Thought leaders, cool kids, signalling, & the beast

I don't want to talk about this, nor feel obligated to. Yet it nags at my soul. The feeling is like that Somebody is Wrong on the Internet phenomenon only exponentially worse; it's like a cultural/meta-tribal mass signalling ritual gone wrong sort of thing.

It happens everyday. It becomes really pronounced when something big and bad happens. I should note that it's only painfully obvious when you, yourself, aren't instinctively compelled to mimic or repeat what are increasingly the culturally sanctioned memes. When you are on the outside looking in.

I'm talking about the verbalization or other use of such memes.

There's the pleasant and harmless variety:
  • "Please" and "Thank you"
  • "Good morning/afternoon/evening"
  • "Have a nice day" 
There's the questionably sincere and/or thoughtless variety:
  • "My thoughts and prayers are with you."
  • "Bless you"
  • "I'm sorry for your loss"
There's the ignorant political variety (these tend to be thematic and narrative-based):
  • "America's guns/assault weapons/culture of violence is the problem."
  • "Muslims/immigrants are the problem"
  • "Democrats hate the wealthy"
  • "Republicans are bigots"
  • "Liberals are pussies"
  • "Conservatives are idiots"
  • "Libertarians are selfish"
Not to forget the image variety, often found on facebook, twitter, instagram, etc, showcasing how normal/awesome/fun that person is.

These aren't all bad. A good many are probably good. We are social animals (most of us) after all, and I think all of us engage in some kinds of social signalling rather frequently. A lot of it is unthinking instinctive stuff we learned in order to smooth out our interactions within the cultural landscape.

Some of it is status/reputation building/maintenance (hereafter referred to as "status-bullshit"). Some of the status-bullshit really bothers me. I'm not sure why. It comes across as phony, even unnaturally forced at times. (I even find myself questioning why phonyism bothers me as much as it does. I have some theories, but don't want to get too far off track.) But even most status-bullshit is harmless.

The big issue I have is with this fuzzy, trickle-down, meme-based, in-group status signalling. It's like fashion, only it's pseudo-intellectual and all ego. You signal your peers: you are with the cool kids, therefore you are not of the uncool; you are better. If this sounds like high school bullshit, that's because it is; status-bullshit is high school bullshit, which is collective animal behavior. We are stupid social animals who really have to hurt our brains to not be, and rarely does it pay off.

Create a Meme, Master the Universe

For a long time I assumed most people weren't particularly influenced by "thought leaders." For a long time I thought that Mr. Famous News Editor had virtually zero impact on anybody's choices. It was all at the margins--only a few on the fence might be swayed. Well, I now think that I was both right and wrong at the same time. I still think a "thought leader" has virtually zero impact on any one person. But now I believe many "thought leaders" have a significant impact on a large number of people over time.

The key parts: many and over time. I used the term 'fashion' earlier, and for lack of energy I'll use it again, in a shitty analogy:

Think of fashion being the direction of a raging river. The masses are that river. They follow the fashion. In a perfect natural world, the raging river forges its own direction as allowed by the environment--that is, the masses choose the fashion where possible. While a few drops might escape now and then, the vast majority of the water follows along, reinforcing the fashion.

But what could one idealistic droplet do to change the course of the river? Practically nothing. What can many idealistic droplets do over a long period of time? Well, they can slowly direct a few more, and a few more, and a few more in another direction. Carve out some trenches here, fill in some sand there, and after a while, you've got more water going in your desired direction than in the old.

Forgive allusions to social engineering, since I know that's a bad word and the idea muddies the water (I don't like easy puns, but wrote it--almost memetically--before I caught it) doesn't help discussion.

That, I think, is what is going on. I won't and probably can't prove the who/what/when/where/why behind the intellectual culture shift--the broad, laymen & academic alike, kind of intellectual culture. But I think the sheer likelihood of information having a not insignificant effect on culture is too much and too obvious to deny. The only slightly controversial claim I make, is that it tends to go in more or less a certain direction, as opposed to any other direction if all else being equal.

Most right-of-center bloggers will say "Duh, what the hell do you think we've been pointing out for the last 15 years?" or "Welcome to the culture wars Captain Obvious McBornyesterday." I'm sorry if this sounds too much like me praising the awesomeness and practicality of the wheel, but I'm going somewhere and attempting to spit out the nuance on it I have in my head.

It's more than political, more innocent than "culture war" implies, and I think ultimately, more dangerous. I mean innocent and dangerous in the way a child with a gun is both of those things.

The Joneses

What the hell is it, where is it going, and why, you ask? While there probably is some relatively small-time colluding, bias, and other activist "journalism" being perpetrated, I seriously doubt there exists a large Illuminati style mass-media conspiracy to manipulate the public.

What I think is happening is a lot of status-bullshit stuck in a positive feedback loop, equipped with a megaphone. There is an intelligence to it, and a sort of purposeful direction. But probably not the way you think. I mean there's an intelligence guiding the general direction the way a superorganism does things, on purpose. Like an ant colony, or even coral. Many argue that the human species, or at least modern society is a superorganism, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a subgroup in a subgroup driving a species where individualism, disagreement, and critical thought are things that really matter.

I'm talking about pretty much anyone who works in the media industry. Directly or indirectly, those in the industry are exposed to the masses. That's their job. No exposure equals no job. Because of this, they want to appear sophisticated--who wouldn't want to appear sophisticated in front of the masses? Sophistication means many things, but it typically means intelligence, education, respectable fashion, and holding ideas that aren't widely considered to be bad.

With feedback loops it's easy to shrug it off as a chicken or egg thing and not think about it. My problem with chicken and egg thinking regarding social issues is that it tends to imply revolutions or massive shocks to the system to "reboot" things, and overturn the chicken and egg cycle. I'm not sure that's necessary. In any case, putting on airs to appear sophisticated is probably something we're all guilty of, especially in the presence of a lot of people. Most of us will study and rehearse before public speaking, put on a suit/dress or something "respectable," and avoid spouting our more unpopular opinions. We signal our inness with the cool kids, consciously or not. We call people who don't do this, "crazy." Bam, reinforcement.

Our kids, our students, our peers see this. They learn, they mimic what appears to be "success." This is human nature. This is all fine; except when it's not. I would call this a potential shortcoming innate to humans and most social animals. Everybody is keeping up with the Joneses, but what happens when the Joneses drive off a cliff? A lot of people will be fucked. Thankfully, we're not literally mind-controlled drones and are fairly diverse, but sometimes the herd-like stuff is scary.


So what specifically are you talking about, you ask? Like I said, it's kind of fuzzy. To me, right now, at least it seems kind of fuzzy. It may seem like I'm dancing around something without pointing out what I'm really talking about, and that's partly because I'm not quite 100% sure on what it is. I agree, that's lazy and weaselly, so I'll attempt to get specific.

Let's take Fox News and Drudge Report for example. I feel so refreshed naming such specific shit. You're welcome. These two organizations are both media giants in their own ways. They have a lot of influence, not so much as telling people what decisions to make (although that is probably something), but influence in what actually makes the news and what people are talking to each other about. You may have heard a lot about "gatekeeping" with respect to news organizations. Well that's a thing, it by necessity exists, and for good or ill it shapes conversations around the world and in other newsrooms. They have a butterfly effect, merely by putting text on a screen or words through television speakers. Let's pretend they made something up, really bad, very scandalous about President Obama. Drudge says one thing and Fox says something similar. Totally made up. Well, fake or not we are going to be talking about it for days at least. The White House will probably make some kind of a statement denying things, other news orgs will have to at least discuss it. People around the world will be talking about it. Ideas are exchanged, information repeated, billions of times. That shit has an effect.

That was nothing. That was small time shit. Let's say there's a new thing that happened. One few people have even thought about. Aliens sent a package to Lima, Peru, detailing methods to make the best coffee mugs in the galaxy. First contact, and it's about coffee mugs. Before the leaders of the world can put out statements, editors and columnists are already working on their articles and how their take on things is what really matters here:

  • Peru's curious alien relationship and why the international community should permanently establish a headquarters in Lima and take the lead in coffee mug design. -Washington Post
  • Quality mugs bode well for a peaceful coexistence, but what about the Coffee Mugs Union of North America and the EU's Artisans de Tasses à Café? -New York Times
  • The Top 10 Reasons Alien Coffee Mugs are Really Signs of Invasion. -Buzzfeed
  • Why Peru Should Disseminate All Coffee Mug Designs Freely Over the Internet, and What That Means for the Future of Open Source. -TechCrunch

One or two of something along those lines will in large part be the discussion. Sure, we'd talk about how cool/scary/weird first contact is and all that, but we'd also be talking about fucking unions, open source, or prepping for a global invasion. And coffee mugs.
"Are you pro-coffee mug? Yeah, I used to think that too, but now with everything going on, and you know things have changed, man. I've learned that, over the years, I've really come to understand the other side, and never really thought about it until recently. It just kinda seems like the right thing to do. Oh crap, gotta go. Game of Thrones is on, whooo!"



"Senator Smith was found disheveled in his home today with an arsenal of Peruvian coffee mugs. He is scheduled to give a statement later today; sources expect him to announce his resignation."

Sharing is Caring

Perhaps my made up examples got out of hand. I don't watch tv, and haven't read newspapers in a long while, so a bunch of it I honestly can't point to. Still, a lot seeps through to the internet. Well, now the internet is usually the first stop for meme-sharing. I don't socialize very much at all, so yeah, I think that's why it's both super easy for me to pick up on this, but also fuzzy to see how it spreads.

On twitter for example, one of the few social things I engage in--and I use it mostly to follow gaming news--I seem to end up staring at what often turns into a hyper-liberal clique. WTF does gaming have to do with politics? Very little.

I casually paid attention to the Gamergate thing. My impression was that gamers were more often than not, indifferent to feminist critiques of games and against bullshit journalism. Today, I find my gaming-specific twitter feed to be mostly comprised of gaming news with a good dose of lefty mantras. After something like the terrorist attack in Orlando, the politics come out in force. Lately it's been dressed up as "not about politics, just common sense," which of course inevitably calls for something rabidly partisan. I'm not telling them to shut up, I'm not saying stop talking politics, I'm not even complaining about my oddly political gaming news feed. I'm just saying this is what it looks like.

In my mind, much of the twitter politics is virtue signalling. What do I mean by virtue signalling? Well, on twitter you cannot really go into detail, nor explain any opinion beyond the equivalent of monkeys throwing poo at each other. So twitter is not for debating. It is not for engaging people and changing minds. It is not there to better understand one another. It is there to share bite-sized info and memes.

If you aren't very knowledgeable, but really, really want to shout your tidbits of political genius at your enemies, then twitter is the place for you. If you aren't one for confrontation, and still want to share your political genius, my friend, twitter is the place for you as well. My liberal game developers and various other gaming personalities I follow usually don't follow anyone not liberal. In my feed, there are two kinds of political opinions: the ones on the left, and the ones not spoken. So what good is it to share a political opinion (which by definition is at least a little divisive) with people who all agree with you? To remind them that they are like them. "Yo peeps, almost didn't get to my phone in time to tweet that I am, in fact, still a progressive, in the wake of this horrible tragedy." "We still cool?"

I don't think they are consciously thinking "hey, I need to keep saying stuff like this to appear thoughtful and cool," I think it's mostly unthinking. Maybe they spent a few minutes or even a few days thinking about some of their political beliefs years ago, then they just retweet Mr. Super Popular Liberal's political tweet, or repeat some old lefty meme. Whether they agree with what they tweet and retweet is one thing, but it has the added benefit of signalling to others in their circle that they are with the cool kids. People signal back. "Hey man, saw your tweet. Totes agree, I hate coffee mugs too."

The gaming industry is part of the media industry. The old media industry is and was largely comprised of left-leaning people. These people interact with one another frequently. Networking is a powerful thing. Would you want to alienate yourself with most of your potentially lucrative network? If you're human and not dumb and want to keep working, you won't start sharing your pro-coffee mug opinions all over the internet. You want to stay all chummy with your liberal friends. Sooner or later, you're surrounded by apparently like-minded people all singing the same tune. Kumbaya.

A Big Fat Phony!

Go ahead and regurgitate Noam Chomsky, or Thomas Sowell, retweet that celebrity who just wants some common sense. Don't spend the hours it takes to actually study the intricacies of politics, or why the Democrats voted against subsidized coffee mugs, or why Republicans voted to increase Peruvian tariffs. It's far easier to appear smart and assume your political rivals are evil.

It's not just politics. Like I said, it's more, it's innocent, and it's dangerous. I watched the Warcraft movie the other day. I loved it. As a fan of the games and the lore, it was heaven for 2 hours. The movie doesn't suck. It's got some pretty neat stuff in it. I'm obviously biased here, as a fantasy genre fan and Warcraft fan, I am in double jeopardy territory. But if I can give my worst, but still honest, critical opinion of the film, leaving no flaw unpunished. I would still rate it on par with, if not above, most blockbusters in recent memory. It felt a little bit rushed and a little bit jumbled at times. But I felt very entertained both times I saw it, satisfied with the story, satisfied with the acting, very satisfied with the scenery and CGI. It was a solid, competent movie. The international box office earnings show that.

But the American critics have a stick up their ass and few of them can find any love for it. I know, opinions, especially on artwork, are matters of taste. Maybe many of them genuinely didn't like it. But damn they were excessively harsh, and I can't take them seriously anymore. Maybe they thought it was supposed to be a one-and-done story, beginning, middle, end. But that's not really what it is. It's an introduction to Warcraft. An introduction to the world, the saga, the characters. It's a story within a story. The marketing here was bad, sure, but I thought it was fairly obvious the movie was an intro to something bigger.

A big dumb action video game movie it is not, and yet that's how critics and many noncritics treat it. What I'm trying to get at here is that the movie did somewhat poorly in the U.S. on opening weekend, and several of the gaming tweeters and youtubers I follow gave lukewarm reviews at best. Anecdotes are worthless I know, but that shit bothered me. These were guys and girls who were in the same fandom as I, yet they could barely crack a smile when discussing the movie. And what really bothered me the most, was that here they were, goofballs suddenly putting on their glasses, getting all hyper analytical, and upping their vocabulary just to piss on a movie that was made for them. They said they liked it as a fan, and would give it a 9/10, but if they were "to be objective about it" they'd "rate it a 4.5/10." Okay smart guy, even though you really liked Transformers 3, thanks for taking the cue from all your smart friends and giving us an objective rating.

Seriously, go see Warcraft. If you like fantasy, magic, stunning visuals, or something different from typical Hollywood, you will probably enjoy it.

Most of you probably don't care about Warcraft, so thanks for putting up with my barely-related anecdote. The interesting thing about it is the disparity between the international markets and the U.S., and between the foreign critics and the American. It's so big, that there obviously is something going on. We watched the same movie. We just happened to feel differently about it, because America.
It's not just movies that reveal these odd disparities with the wider Western world. It's politics--and I mean that in like, the nonobvious stuff, but politics you think we'd more closely agree with. Like abortion, immigration, even taxation. I'm too tired to get into it here, but it's like how America as a whole is further to the right than most of Europe. Yet on many issues we are further left. Even in the Democratic party, they are further left than many European leftist parties on various issues. Republicans are further left than many rightist parties, and some leftist parties on certain issues in Europe. Generally speaking, the Republican platform is rather centrist compared to European rightist parties. Some of that is situational--political stances forged by global pressures, but some of it is still philosophy. We do not neatly fit in a political philosophy to the right of Europe.

So what's with these odd differences? You think I'm going to say it's a culture thing? Or do you think I'm going to say it's a phony/status-bullshit thing? It's both. I think what is happening, to a certain extent, is that we're in our own little (maybe big) bubble. And it's exacerbated by the media status-bullshit feedback loop.

Ace of Spades talked about the bias inherent in media and academic institutions a lot. Wish I could find some of his more salient posts, but they are buried deep in his archives and my searching skills aren't that great. But he has chipped away at the chicken or egg thing, explaining why such institutions are like that. The gist of it is pretty damn plausible, if not very likely: Academics and journalists are self selected. It takes a certain kind of person to want and succeed in those positions. While there are no apparent political quotas, it's easier in life to get along, to sync with your network and colleagues. At some point in the past, the political and cultural leanings of a critical mass of the academics and journalists on some level synced. It probably wasn't hard. Roughly half the country belongs to either one major party or the other. I mean, just by random chance roughly half of an industry will lean one way, and it won't be perfectly symmetrical.

Throw in some time, memesharing, mimicking success, and you have a feedback loop. Soon it's not roughly symmetrical, it's wildly asymmetrical. It's important to remember, it's not about politics, even if it started out that way (perhaps it didn't). It's about appearing sophisticated. Keeping up appearances, gelling with your network, colleagues, peers, those you look up to, and those you want to impress. While there maybe tens of thousands of different companies, schools, and people all with their own goals, they collectively become this superorganism thanks to this feedback loop. And it sort of pushes them, and directs all of us one way.

But the academy and media hold a special place in our culture. And it's a really powerful place.

The Anti-Climax

It's should be perfectly okay to disagree, and publicly without jeopardizing your professional or social life. Just not with me. Because I will screenshot your pro-coffee mug opinion and share it with your employer, and shame you all over cyberspace. Nah, I'm not that rude. I, myself used to be pro-coffee mug, but I changed my position when it was fashionable to; you know, right before the President did (we've all changed positions, I'm making fun of myself here).

I guess my biggest concern is not that we're being pushed in a certain direction, or that by and large, the media and academy are all culturally and politically monotone (those things still really suck), but that it has a chilling effect. What's really insidious, is that the chilling effect only feeds the monster, which makes the chilling worse.... feedback loop. Now I'm venturing eerily close to advocating revolution, or a shock to the system, but I don't think that's necessary. Not yet. Because this beast isn't controlled by some sinister Illuminati, it's got a mind of its own, and one day it will go where the "thought leaders" don't want it to. It may not be good for us either, but when it happens it will shake things up.

You may have got the impression that I think this is a liberal beast heading us in a leftward direction. I think that's only partially true. It just happens to be a left-leaning beast, that happens to be heading us in what appears to be a leftward direction. But it could've easily been a right-leaning beast heading us in a rightward direction. It may yet still. But it's a beast, and it's controlling our direction. That's the part I don't like. That's what is dangerous.

Humans tend to do bad things. Groups of humans tend to do worse things. Superorganisms however, are amoral, and we've given this thing the keys to our future.
Image credit: JeffChangArt

Now is where I fail at creativity and fully embody weaksauce, advocating unoriginal shit that probably won't work. Solutions are hard. But if we can perhaps dig a trench here, fill in some sand there, maybe one day, we can change a thing or two.
  • Stop the unthinking memes. Maybe once in a while, think about something before repeating the standard phrase. Come up with something sincere, thoughtful. Maybe you won't come up with anything, but at least you thought about it.
  • Respectfully disagree. Diversity in thought is interesting. It leads to innovation. Conflict sometimes, but can we not be civil? 
  • Support someone's right to do something you really despise. Coffee mugs aren't so bad, even alien-inspired Peruvian ones.
  • Read, and try to understand the other side, whatever it is. Maybe come up with your own "side."
  • Assume, at least sometimes, your rivals aren't evil or stupid. 

I'm not talking about stuff like flat-earthers, Nazis, or total racists. But stuff that is perhaps on the other side of the mainstream, and perhaps a tad outside of the mainstream. Some of that crazy stuff at least makes for good reading.


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