The story in brief was that Volkswagen did a beginning-of-April marketing stunt announcing that they were changing their US branding to “Voltswagen,” to reaffirm their commitment to electric vehicles. The Verge chomped on that like a starving bass, running it as a top story on the site. Now, after finding out that the obvious marketing stunt was, in fact, a marketing stunt, they edited their story from press release regurgitation into a long-form tantrum.
Normally, I’d do the Nelson Muntz point-and-laugh and then move on, but the Verge writers’ histrionics have actually made me kind of angry. First, instead of being good-natured — or even the wet blanket but appropriately skeptical approach that Ars Technica took — they changed the headline to say that Volkswagen lied about their rebranding! Here showing the same understanding of “lying” as the aliens in Galaxy Quest.
Worse, they made repeated references — in the byline of the rewritten article, and on Twitter — to “Dieselgate.” Because, obviously, fooling a couple of gullible and clickbait-seeking internet writers is equivalent to a multi-billion dollar, years-long, massive environmental scandal.
But now we know the rebrand was nothing more than another lie from a company that’s become known for something else: lying.
A butt-hurt, insufferably whiny baby
The reason this makes me so irrationally angry — apart from putting me in a position where I’m not just defending Volkswagen, but defending an April Fools prank — is that it’s another reminder of how embarrassingly low journalistic standards are in 2021. Actually, that’s a third strike against it: it makes me want to put “journalist” in sarcastic quotes, but I can’t do that, because that’s the province of all the knuckle-dragging losers on the internet complaining about Brie Larson and Kathleen Kennedy.
The writers can clutch their pearls and stand aghast at VW all they want, but the truth is that they simply didn’t do due diligence for their non-story. They valued page views over newsworthiness. “They published a press release!” insists the article, ignoring the obvious fact that you’re not obliged to run every press release as front-page news.
The undeniable fact of all this is that this stunt was not news. Even if it had been 100% real. Even for a company gigantic as the Volkswagen Group. It was so obviously as much a non-story as the results of the Puppy Bowl or the war between Left Twix and Right Twix. It’s depressing that they think the problem is a company fooling them with a lame (and clearly publicity-grabbing) stunt, instead of how eager they were to “report” on the stunt in the first place.
Thoughts about jackasses on the internet and how much of my life I’ve wasted responding to them.
Yet another thing that I have to thank WandaVision for: maybe I can finally stop feeling the need to respond to arrogant dipshits on the internet? Last week’s excellent episode had an extremely well-written and well-performed scene in which Vision reminded a grieving Wanda that what she was feeling wasn’t just sorrow and emptiness. “What is grief, if not love persevering?”
An objectively good line in an objectively good scene in an objectively good show. ‘Nuff said!
Except Twitter’s gonna Twit, so the whole weekend was filled with some people gushing about what a well-written moment that was… followed by an assload of trolls, snobs, condescending misogynist dolts, insufferable anti-corporate twits, and generally arrogant an awful people mocking it — and the series as a whole — as being insultingly beneath them.
When I first heard that Disney+ was going to release its original series as real series, meaning waiting a week between episodes instead of dumping an entire season online at once, I was very happy to hear it. The Netflix model makes sense for what they’re trying to do — be a repository for hours and hours and hours of programming available whenever you want it — but it turns out that even in the over-stimulated 21st century, there’s a lot to be said for that week of speculation and anticipation between episodes. It feels more like a shared communal experience.
Or at least, it would feel like that, if there weren’t so many selfish a-holes out there.
As much as I’ve been loving The Mandalorian, I’m not watching new episodes at midnight the night before a new episode is released. But I’ve seen people not even waiting an hour to start posting spoilers online.
Now granted, I didn’t see many direct spoilers, probably because I’ve managed to weed out the worst offenders from my social media by now. But there were enough people proud of themselves for talking around the spoilers that by the time I watched the episode at a reasonable time tonight, I already had a rough idea of what was going to happen.1The biggest spoiler was a coy, roundabout tweet from one of the guest stars of the episode, which more or less revealed that they were going to be a guest star of the episode. It reminded me of The Crying Game, when I’d seen so many people so deliberately talking around the spoiler that I could tell what the spoiler was within a few minutes.
Most surprising to me, though, was how many people I saw on Twitter defending their right to post whatever they want. “If you don’t want to be spoiled, you shouldn’t be on Twitter!” was the claim. One particularly asinine person started mocking somebody who was complaining about spoilers, then said that if you’re reading Twitter in the morning you’re clearly not working, so you could just as well be watching the episode. Because taking two minutes to scroll through Twitter at work is exactly the same as taking 45 minutes to watch television during work, I guess.
I started to break my read-only policy to call the guy out for not only being stupid, but also being such a jack-ass that he’d go out of his way to defend carelessly and selfishly ruining the experience for other people, instead of showing the barest minimum amount of consideration by demonstrating the barest minimum amount of impulse control for a couple of hours until everyone got a chance to watch it. But then I realized three things.
One is that the people I was about to yell at were people I didn’t know, and one of them is apparently a contributor to a notoriously asinine Disney “news” site, so I had no idea why I’d been following them in the first place.
Two was that once someone’s selfishness has gotten to that point, calling them out on it isn’t going to have any effect at all. If there’s ever any question, the best course of action is always to block them and move on.
And lastly, no matter how selfish their intention, their advice was “you shouldn’t be on Twitter.” Which is impossible to argue with.
Apart from just bitching about a social media platform I should never have signed back onto, this also has me wondering about building anticipation and buzz and community when distribution gets wider and audiences get more and more fractured. The Mandalorian in particular has been, since its first episode, full of revelations that it’s tried to keep under wraps. Surprisingly, it’s succeeded more often than not. Obviously, people are super-eager to talk about it, or there wouldn’t be so many people eager to spoil it, so they’ve built (and earned) a dedicated audience. I’d be interested to see if there are ways to preserve that communal experience of the old broadcast TV days, that don’t just depend on people not being jerks.
The biggest spoiler was a coy, roundabout tweet from one of the guest stars of the episode, which more or less revealed that they were going to be a guest star of the episode.
How people raised on 80s TV can’t reliably distinguish between real and fake, and why it’s even worse now.
While I was trying to figure out how Dolly Parton manages to achieve near-sainthood in such a cold and nasty world, I kept spinning off on tangents thinking about how much we’ve gone astray from putting value in — or even recognizing — sincerity and authenticity.
My take on Dolly Parton’s magic is that she doesn’t make a distinction between the “real” Dolly and the one that’s on-stage. For a lot of people, being “on” all the time means that they’re always insincere, but Dolly uses it as permission to always be sincere.1The saying goes: “Working from home doesn’t mean you’re always at home, it means you’re always at work.” But at least in my own experience, it also means that you’re always at home, which is nice both for unexpected napping and for knowing what to expect every day.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more it annoys me that my generation is the one that took all the earnest sincerity of the 1970s, said “Nah, that shit’s too fake and corny,” and sent American culture into a decades-long death spiral of self-satisfied, sarcastic, self-awareness. Post-modernism obviously wasn’t invented in the 1980s, but the 80s and 90s are what took it mainstream and then ran it into the ground.
The saying goes: “Working from home doesn’t mean you’re always at home, it means you’re always at work.” But at least in my own experience, it also means that you’re always at home, which is nice both for unexpected napping and for knowing what to expect every day.
How the book Ready Player Two could be a teachable moment for the internet.
The sequel to the bookReady Player One has apparently been released, which is news I’ve been told repeatedly for some reason. It’s a book that I’ve now read several passages from, despite having no interest in reading any of it.
Not long after the first book was released, I got a copy of it (and the audiobook!) based on the hype around it. But I realized it was not for me — or more accurately, it was 100,000% “for” me, but I didn’t want it — as soon as I’d read an excerpt from the first chapter. In a correctly-functioning universe, that should’ve been the beginning and end of my awareness of this series and the works of Ernest Cline in general.
But I haven’t been able to escape the new book. Not because of a marketing blitz, but because I can’t turn around on the internet without running into someone eager to dunk on it. And the same people who spend most of their time saying “just let people enjoy things” are now double plus eager to show how funny their snarky comments are.1For all I know, maybe that is part of the marketing blitz? Are publishers cynical enough these days to be investing in hate-reading campaigns?
Don’t we have better things to do? I mean, I recognize the irony in writing a blog post to say how much I don’t care about something, but I’m not convinced that everyone is self-aware enough to really understand the irony. And while it’d be a lot simpler just to say “That’s stupid, stop doing it,” followed immediately by deleting my Twitter account for good, this seems like a perfect opportunity to ask people to just try and be better.
Breaking away from toxic social media by actively choosing to make better use of your time
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
Her name is Kelly Cuoco, and I honestly mean no disrespect when I say that I can never remember her name without looking it up.
Also, 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.
So 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.
I do have to admit that riffs on The New Yorker’s umlauts are kind of clever.
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.
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.
It also charged by the minute, which led to one of the only times I got into serious trouble as a teenager.
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.
I 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%.
Believe it or not, I have at least been trying to come up with well-thought-out essays.
I don’t know who needs to read this, but after around 15 years I finally have to admit social media was a mistake.
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:
Promise a straightforward and inessential-but-still-fun service (e.g,. a platform for sharing snapshots with a group of people of your choosing)
Attract enough users with this service to achieve either an IPO or acquisition by a larger tech company
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.