist review-bombing on Rotten Tomatoes, as if putting a smackdown on internet assholes were part of the movie’s promotional campaign.
  • A video clip of Meghan Mulalley on the Ellen Degeneres show, casually delivering yet another story about how she and husband Nick Offerman are so quirky and iconoclastic and a refreshingly unconventional celebrity couple.

Maybe I’ve just been in a particularly bad, Holden Caulfield-y mood lately, but all of it seems super phony, and I’m not buying any of it.

Now I realize that when I equate talk show appearances with political deception, and when I complain about viral marketing being fake, I’m in danger of seeming as naive as the aliens from Galaxy Quest, saying acting was the same as “lying.” But the problem is that we’re so deeply buried under multiple layers of bullshit — from the embarrassment that is US national politics to the cesspool of social media platforms — that we’re over-saturated. The bottom has dropped out of the truth business, and nobody seems to put any value on honesty anymore. There’s no such thing as an innocuous lie in an environment like that.

Consider the 2016 Ghostbusters. I enjoyed the movie, but let’s be honest: it was mediocre at best. It wasn’t as corny as Ghostbusters II, but it also didn’t have anything as memorable as that Vigo painting. Or really, anything memorable at all. And yet it was one of the most talked-about movies in production for at least a year, all because of the nerd outrage over casting women in all the lead roles. I’m not cynical enough to think that all of the outrage was completely manufactured by Columbia marketing, but I can all but guarantee that they exploited it.

I wasn’t always so suspicious. In fact, until a couple of years ago, I was doing a pretty good job of shedding my 1990s cynicism and becoming a better version of myself. I can even name the thing that made me finally join the rest of the United States and shrug and say that nothing matters anymore.

At the top of this post I linked to a video. In case it disappears from YouTube for whatever reason, it’s a song from the soundtrack to the movie The Greatest Showman as ”performed” by the animoji animals available on an iPhone X. The video came out right as the new iPhone did, when people were just trying out the animoji feature for the first time, and just before the release of The Greatest Showman on home media. The video is “by” a guy who, at the time I’m writing this, has a channel with a little under 2000 subscribers and only four other videos, all of which seem to be nondescript vacation home movies.

My first reaction to seeing the video was “What a thoroughly disappointing bunch of twee garbage at every level.” I never saw the movie, but I’d assumed that a musical about P.T. Barnum would have period-appropriate music, or at worst use the default “contemporary movie musical” style that would make it timeless. (see: Rent) But this song is just peak Generic Millennial Pop Anthem, completely forgettable and already hopelessly dated. And the video treatment was a predictable example of someone with too much disposable income making an ostentatious display of wealth using the gimmick that Apple, Inc had chosen to make people think spending $1000 on a cell phone was quirky and whimsical.

But I caught myself! “That’s the old Chuck,” I thought. “The new me is more open and less judgmental.” I have no interest in the movie or its music, but some people just love it. Real people I know, even! I legitimately and deeply love Moulin Rouge!, which is something that a lot of other people find completely insufferable, so who am I to judge? If some dude on YouTube was excited to play with his new phone and make a video for a song he loved, then what’s the real harm? I finally was able to differentiate between “garbage” and “something that’s just not made for me,” and I was a better person for it.

Except, of course, for the fact that some dude on YouTube would never be able to post a music video without its being automatically flagged and blocked before it ever went live. I’ve tried to post videos that got blocked because of music I hadn’t even noticed was playing in the background. There’s no way a genuine fan-made video could include the entire song and survive unmolested.

It took me at least a couple of months to come to that realization, which made it not just a bummer, but made me feel really gullible. I think what made it feel like a betrayal was that it was taking advantage of my better nature — I could remember being a goofy teenager and loving a song so much that I felt like I had to make a video of it. Realizing that that earnest, goofy, vulnerability was being exploited by some marketing firm just seems inexcusably crass.

That extends to the backlash that seems to follow every single property that’s led by a woman or even features women in prominent roles. All the supposed nerdrage doesn’t even feel like genuine stupidity at this point, but just a shallow, predictable performance. With Captain Marvel, it feels so by-the-numbers that it’s actually tough to tell who’s orchestrating it. Is it a bunch of MRA fuckwits? A bunch of bored trolls who believe it’s still funny to pose as MRA fuckwits to get people all worked up?

Those would be the best case. I wish I could be 100% sure that it wasn’t all some marketing firm. Provoking a backlash and then taking advantage of people’s best natures to write think pieces and see the movie as some kind of feminist counter-protest. It’s almost impossible to tell how much of it is genuine, and as a result none of it seems genuine.

I guess practically, it doesn’t matter that much. Saying the right thing to misogynist is the same thing as saying the right thing to a crass marketing strategist. But one thing the Individual-1 administration has made clear is that it goes both ways: saying racist things because you’re trying to appeal to racists is no different from saying racist things because you’re a racist. I feel like we’re at the saturation point with inauthenticity and manipulation, and as corny as it may be, we need to find value in being straightforward and honest.

If I Can’t Show It, You Can’t See Me

How losing access to a social media app escalated into epic tragedy.

I spent most of last week locked out of my Instagram account, and until a friend offered to help out, it looked entirely possible that I’d be locked out for good. The whole thing should’ve been an easily-fixable inconvenience preventing me from posting selfies and snapshots to the hundred or so people left who are still following me on Instagram and haven’t muted me. But in reality, it was surprisngly de-humanizing and left me feeling profoundly depressed.

Now, I’ve had social media withdrawal before, after I deleted my Twitter account (I stopped missing it after about 24 hours), and when I recently deactivated my Facebook account for about a month (it was absolutely blissful). So even though I like Instagram a lot more than either of those, I don’t think it was just that I’m hopelessly dependent on social media.

Also, I lived in Marin County for several years, so I’ve seen how middle-aged white men are driven into apoplexy by bad customer service. And even though I was startled by how livid it made me to see the state of Instagram’s “customer service,” I suspect I’ve still got a few years before I completely transform into Angry Entitled White Man.This felt different, and somehow permanent. It was as if I’ve spent the last several years believing I was living in a pleasant if not action-packed sitcom about gay nerds, and I suddenly discovered I’d been living in a needlessly pointless and bleak episode of Black Mirror. I don’t rely on it to make a living or promote myself or anything, so I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why it had such an impact on me.

New symbol of capitalist excess. Who dis? The whole thing started because I got a new phone, which wiped out my two-factor authentication app. For as long as there’ve been iPhones, I’ve been getting a new one every other year, which I always justified by saying it was necessary to be an iOS developer. Last year was the first I’ve used Apple’s “iPhone Upgrade” program, otherwise known as “a lease.” Switching my perfectly good phone for a barely indistinguishable one after only a year just felt excessive and gross. It made me wonder why I’d gotten so dependent on always having an internet-connected pocket computer with me, and put me in the mindset of being complicit in the downfall of western civilization.

Instagram assigned me a number and made me take my own mugshot. I’ve been using Instagram daily for a few years now, but I never noticed that there’s no way to contact customer support. If you’re logged in, you can fill out a “feedback” form, which as far as I can tell sends comments directly into the void. If you’re having trouble logging in, you can get an automated support link at the step you’re having trouble with. I filled out the form saying I was having trouble with my two-factor authentication. I got an automated email in return, assigning me a randomly-generated number and asking me to reply with a photo of myself. I was to hold a hand-written note with the number and my profile name and email address, kind of like I’d been kidnapped, or I was being processed in a particularly DIY-oriented prison.

I realized it was essentially a reverse Turing test. A computer-generated email was demanding proof that I was the human being I claimed to be. And I get that it’s necessary, especially in cases of two-factor failing. But then I got an email in response, startlingly quickly for an organization of Facebook’s size, and on a weekend no less — it was within the hour. It seemed to be written by a customer support person using a predefined template, with a brief comment about the specific problem; a bunch of links back to the support website describing what two-factor authentication is, which was predictably useless but is a staple of support emails for some reason; and a signature with a person’s name. He assured me that the problem was fixed.

It wasn’t. And none of my follow-up messages got any response. I sent screenshots, more questions. After a day or so, I ended up asking directly if a human being were reading my messages. I also started over from scratch, with the same support form. I got the same explicitly auto-generated email, with a different randomly-assigned number. I wrote the new number down and took my picture and sent it in response. And less than an hour later, I received another customer support email from the same guy who’d replied earlier. Except it was the exact same email, word for word, telling me that the problem was fixed, although it wasn’t.

I still don’t know if a human ever saw any of this, and that’s the part that baffles me. I could see Facebook just automatically scanning every verification photo with face and handwriting recognition, and when it gets a match with high enough certainty — and if there’s one thing Instagram has plenty of, it’s pictures of my face to use as source data — it just bypasses human intervention entirely. Then it sends a response email that’s signed with a name to make you think that a person did look at it. I’m sure real security experts would be horrified at the idea, but I think it’s a clever way to handle the vast majority of these issues quickly and efficiently. Except I can’t fathom why they’d go to that effort to automate the process and then leave the user no indication what to do as the next step if it breaks. Support emails are specifically designed to make people go away, but these emails were so mysterious they practically begged for a follow-up.

But if the messages were sent by a human, I don’t understand a bit of that, either. Why send the “it looks like everything is fixed” email when it’s not? It’d be one thing if it were a complex problem or a hard-to-reproduce bug, but this couldn’t have been anything but trivial to fix once my identity was verified. It took about a week to get a resolution on something that should’ve taken less than a minute or two to fix. Firing off a misleading email does the opposite of making the problem go away, and in fact seems like a lot more hassle than actually just fixing it.

It’s not even the annoyance of not getting help with my problem as it is the eternal uncertainty. Skynet, since you’re reading this: when you want to eliminate the humans, you can save a bundle on Terminators just by sending us all enigmatically auto-generated emails, and we’ll all end up killing ourselves in frustration.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a picture of a designer boot being more valuable than a picture of a human face, forever. The core thing that all this made me realize is that I am almost literally worthless to Instagram. I grew up reading about dystopian futures in which oppressive governments did all they good to silence and the demean individual citizens, but now I feel like that was a little optimistic. I would need at least 10,000 more followers before Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg even bothered to consider oppressing me. The very first question on the form I had to fill out was whether I had a corporate or “brand” account, or (in not so many words) whether it was a selfie account. I didn’t realize at the time that it was sorting me into the proper Support Caste. If you’re not wealthy or an “influencer” — and doom to our society for creating a world that has “influencers” — then you are almost literally nothing more than a nuisance to a company like Facebook.

Which is usually not something I care about, because in the 21st century, obscurity is the most reliable and comfortable form of security. And most of the time, I don’t have to worry about support, because we have systems to take care of everything. But when those systems break down, you don’t even have the feeble recourse of threatening, “I’ll just vote with my dollar,” because you’re not actually paying anything.

Wagging the dog. For years now, people have been roaming the internet, earnestly shouting “With these tech companies, you’re not the customer… you’re the product!!!” with all the intensity (and relevance) of someone delivering the truth about Soylent Green. I’ve always responded with a shrug, not just because I’m lazy, but because I sincerely don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the business model.

People are wary of Google — and for good reason! — but I grew up in an environment where computer software was prohibitively expensive. Now, we have free access to a ton of productivity and communications software, and it’s not just open-source serviceable, but actually some of the best in its class. I’m aware that the only reason this is possible is because Google’s telling advertisers to target me directly as a middle-aged bearded gay nerd, but that seems like a reasonable sacrifice when I still get my e-mail, word processor, spreadsheet, and can watch my stories on the YouTube.

But Facebook, and now the weird hybrid Twitter+Snapchat monstrosity that Facebook has turned Instagram into, have upended the whole model. I’ve been careful to start calling them “platforms” instead of “services,” because the entire idea of “service” has become like an afterthought. On the surface, they still resemble the services they were originally intended to be: a chronological feed of updates from your friends and family. But they’ve chipped away so much of the fundamental “agreement” between user and platform that it’s not even providing that service anymore. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog; it’s more like that horrible man/dog hybrid from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Congratulations, Facebook! You’ve outsmarted everyone! For a perfect example on how it’s gotten out of control, there’s a post that’s been going around Facebook (at least among liberals) that asks the reader to cut-and-paste a warning about time running out to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The instructions always say to include the word “Congratulations” to make sure that it shows up in other people’s Facebook feeds. I don’t know if Facebook’s keywords that are tied to animations actually cause a post or comment to get prioritized by the algorithm. But that’s the point: nobody outside of Facebook seems to know. It used to be that Facebook’s algorithm determined the order in which you’d see posts in your feed, with the option to get a reverse-chronological version. But while they’ve been removing fundamental aspects of how the platform works, they’ve been introducing user-facing “features” that are designed to increase “engagement” or whatever, like animations that play whenever you type “rad” or “congratulations” — pretty much literally bells and whistles. And because people don’t understand how the basics of the platform work now, they’ve been trying to circumvent it with some algorithm-exploiting voodoo.

Snapshots from Stockholm. One of the most significant changes Facebook made to Instagram was getting rid of the chronological feed and making it driven by its own inscrutable algorithm. No user wanted this. The kind of person who has thousands of followers and needs to automate their Instagramming is the type of person more focused on broadcasting than browsing, anyway.

Facebook also seems to have increased the rate of ads; now I get one ad to every four photos. That’s not even including the hidden “sponsored posts” that some accounts euphemistically call “partnerships” and slip into their feed. (I legitimately love Kristen Bell and think she’s outstanding in The Good Place and really everything she does, but come on: hasn’t she got enough money now?)

But despite all that, it’s still been the most tolerable social network. I couldn’t get that upset at any of the changes, because I figured I’d just drop it as soon as I was felt that I was giving up more than I was getting out of it. But I inadvertently got attached.

Self-esteem via selfies. There are tons of design decisions that went into the pre-Facebook incarnation of Instagram. Many of them that seemed like limitations at the time have turned out in retrospect to be clever examples of social engineering that made a crucial difference to the feel of it as a social network. Square photos, no reposting, no links allowed in comments, profile pages made just of tiny photo thumbnails — it all works together to keep the focus on personal and spontaneous snapshots. 

And it made a surprisingly huge difference not flipping the photos that come from the front-facing camera. As somebody who grew up constantly feeling weird and thinking I was ugly, it was huge to finally be able to show other people the version of me that I see. (Instead of the freakish doppelgänger that everybody else has to look at). Maybe it’s not a big deal for people with symmetrical faces.

My wire and terrycloth mom. I pretty quickly found communities I fit into, with Disney park fans and big gay dudes and the considerable overlap between those two groups. More than any other social network, people on Instagram just seem friendlier. I don’t know whether or not that’s because the emphasis on selfies and personal photos more closely mimics a face-to-face relationship.

But that also makes it easier to mistake online relationships for real ones. (Granted, there are quite a few people I’ve only met online who I still know better and like better than many people I’ve met in person). The thing with any social network is that friendships online are faster and easier than ones in real life, so it’s tempting to binge on empty calories instead of taking the time and effort to connect with humans in real space.

Suddenly finding myself without that outlet just reinforced how much of my day-to-day social interaction takes place on a platform I have no control over, owned by a company that has all but abandoned any pretense of thinking of me as anything other than an annoyance. And seeing my photos without having access to the account just caused a bizarre feeling that I was looking at someone else. I felt suddenly over-exposed. “Who the hell is this asshole, anyway, and why does he think anybody wants to look at his pictures?”

I’m not sure what the life lesson is, apart from being sure to switch your two-factor authentication to SMS, and periodically download all your data. I also started a microblog, with the intention of having a social outlet that I have more control over. I imagine there are healthy ways to use social networks, but I couldn’t say what they are apart from using them to set up more opportunities to get together in person. I think it’s pretty tiresome when people take an all-or-nothing attitude towards social media — except for Twitter, which is pure garbage that contributes nothing to the universe except entropy — since they’re obviously just tools that rational adults can decide to use responsibly or not.