Awful writing about the internet: mid-May 2017 edition

It is, apparently, still a good time to write very, very badly about problems with the internet.

I’ll tackle a couple of samples in this post.  As before, I’m interested in drawing out general practices to avoid.  Settle in for a longer screed, as these pieces are seriously wretched, and require some time to dissect.

To begin with, a New York Times editorial warns us that “Social media is making us miserable”.  In this gloomy, admonitory piece economist and ex-Googler Seth Stephens-Davidowitz summarizes recent research to conclude that using Facebook makes people sad.  Facebook users become dangerously obsessed by a “search for online status”.  To make this point the author commits a series of errors all too typical in writing about the online world.

First, he narrowly picks out a certain form of consumer behavior without looking at consumerism itself.  In identifying how we showcase our economic status on Facebook, Stephens-Davidowitz simply assumes consumerism is either invisible, or somehow massively exacerbated by social media.  He doesn’t consider that keeping up with the Joneses is proverbial for a reason – the term actually dates back to 1913.

Keeping up with the Joneses, via Wikipedia

In other words, if we nuke our Facebook accounts, we’re still immersed in that world of competitive status.

Nor does Stephens-Davidowitz take into account recent macroeconomic trends, which is… odd for an economist.  Trends like the dwindling middle class, increasing consumer debt, increasing precarity in the labor market, the decline of unions, and an upper class peeling away from the rest of us tend to sharpen consumerism and competitiveness.  Considering them would certainly detract from the simple “social media is scary” narrative, though.

To his credit, Stephens-Davidowitz eventually works around to a glancing blow at historical context: “Friends have always showed off to friends. People have always struggled to remind themselves that other people don’t have it as easy as they claim.”  That awareness then leads him not to considering context or making his argument more nuanced, but to borrowing a bit of good advice from AA in order to recommend that we view humans as actually deeply unhappy and suffering (“We’re all a mess”).  Then he springs from that insight to asking us to pay more attention to Facebook’s great enemy, Google.

Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

Which is a curious place to end up from such a starting point.  Did I mention the author used to work for Google?

Second, “Social media is making us miserable” collapses all of social media into the single beast of Facebook.  Excluding the title, which the author probably didn’t compose, the article is almost completely about the Zuckerbergsphere, but while it mentions “social media” eight times by my count, it cites Facebook a fortunate 13 times.

Other social media platforms barely appear.  Spotify is there once, to make Facebook look bad for gender essentialist reasons (I think).  Instagram appears only once, folded completely into its owner in the above quote via a pairing, “Facebook or Instagram”.  YouTube, Twitter, podcasting, and blogging never appear, although each of those are fine venues for showing off to the Joneses.  Pinterest in particular, where people often show off what they want to buy, is also absent.  Social messaging platforms (WeChat etc) similarly never appear.  Sure, Facebook is bigger than any of those, except YouTube, but the author doesn’t bother to argue for paying exclusive attention to it for reasons of relative size.

Third, he ignores the influence of non-social media.  Consider ad-supported media, such as television, radio, or newspapers like the very same New York Times where this piece appears.  Those ads are, naturally, all about encouraging readers/viewers/listening to buy more stuff.  To pick one example that literally flashed before my eyes while thinking about this article, I saw a very, very long and tedious Lexus ad in a movie theater yesterday.  When Stephens-Davidowitz complains that “Owners of luxury cars like BMWs and Mercedeses are about two and a half times as likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook as are owners of ordinary makes and models”, he’s ignoring those brands’ enormous presence in the world beyond Facebook.  Once again, if we killed our Facebook accounts, we wouldn’t end up in a social democratic world populated extensively by food co-ops and run benignly by Bernie Sanders.

Fourth, this PhD-wielding author mentions research without ever linking or even citing to a single study about Facebook.  You would think an article offering such stentorian opening lines as “It is now official. Scholars have analyzed the data and confirmed what we already knew in our hearts” would bother to mention said scholars and confirmation.  Stephens-Davidowitz cites very precise data and facts without citation.  I suspect such an column, if turned in for a 10th grade term paper, would get harshly graded, if not flunked, for that basic a mistake.

There is one (1) link to a single source, a post on Spotify’s official blog, which summarizes that company’s findings about gender and musical taste (pretty entertaining, actually) – back in 2014.  Said post says nothing about other social media.

Please – and this goes for anyone, really – if you want to reference something, cite it.  If you’re in digital media, use the blessed hyperlink.

Fifth, as with many internet-condemning works, this column fails to mention any positive good coming from social media.  That humans use various social media technologies to express themselves, to reconnect with friends and coworkers, to tell stories, to work through discussions, to have fun – all of that fades in the fiery light of Stephens-Davidowitz’ sourceless denunciation.

Which brings me to my sixth point.  Trying to sum up the behavior of more than one billion people (“1.28 billion daily active users on average for March 2017”, according to FB) is a staggering task.  That’s one reason we turn to great, kludgy heuristics, like generations or ideologies.  Collapsing all of our Facebook use into the single pursuit of one-upping each other on the consumer or style front is breathtaking in its ambition, and sad when it occurs without reference, nuance, or context.

At around the same time as Stephens-Davidowitz’ article appeared, a politics and sports commentator decided to not just disparage social media, but all of networked technology.  Michael Brendan Dougherty internalizes his critique, fusing cyberculture with his own self-loathing in a weird piece entitled “I write on the internet. I’m sorry.”  The main conceit here is that the internet makes everything bad for the human race, and Dougherty has played a part in the staggeringly vast suckage.

It’s hard to discern the exact target of Dougherty’s combination of jeremiad and self-laceration.  It might be that the internet has corrupted writers, or perhaps dragged journalism into the gutter, or that business models have gone awry.  It could be that digital technologies distract us, or they make us sad by displaying too many bad things (contra Stephens-Davidowitz).  None of these points really works.

For example, the complaint sadness is based on the idea that there’s too much criticism available.  I think.  And critique covers “about almost every dimension of human experience.”

Do you love architecture? Someone just built a monstrosity next to a building you loved. Click here. Do you adore products by Apple? Well, they’re screwing them up. Click here. Did you just feel that unnamable, almost unmentionable surge of gratitude for all the people you’ve known in life and all the kindnesses their presence brought to you? Click here and see that most of them have contemptibly dumb opinions about everything.

Again, this is the exact opposite of Stephens-Davidowitz’ world of too much brilliant consumption, so I’d like to see the two of them square off.  (We could say both are true, but neither allows for such complexity in the digital world.)   This idea also flies in the face of people worried that we aren’t critical enough, that we consume fake news and disinfotainment happily and without a shred of skepticism.  In fact, it’s a strange concept that the world has too much criticism.

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, and the real point is that the internet provides too much negative information.  Maybe that’s negative emotionally, as in depressing.  The author does dive into some serious misanthropy: “Maybe you suspect that if anyone else cares about your self it is only to notice that deep down you’re just as much of a hateful loser as they are?” [italics in original]  Yikes.  Such a dark view of life online would be conceivable, but for the sheer torrent of emotionally delightful content the online world also provides, from cat videos to love notes to powerful stories to the voices of old friends and the thrill of learning.

Further on in the piece Dougherty complains about learning too much for a story (and links to a less that ideal source).  He could have argued that we have a problem with information overload, but doesn’t.  He was capable of seeing this as a privacy problem, but doesn’t.  Instead, he freaks out and invents an apocalypse with a musical soundtrack.  No, really:

My mind lit up with the desire to see the hands of a silent and awful deity plunging into the green plushy sward of Earth, pulling its tectonic plates apart, and shaking them until all human life and evidence of our civilization is dispersed into the outer oblivion of space. I desired that alien races, hundreds of millions of years in the future, would find evidence of this celestial event, and read it as a strict warning against subsidizing student loans. I imagined the terror of humanity’s richly merited destruction scored to Anton Bruckner’s “Mass in E minor,” of course.

Very well written, this cry for help.  Excellent musical choice, too – although I must surely be guilty of spreading the darkness with that YouTube link.  I’m waiting to see a Dougherty-inspired cultural movement appear, one urging more cheerful social media posting and admonishing us against issuing too much criticism, lest an end times doom cult springs forth.  More seriously, I’m impressed by just how thoroughly the author refuses engaging with any other criticisms of the internet.

Here’s another example of this shambling gloom:

Compare 1997 and 2017. It’s ugly. If you’re a human American, you’re more likely to live alone or with people who aren’t related to you than you were in 1997. You’re less likely to belong to a church, a bowling league, or a civic association. You’re less likely to subscribe to periodicals you like. You’re more likely to report a shorter attention span. You’re far more likely to have a problem with addiction, whether opioids, porn, or just the flickering screen.

And yes, the internet is responsible.  Let’s break this down, shall we?

  • Living alone: yes, we increasingly are, and for all kinds of reasons.  Americans are having fewer children.  We’re living longer, generally, which means some husbands and wives outlive their partners.  We’re putting off marriage for cultural and economic reasons.  We continue our century-long move away from extended families.  There’s no need to blame the web, given these causes.
  • “You’re less likely to belong to a church, a bowling league, or a civic association.”  I think this is a gesture towards Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone, but it might not be deliberate.  At any rate, Putnam’s research was all about culture and sociological transformation based on a variety of factors.  The book is fairly anti-internet, but tends to see life online as a bad solution to personal isolation, rather than a causal factor.  Once more, there’s no reason to blame Facebook.
  • “You’re less likely to subscribe to periodicals you like.”  Does this mean in print, or online?  Is it actually true?  If it is, is the problem that periodicals aren’t offering content as appealing?  Or is this about business models?
  • “You’re more likely to report a shorter attention span.”  ADHD has been on the rise, and the reasons remain a mystery.  I do take the point that speedy digital media encourages shorter attention span at times.  (For counterpoint, please consider people playing games to 20 hours at a time.)
  • “You’re far more likely to have a problem with addiction, whether opioids, porn, or just the flickering screen.”  This is breathtaking.  It blithely assumes the digital addition model, which is still quite controversial.  And it somehow blames the opioid epidemic on the internet, which is delightfully bonkers.

So the article can hurl together a variety of problems, neatly sever them from non-internet-related causes, and blame the digital world.  That’s pretty handy, and a fine example of the problems I identified with Stephens-Davidowitz above.  of those problems afflict Dougherty’s apocalypse.

I’d like to draw attention to two in particular, the first and third (non-digital contexts and non-digital media).  Ignoring those forces is a classic move in establishing a the-internet-will-destroy-us-all fantasy.  Dougherty blames living arrangements and the opioid crisis on the internet, without admitting any other causes.  But it’s even more glaring in his opening move, when he cites another commentator’s observation that “nearly everyone, regardless of their political persuasion, seems convinced that their side is losing.”

Check out Will Rahn’s column.  It’s a decent sketch of American political attitudes in 2017, emphasizing how many different political groups feel like underdogs or suffering heroes, although it grossly overstates the dimensions of campus unrest.  Rahn locates the sources of this shared if disaggregated feeling not in technology, but in how politics and culture have shaken out over the past decade.

If we add technology to the mix, it appears as an accelerant, heightening passions and strengthening organizing, offering more platforms for communication, information, and disinformation.  If we consider technology to mean, well, technology, as opposed to “the subset of technology I abhor”, then we can include other media in the accelerant role, like tv “news” and talk radio.  That’s a very different view from Dougherty’s shambling tirade.  Once again, it’s far, far easier to target digital media instead of actually setting a problem in context.

There have been other examples of bad writing about the internet, but these two stood out.  Look at what they did wrong and, please, avoid those mistakes.


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2 Responses to Awful writing about the internet: mid-May 2017 edition

  1. Thanks for an entertaining read that actually took my apparently short little attention span quite a while to read…hunh, and I was happy to do so! The weird things writers assume about the rest of us…

  2. I like this quote from Dougherty’s article:

    “The internet doesn’t coddle you in a comforting information bubble. It imprisons you in an information cell and closes the walls in on you by a few microns every day. It works with your friends and the major media on the outside to make a study of your worst suspicions about the world and the society you live in. Then it finds the living embodiments of these fears and turns them into your cell mates.”

    Someone’s been listening to too many poorly-voiced Sartre audiobooks on his daily commute to work.

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