Wednesday, April 27, 2022


Interesting essay by Ezra Klein on why Elon Musk loves Twitter so much that he bought it. The founders of Twitter said that they created it to promote better public conversation, but that of course is not what happened (NY Times).

So what is Twitter built to do? It’s built to gamify conversation. As C. Thi Nguyen, a philosopher at the University of Utah, has written, it does that “by offering immediate, vivid and quantified evaluations of one’s conversational success. Twitter offers us points for discourse; it scores our communication. And these gamelike features are responsible for much of Twitter’s psychological wallop. Twitter is addictive, in part, because it feels so good to watch those numbers go up and up.”

Nguyen’s core argument is that games are pleasurable in part because they simplify the complexity of life. They render the rules clear, the score visible. That’s fine when we want to play a game. But sometimes we end up in games, or gamelike systems, where we don’t want to trade our values for those of the designers, and don’t even realize we’re doing it. . . .

Twitter takes the rich, numerous and subtle values that we bring to communication and quantifies our success through follower counts, likes and retweets. Slowly, what Twitter rewards becomes what we do. If we don’t, then no matter — no one sees what we’re saying anyway. We become what the game wants us to be or we lose. And that’s what’s happening to some of the most important people and industries and conversations on the planet right now.

Many of Twitter’s power users are political, media, entertainment and technology elites. They — we! — are particularly susceptible to a gamified discourse on the topics we obsess over. It’s hard to make political change. It’s hard to create great journalism. It’s hard to fill the ever-yawning need for validation. It’s hard to dent the arc of technological progress. Twitter offers the instant, constant simulation of doing exactly that. The feedback is immediate. The opportunities are infinite. Forget Max Weber’s “strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Twitter is a power drill, or at least it feels like one.

I have no experience of this side of Twitter. I have an account there so I can follow news as it happens, recently the Ukraine war. On Twitter you can see half a dozen military experts dissect a reported explosion within minutes, and I find many links to longer articles and even to thick government reports. One example from this morning: the New York times said Russia has 12,000 troops in Transnistria, and this was immediately debunked on Twitter by several people with better knowledge; according to NATO, the number is more like 2,000.

But I have noticed that even the hardest core Osint (open source intelligence) nerds revel in getting more followers, likes, and retweets, and when the military guys I follow veer into politics I sometimes cringe. 

People are wondering now if Twitter can remain a good place to read news if it becomes more overtly political and even more toxic. Apparently a few hundred thousand liberals have already left. I don't know where I would go instead, since the other apps where comment on the war seems to be thriving are TikTok and YouTube, and I much prefer text to video.

The problem of how to have an open conversation when so many people are mean and nasty looms over our whole civilization, and I don't think Elon Musk has much chance of finding a solution.


Anonymous said...

if it becomes more overtly political and even more toxic


David said...

A very interesting essay. Thank you for pointing us to it. Also interesting is the short essay behind the link attached to the phrase, "goblin mode." It says of Musk, "His idea of activist investing involves roasting the company's management in public (ideally, on their own social media platform) while frequently changing his own course." It then comments, "This method's strength is that it attracts attention, it hooks people on an unpredictable narrative, and it makes Musk himself look (to fans, at least) like a renegade rule-breaker."

I think this describes a model of leadership that many Americans are drawn to today, as well as, obviously, a lot of what was going on with Trump and why polls show him beating Biden in 2024. It also shows why the word "authoritarian" has never quite sat well with what Trump represents. Authoritarianism is about order, and Trump, Musk, and their kind of narcissism thrive on disorder. We don't want them to protect us. We want them to provide us with an entertainment spectacle that feeds our fantasies--and, right now at least, we don't want predictability and order (of course, we only want a performance of disorder, not the real thing). All of this has been said before, but I'm just now really struck with its force.

In this vein, one of Ezra Klein's points is especially apt, that the good Musk has done has all been about turning good things into things that feed, or feed on, our fantasies: "He turned the electric car market from a backwater catering to hippies to the unquestioned future of the automobile industry, and he did so in the only sustainable way: He made electric cars awesome. He reinvigorated American interest in space and did so in the only sustainable way: by making rockets more awesome and affordable."

szopen said...
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