Outrage and Strongly Worded Blog Posts

On my long drive back down the west coast this past holiday season, I listened about 20 hours of podcasts. Most of them were political and current events, including “Left, Right, and Center”, “The Bugle”, and my favorite, “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I also listened to several episodes of “Political Gabfest”, and one segment about outrage caught my attention since I had been thinking about similar issues in this blog post.

Roughly, the segment was a discussion about Slate’s feature piece, “The year of outrage 2014,” where they catalogued social media outrage from every day of 2014 and turned it into a nifty interactive. It turns out that there was a lot of outrage.

It’s ironic that Slate decided to appeal to a culture of outrage, in part derived from our preference for minimal context and easily digested information, is a massive infographic and 10 long essays. I almost didn’t read it myself despite citing it as the starting point for this article. Here’s the thesis:

…Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us. When something outrageous happens—when a posh London block installs anti-homeless spikes, or when Khloé Kardashian wears a Native American headdress, or, for that matter, when we read the horrifying details in the Senate’s torture report—it’s easy to anticipate the cycle that follows: anger, sarcasm, recrimination, piling on; defenses and counterattacks; anger at the anger, disdain for the outraged; sometimes, an apology … and on to the next. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to participate from home…

Not being a heavy Twitter or Facebook user, I miss out on a lot of the excitement. I do, however, use reddit quite a bit, and it’s fascinating to see outrage there. Although the 140 character limit is a factor, longer discourse doesn’t fix it. The reddit community tends to be contrarian and smug, which builds in the “second opinion bias” that also causes outrage. The Slate essays explain this much better than I can, but I would attribute a culture of outrage to 2 things. First, we have a lack of context and research that we would expect from journalists but can’t expect from social media and citizen journalists. Second, we have a natural bias towards evidence and opinions that confirm our worldview.

Who’s fault is it: the medium or us? The internet as a medium has no intention or agenda: it simply facilitates human thought and communication. Even so, the medium has constraints that play into outrage, and it’s tough to blame individuals when we are presented with information (such as in 140 character snippets)  that we intrinsically react rashly to. We have cognitive biases: we know them, and we have had them well before the internet, from sound bites on TV to parlor room arguments before that. An important difference is the exponential influence of the internet, which scales previously limited instances of outrage from the mind of one person into a viral phenomena across the world.

I would like to present a challenge to the platforms that exist out there. I think sites like Twitter, Facebook, and reddit publicly take a hands-off approach to these issues and push for democratized, unregulated platforms (short of illegal activity). With my limited knowledge of user experience, however, I find this position disingenuous: the interface and platform itself can bias our behavior tremendously. Sometimes it is implicit, like the positioning of buttons, or explicit, like Facebook filtering our newsfeed. I think these sites should accept both the role they play in facilitating discourse and what we know about human biases. We need platforms that encourage better discourse.

Of course, maybe they are looking into these things: smart people work at these companies, so I hope they’re doing their homework. I just write a blog.

Even so, I should also do my best to encourage discourse through my blog. Like the Slate writers, here’s my story. A few months back, I started writing less about personal events and more about issues and ideas in my blog. I don’t have any hard numbers, but I noticed an odd trend through various metrics. There was a negative correlation between audience engagement and the thought I had put into the post. In other words, my less thoughtful pieces tended to get more activity than my more thoughtful ones.

Here’s my theory. When I put more thought into a blog post, the result is usually messy, and my blog post ends without firm conclusions and having argued both sides. Less thoughtful pieces end up more polemical that leave reader with stronger feeling, either in agreement or disagreement. I think they’re less interesting, but they’re easier to get into and respond to.

I could also be totally self-centered in my analysis. Truth be told, I don’t really know what my audience likes to read about. I just write and hope others find topics as interesting as I do.

Who is using Facebook these days?

(Author’s note: I embrace the irony that most of my readers will come from the facebook link)

I often use my younger cousins to find out what’s going on with kids these days. A few weeks ago, I asked them to explain what “ratchet” meant. They tried to explain. I still don’t think I get it.

Something I understand but don’t really get is that kids these days don’t use Facebook anymore. Apparently they use Instagram and Snapchat instead. When I was their age, we were all about Facebook because it had just expanded membership to high school students, and it was the cool thing that our recently departed college friends had. Consequently, I think that most of my Facebook friends to this day are high school friends. In any case, apparently Facebook is for their parents now, so kids don’t want to use it. Instead, they prefer newer, hipper services that old people haven’t caught onto, albeit with much more limited functionality.

However, it is disingenuous for me to tease my cousins for not using Facebook when I myself am not a heavy Facebook user anymore. The truth is that I honestly am not that interested in most of the content and don’t feel the need to share much myself.

I detailed most of my behavior in this blog post. To recap, I do like Facebook as a public address book that doesn’t require explicit exchange of contact details. Most regular status updates are uninteresting because I’m not close to most of my Facebook friends anymore. And for links to other content, I trust the masses on reddit to filter content better than suggestions from individuals, even if I do know them personally

In that blog post, I mentioned that I am in a group chat on Google Hangouts with some college friends. With about 20,000 messages in 5 months, it has been very active. I describe it as all of us sitting in a room together talking, except that we can all talk at the same time without interrupting each other. As such, there are usually several active topics, and they range from deep to ridiculous, significant to mundane, sports to politics. When we meet in real life, we refer to the group chat like regular conversation, which we expect everyone to keep up with despite the volume.

Interestingly, I have been posting content to the group chat that is similar to Facebook statuses: random pictures from events and daily life, links to interesting content I find on the internet, and thoughts off the top of my head. Despite my reluctance to share on Facebook, I’m happy to chat about the minutia I scroll past on Facebook.

I think the difference is the audience and context. Instead of sharing or consuming with hundreds, it’s the 10-ish that I actually talk to and interact with on a regular basis. And instead of an open platform more akin to public broadcast to newsfeeds everywhere, I’m in a more synchronous exchange with others. Although social networks offered new and exciting ways to connect, I’m reverting to a medium more in common with traditional face-to-face.

As for Facebook, there are a few types of commonly bemoaned content that I see. One is the controversial or politicized link or comment that inevitably leads to strongly-worded arguments. Another is the sad, vaguely-worded post about something bad that happened that isn’t elaborated on. And there’s the rallying outrage post about some issue.

These topics are similar in that they are best shared in smaller settings, yet we find some ego-directed satisfaction in sharing them publicly. Politics are always tricky to discuss, but it’s better to sit face-to-face with the intent to understand and not to argue. And yet we know that it’s bait for the most ardent responders who care to write long responses. Misery does need company, but I think most people actually respond better to a heartfelt conversation rather than a short, sympathetic comments and likes. And outrage on social media seems to be the new norm that makes us feel good in garnering likes while often doing little to enact change.

Facebook as a big platform is good for big things. For engagements and pregnancies, it’s a efficient way to share news with a lot of people. And social media has also been an effective forum for organizing political activism. But for most people, daily life isn’t that exciting, and a network that gives everyone a soap box (with status updates) and a feeling of impact (with the “Like” button) isn’t conducive to meaningful communication.

Despite my dire misgivings about Facebook, I still can’t quit it entirely. I often can’t even resist typing it into my address bar when I already know there’s not much for me. There are just too many darn people on it. I guess, in at least one way, I can relate to kids these days.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

First Thoughts about Google+

If you haven’t heard about it, Google+ is Google’s new foray into social networking after a few disappointments in-between. For all its world domination-like qualities, a lot of Google products haven’t fallen flat recently, and its new Facebook competitor (as described by The Times) has the same sort of possibly ephemeral feel, but I think Google should be feeling lucky about this one.

I consider myself a late adopter. I like to pay attention to new technology, but because I’m cynical, cheap, and comfortable with what I have, I’m usually not too pumped up about things until I see how other people have used it to some benefit. This mentality even affects how I view entire movements as I’m still not too keen on social networking as a whole. I check Facebook daily but probably won’t write but a handful of times over a year (not counting my birthday). I just don’t think its added that much value to my life.

What is Facebook good for? Honestly? Stalking. Especially right now as I’m curious what all my friends are doing post-college. It’s a lot of work to go through the typical wall post and comment exchange to ask questions that they might be embarrassed addressing in a public setting anyways. I just hope that they’ve updated their education or work history in their profile.

So why am I optimistic about Google+? Because it’s actually kind of nice. At first, the set of available components seems like an odd mish-mash, but when I think about what I want, it actually seems to kind of work, without all the junk.

First, it forces you to put all connections into various circles. Presumably, one can “Facebook” it and just put everyone in one circle, but it’s actually kind of nice to have these divisions in place: it matches my real life social life. My family in Toronto probably doesn’t care about a local event on Stanford campus, but a greater proportion of my close friends do.

Interestingly, this feature is already available in Facebook, but as I discussed with some of my friends in a “Hangout” (spoiler: good words to come), they just didn’t hit it quite right. For me, maybe Facebook can do all of this, but when they added it, I had no desire to filter through hundreds of friends and put them in the right place. Ultimately, it’ll be more work to connect with all of my friends again in Google+, but it feels a lot more natural and necessary. Just like in humor, timing is everything in technology.

A big aspect of Google+ seems to be that the site is built around a lot of external content. Of the 4 buttons at the top, one is devoted to photos (which seem to be automatically collected from Google services like Picasa and Blogger), and the “Share” box in the upper right allows one to always share pictures, videos, links, and their location. “Spark” is a discovery tool for content. To me, it feels like Google+ is built entirely around external topics.

Again, yes, Facebook has all of this, but the culture has very much turned to a focus on wall-to-wall posts and status updates, and frankly, I don’t care that much. For me, it’s amusing to a point, but the most interesting things are about interesting links people come across and want to discuss. My friend George has posted a few interesting links to Politico, and so far, I’ve liked seeing it.

In fact, I like it enough that I’ve considered switching over from my 4 years of delicious usage to simply posting links to Google+. For me, there are basically 4 rough groups of things that I bookmark in delicious, and I think my need for delicious is diminishing:

  1. Recipes. I mark these as private to avoid spamming my friendfeed (and subsequently my fb), but I’ve got quite a few from food blogs. Even so, I have a replacement ready for whenever I stop procrastinating
  2. To Read links. This could easily be done in my actual bookmarks in my browser
  3. Reference. Delicious is still the best for this, in my opinion, but the alternatives aren’t significantly worse.
  4. Interesting stuff. Keep reading

I have been bookmarking interesting stuff for years now because I think I might refer back to it, but to be honest, the list of things I’ve gone back to is very short. In fact, in the history of my delicious usage, I can really only think of one thing that I’ve gone into delicious for, and that’s just because it was at the moment easier than searching for it. And nowadays, search is so good, I might as well just try to find it again if it comes to mind. Otherwise, I really just mark them because I would like others to see it, which is why my delicious is linked to my friendfeed, which is linked to my fb. And Google+ does that great.

It’s possible that simply right now, I like Google+’s offering of interesting links simply because my set of friends there is better (well, more immediately interesting to me, let’s say) than my friends on fb, and the apparent filtering of content is a strange product of that. That probably builds off of my smugness of exclusivity being on invite to Google+ and having most of my currently closest friends on it too thanks to a close Google-Stanford connection. Even so, I like to think that’ll smooth out too, since Circles can keep me feeling as though I’m in my ivory tower for as long as necessary.

The final component I want to discuss is hangout, which is simply awesome. Basically, it’s group video chat where friends can come go as they please. There are two big aspects to this. First, it’s group video chat. And it works and isn’t hard to use or setup. That fact alone is great.

Second, friends can come and go. It’s casual, and it’s fun. Most of us are sitting at our computers for large parts of the day anyways: we might as well drop in and chat for awhile. Earlier tonight, I hoped in a hangout with a few friends, including George, who is currently across the country. I’ve IMed with him, but I probably would’ve never gotten around to calling him on the phone, even though I know he’s on his computer a lot even still. But we both joined a hangout, and it was like he was sitting in the same room as me. Trust me: the idea for hangout may not sound that revolutionary, but it just works so well with how I want to interact with my friends.

The kicker in it is a built-in youtube watching mode where you and your friends can all watch a youtube video together. That feature is just as good as you can imagine.

To the Google+ developers: please build in an embedded shared browser for hangout, too. When I saw the youtube button, I wondered whether it supported shared screen as well, but today, especially with Chromebooks, internet browser sharing would be just as good. Surfing the web together would be tons of fun, and being able to support webapps inside hangout is probably as good as, if not better, than the fb platform. It means that every existing web application is “ported” into Google+, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities for building games into Google+.

Okay, so it might be late now, and I might be a little tired, wild-eyed, and almost 2 hours past my bedtime from the past 2 weeks. Even so, I’m optimistic about this. I’ve been on Facebook for 5 years and never really gotten into it. In 2 days, Google+ has showed me some innovative, but intuitive and pleasantly good features that make me want to use the internet differently. It might not have all the wingdings that Facebook has built in over the years, but I like to think we’re past most of that. I don’t know how to make the equivalent of a wall-to-wall post, but I haven’t wanted it yet. There doesn’t appear to be Events, but I have always kind of disliked Facebook events (I pretty much disregard them nowadays, except as an announcement, which can be done more efficiently). Anyways, huddle as group texting and sharing within circles can do it, too.

So yes, I’m optimistic, and even more so than before I started writing. There’s the question about whether I would use this instead of Facebook, and reviewing this post about every Facebook feature/culture aspect that dislike and how Google+ has managed to improve on it, I think I’m already a convert.

The Media cares about your 25 Things?

So I’ll admit, I turned to some sensationalism for this post. 1) It’s not really the media, per se, just the blogosphere and 2) they care about the phenomenon, not those 25 random facts about you. Given that, though, it’s true. I came across a response article about it on techdirt.

But first, if you’re not familiar with it, 25 Things is note going around on Facebook right now. Notes (basically FB’s version of a blog) allows a user to put whatever video/text/pictures into a post and have their friends see it. As a method of writing for your friends (assuming you’re college age), it’s far better than a blog because, at least, most of my peers check FB far more than any other site. It’s why I import my blog into FB (where I would assume most of you read it from). And you can tag friends on a note so that they get a notification that you’ve written something. So, 25 Things is essentially a chain post going around where one writes 25 random things about his or her own life, then tags 25 friends to do the same.

While there was a decent chance that I would never have made it to seeing this because I neither use FB much nor am cool enough to get tagged, I did receive a couple. I had seen on my newfeed that a couple of my friends had written these before then, and at first, the thread seemed to similar enough to the surveys that come in and out of fashion on FB. Oddly enough, this particular thread has persisted, though mostly from my high school friends in Texas, not with my college friends here (though maybe I’m just far cooler back in Texas than here).

I usually dismiss these chain notes, but this one, I actually somewhat like. I will guiltily admit that I’m somewhat of a leech in this sense: I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading other people’s posts, yet I haven’t filled one out myself. I likely wouldn’t have thought of it, except that many of my friends who have done it have reluctant sounding titles, like “I wasn’t going to do this…” or “Only Because I’ve Been tagged 400 times”. And it keeps perpetuating. Naturally, no one should be surprised about the power of peer pressure here. And when there’s a good opportunity to procrasinate for 5 minutes on FB to fill this out, that can sound a lot better than doing that history homework. But it keeps perpetuating.

What I think makes this thread different from any other is that it has actual content. Previous survey chain threads often had some bizarre, theme, like, “x all the movies you’ve seen” or “put your itunes on shuffle and answer questions based on title.” Maybe it’s a good time waster, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care about first crushes (exponentially with respect to how long ago that was), and I certainly don’t care if the answer to “What were you doing today?” is “American Pie.” But when there aren’t contrived restrictions, people actually write. Granted, one has the choice to write anything, yet most of my friends have provided relatively insightful comments about their lives. Even if it’s just complaining about something that happened in school that day, it’s far more than I would’ve heard otherwise.

It somewhat harkens back to the days when Xanga was really popular among my friends. Just before FB got big (my freshmen year of high school, I want to say), Xanga was the hot new thing to use, and it was basically a blog-networking site. While most posts would at first seem somewhat content/insightless, I found it fantastic to read about what had happened on a day-to-day basis, especially for those who I didn’t see regularly.

And maybe that’s something that FB has supplanted: writing. When one turns away from a full textbox input to just a line for status updates, an increased necessity for summary doesn’t come close to compensating for reduced space. So with 25 Things, people actually have a chance to say something real about their lives. And I’m all for that.

I guess the last point I have on this is the final reason why I think it’s been so prolific is because it’s of a decent length and content. Status updates are too little. Blog posts are too much. I mean, I myself am often a little wary to read a long note by someone, because I go to FB for a diversion, not a deduction. But when you’re guaranteed to have 25 quick facts, that’s not much of a commitment at all. So I’ve been cheating out of doing 25 Things myself by saying that I write enough with my blog. But maybe this long weekend will convince me to sink a few into writing that up.