Sunday, July 10, 2016

Scott Alexander Blogs His Way to Fame

Scott Alexander seems to be on the verge of achieving one of my fantasies, of becoming a famous essayist just by posting interesting stuff on his own blog. No help from editors or journalistic insiders, no self-promotional stunts, no celebrity gossip, just writing about serious topics in a way people want to read. This is extraordinarily difficult. There was a first wave of bloggers who got famous largely by being first – Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, Kevin Drum, etc. – but even some of those had previous and/or parallel careers in journalism. I can't think of anyone who has achieved fame as a sociopolitical blogger – on his or her own blog, I mean, not as part of Slate or the Corner – in the seven years I have been doing it.

Timing, as they say, is everything. I love blogging and reading blogs, which just fit perfectly into my intellectual world, but it seems that I actually came to it rather late, as its glory days were already fading. Now you read all the time that blogging is dead or pointless, and most of humanity seems to have moved on to Facebook or Twitter or something.

But that hasn't stopped Scott Alexander. He emerged from a small internet world of "rationalists" and people who play games like "Dungeons and Discourse" (which mashes up D&D with philosophy and puns), and back in 2011 his posts got only ten or so comments. Now his posts get 1,000 comments and he is regularly cited at Vox and occasionally at the NY Times. He has done all his writing in his spare time, while he has attended medical school and gone through his internship and residence in psychiatry. So I guess it can be done.

I have been thinking lately about why Alexander has been successful at this and I have not. Setting aside questions of talent – in particular, he is a lot wittier than I am – I come up with several reasons. For one thing, he writes passionately about controversial topics. I tend to see both sides of everything too well to believe very passionately in one side or the other, and whenever I write a post with much vehemence I feel embarrassed about it later. As Alexander explained in a great essay, it is controversy that draws attention; this was by way of explaining why things like the Michael Brown case from Ferguson or the Duke lacrosse rape case get really famous, rather than clear-cut examples of police misconduct or campus rape. What elevates something into the public eye is argument, so it is murky cases where partisans can passionately argue both sides that get the attention. ("The less useful, and more controversial, a post here is, the more likely it is to get me lots of page views.") Alexander is plugged into a more youthful internet world than mine, where people passionately debate whether Bernie Sanders is liberal and revolutionary enough to be worth supporting and fling cruel insults at each other like "Nice Guy" and "White Bro". So he takes sides in arguments that lots of people on the internet care about, especially all the war of the sexes stuff that swirls around feminism, "Nice Guys" (aka "Fedoras"), whether nerds are sexist or women are too snotty to date nerds, polyamory, and whether there is such a thing as "rape culture."

For another, Alexander has been very revealing about his own personal life. This I refuse to do, partly from disinclination but mainly because as a husband and father most of the important stuff about my personal life involves other people. Two of my friends, after reading private emails from me about my children, have told me that I should be a parenthood blogger because what I write about my kids is so interesting. No thanks – my children deserve better than to have me broadcast their struggles and foibles across the internet. Ditto my marriage; whatever right I have to reveal my own darkest moments does not extend to my wife. Because of the semi-public nature of my career, which involves lots of work for the National Park Service, there are things I think about archaeology and history that could get me in serious trouble. A little thing I posted about Memorial Day in one small town, which I thought was cute, got me blacklisted by the local historical and archaeological community, and they have since refused to meet with me. So one of the main tricks of the essayist, self-revelation, is largely closed to me.

In a way that is related to both of the above, Alexander has made himself a spokesman for a particular sort of people, nerdy guys who are good at abstract thought and wordplay but can't get a date. I am not at all sure for whom I would be a spokesman, and anyway have never tried.

Plus, he just writes an incredible amount.

Over the past few months I have read through everything Alexander has written at his current blog, Slate Star Codex, and I worked my way back to 2011 in his previous blog, Squid314. I found this fascinating. I don't agree with everything, but then who could write two or three times a week for five years, often about controversial subjects, and always be right? There are some things Alexander says that I think are just wrong (see the nonsense about monarchy in Meditations on Moloch) and others that I think are products of being young in a way that looks silly from past 40. Alexander suffered from being mocked in high school and had little romantic life until he was well out of college, and that certainly sucks to live through, but on the other hand by the time he is 45 he will be a well-paid, respected psychiatrist who probably has a monthly column in some prestigious magazine, having vaulted about twenty rings up the ladder past the jock who was his nemesis at 16, and this makes things look a little different.

(Why is high school so awful? How could we do it differently?)

Anyway, here is a list of some of Alexander's most interesting posts.

Politics and general stuff:

I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Out Group (his most famous post, the one that has been repeatedly cited at the NY Times; my response is here.)

The Control Group is Out of Control (What's wrong with modern science; this has recently been cited in scientific journals)

Meditations on Moloch (Are we trapped in an evil system over which nobody has any real control?)

Rape Culture

Superweapons (and here)

Against Dystopian Fiction

Race and the Criminal Justice System

Social Psychology is a Flamethrower (If we took the findings of social psychology seriously, what would we do?)

Social Justice and Words (certain words – racism, privilege, etc. – are not tools of communication but weapons, and we should treat them accordingly)

Why I Defend Scoundrels

About medicine and being a doctor:

Medicine as not seen on tv

The effectiveness of SSRIs

Poverty and Psychiatry (some patients are really suffering from being broke)

How Bad Are Things? (from the psych hospital, they look pretty bad)


pithom said...

I have a hypothesis that all Internet fame can be explained by charting links and clicks.

David said...

Oddly enough, inspired by your link to "Superweapons," I read through several of his essays this morning and came across one that I thought was absolutely terrible. This was his April 2016 essay attempting to explain the Sunni-Shia dispute, entitled "The Ideology is not the Movement." Essentially he said that the dispute has nothing to do with what Sunnis and Shias say it is about, which has to do with the succession to Muhammad (he calls this "the Comparative Religion 101 answer" which is a woefully anti-intellectual, self-satisfied, and arrogant Peter Thiel-like statement to make for someone who packages himself as a nice guy nerd). Anyway he goes on to say that this dispute is all about tribalism and the findings of (yes) social psychologists.

Now, I'm not saying he's utterly wrong. Yes, the findings of social psychologists are obviously relevant here. But I was struck that the rest of the essay seems to have virtually nothing to say about Islam, caliphs, or Ali, or to even use the terms Sunni and Shia much after the first paragraph. The essay seems to me a classic instance of not being able to take a thing on its own terms; because the author neither understands, nor is curious about, nor is inclined to respect something’s own terms of reference, he concludes those terms of reference are irrelevant to understanding that something.

I was particularly disappointed by Alexander's apparent complete lack of even the slightest curiosity about, say, Islam or Shi'ism.

Aside from his undoubted charm--he is pretty witty--I suspect you're at least partly right, that allowing his blog to be driven by argumentativeness rather than, say, curiosity about the world and his fellow humans, has helped drive his success. Even his dip into the alt-right world, which did show a certain dispassionate curiosity about the Other, never quite got past his basic revulsion (which may, I admit, be demanding too much of a normal human's dispassion).

David said...

Rereading Alexander's essay, I suppose I should be fair and mention that, having expatiated at length on basic group-hostility dynamics, he does have three paragraphs giving a very basic run-through of the Sunni-Shia quarrel over the caliphate, in which he emphasizes phenomena that fit the dispute into his basic group-dynamic template. But again, I miss any sense of real historical curiosity or sympathetic imagination. For him, this 1370-year-old civilizational divide is simply a data point.

G. Verloren said...

I think I might have a possible connection that explains some things.

"He emerged from a small internet world of "rationalists" and people who play games like "Dungeons and Discourse" (which mashes up D&D with philosophy and puns), and back in 2011 his posts got only ten or so comments."

Dungeons and Discourse is a game born from the web-comic Dresden Codak, by Aaron Diaz. Originally a one-off gag within the world of the strip, the idea of such a game resonated with the readerbase and they fleshed it out into a full game system. The fact that Alexander plays the game pretty much guarantees that he's a dedicated core member of the larger Dresden Codak fan community.

Now, the comic's author is fairly well known among internet cartoonists, and Diaz himself runs a blog, called Indistinguishable From Magic, which - among other things - includes discussions on art theory, character design, and the like, as well as topics of societal justice, et cetera. Such posts draw a wide crowd, and Diaz has a robust network of professional associates - including some of the top names in the American animation field today, working on colossally popular animated shows like Adventure Time, Stephen Universe, Gravity Falls, et cetera - with whom he swaps and mutually reblogs content.

Thus, my assumption would be this: Alexander comments on the Dresden Codak forums; Diaz reads his commentary and is impressed by it, and end up directed to Alexander's personal blog; Diaz then reblogs content created by Alexander onto his own blog Indistinguishable From Magic, exposing it to his wider readerbase; Diaz's most influential followers are similarly impressed by the content, and reblog it onto their own blogs. Within just a few jumps, Alexander's work goes from essentially unknown, to seen by millions of like-minded individuals, with the tacit approval of leading trendsetters they already respect and agree with.

This sort of thing happens a lot these days. An obscure video game that gets randomly played by a famous Youtuber can be launched into super success overnight. An obscure Youtube channel makes a video which randomly gets noticed by an influential Redditor user and the entire channel is suddenly thrust into the limelight. Decades old crimes and mysteries have been solved through spontaneous crowdsourcing of information collected or provided by single individuals. It's a strange and increasingly common sort of phenomenon.