Sorry I haven’t been updating. Started watching The Wire. At the rate I’m watching, I’ll be back to writing in a few weeks. I should not have started this.
It’s political season! Well, considering the American news cycle, political season seems to be perpetual at this point. It seems like politicians are campaigning at all times these days. It’s a presidential election year, though, so the ads and discussions are more ubiquitous than normal at the moment. Those “discussions” are inescapable by anyone who uses social media or goes just about anywhere on the internet. Everyone seems to be talking about the longshot party outsiders who are somehow challenging the political machine. They’re all asking how this happened.
It’s not much of a mystery. They made it happen.
The internet has changed the way people get information and the way that information is served to them. It’s changed the way we talk to each other. I’ve touched on this before when I discussed the clicks for cash system the web economy works on. I’ve also talked about the echo chamber effect a little bit. I didn’t really talk much about the way social media and search results can create conversational whirlpools.
I put the word discussions in quotation marks above because most talk is in the form of image macros and news bites with the odd link to a news article or blog post. These are pieces of content that are easily shared, usually with a quickly typed comment along the lines of “this is the worst/best thing ever”. They make their way around the web quickly, showing up in one feed, then another, and another. There’s a reason this sort of content is referred to as viral. It spreads.
I avoid discussion of candidates I dislike because the internet has turned them into Dark Lords. To utter their name is to give them power. I don’t discuss the ones I like (there aren’t many. None of the frontrunners, actually) because the names of the opposition will invariably be brought up. And that will feed The Beast.
There are multiple factors that contribute to this shitstorm. If a lot of users search for a term, or a variation of a term, search engines notice. They’ll start to react by autocompleting users’ searches based on what other people have searched for and clicked on. This will make users more likely to wind up running the same searches and seeing the same results. The number of people who click on and interact with a page (I say interact because no one outside of Google knows exactly how the calculation is done) will have a positive effect on its rank in search results. To simplify — the more people who click on a page in search results, the more people the search engine will show that page to.
But, there’s more to it than that. Social media tailors content to users. Facebook and Twitter, even Google+ for all 37 of its users, serve advertisements to you based on what you write, share, Like, click on, retweet, or just keep on your screen for an especially long time. They’ll also default your feed to display related content posted by people in your network. Talk about tacos and you start seeing ads for Taco Bell and posts about all the time your buddy spent in the bathroom after eating too many burritos at lunch.
Search engines… you know what? Screw it. I keep typing out “search engines” but we all just use Google.
So. Google takes social media into account when serving search results. The number of people talking about a subject will increase its ranking in news results. Links shared on Facebook and Twitter positively effect the pages and sites they point to. Websites can see what’s trending and will then produce content on those subjects.
What we have is a terribly self-perpetuating cycle. Donald Trump announced his candidacy. All the news outlets and blogs wrote pieces on it, usually mockingly. People clicked on those stories, so they ranked above other candidates’ and were more likely to be seen. More people seeing them meant more people shared them. More shares and comments told content producers (at this point I just can’t think of them as news outlets) that people were interested in these stories, so they wrote more of them. Which effected Google results. The more of an asshole he made of himself the more he’s been talked about and the more his opponents’ results have been suppressed.
A similar effect can be seen on the left with Bernie Sanders. There were so many stories about how he had no chance that they increased his exposure to the point that he suddenly had one. The old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been made even more true in this age of social and search engine news. The internet is, in some ways, the very worst kind of democracy. It reacts to the will of the people, often giving us what we hate or fear, not what we want it to. It’s like Gozer and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. By thinking about it we may very well have collectively chosen the form of our destroyer.
*I’ve engaged in quite a bit of hyperbole in writing this post. It was fun! I’ve also simplified some complex stuff. Google’s algorithms take more than what I’ve discussed into account; quality of content, how often the host site is updated, how long the article is, and a ton of other factors. All of those being equal (or close enough to) search results and social media activity can have a very profound effect on what people see.
I planned to apply a more balanced set of memes and take some swipes at multiple candidates. The Trump macros were just so much better I couldn’t help myself. It probably has something to do with art students having a predilection for socialism.
I’m gonna’ write about writing. In doing so I’ll briefly be writing about writing about writing. And when I am done I will have written about writing about writing. Yes, I did that just to amuse myself with the knowledge that you will have read those sentences. I’m both that kind of dork and that kind of jerk.
I’ve got just this side of zero formal education in how to string words together. I learned to write by reading. Being a colossal geek who spent a significant amount of time (all of my free time) on the internet. I honed my skills by writing there; conversing with friends and strangers using instant messaging programs, in chat rooms, on message boards, and on Usenet. It’s astonishing what immediate unflinching criticism from anonymous and antisocial individuals can do when you’re the sort who takes it to heart. Particularly if you’re also extremely curious and go poking around corners of the internet best left unexplored and take advantage of that same anonymity to ask questions usually better left unasked.
The lessons those years in front of a screen taught me were multitude. The most valuable of them related to framing an argument for a particular audience. It taught me that semantics are important and how easily a very slight change to the words you use can trigger or defuse an argument without changing your meaning. And the way people react to particular arguments can (and boy will they) vary, often drastically. My recent post on white privilege was written with the sort of person who believes racial and/or gender inequality aren’t A Thing in mind. You know. People who are wrong.
What I found absolutely fascinating were the reactions from people who lean socially left as opposed to those on the right. Thanks to social media I was able to follow some of the conversations that went on when people reposted the piece. I could play voyeur and “listen in”. Liberals had a tendency to be dismissive, believing the semantics weren’t important. A few conservatives said things like, “I get the point, but the tone is too apologetic”. Most of those talking about it were middle-aged white males. Overall, I was OK with this; my argument seems to have made some people who have ignored minorities’ complaints actually consider the idea. And that was my goal. Seeing that made me damned proud of myself. I care far less about what people who already accept the point I was trying to make as fact think about it. Except for how it effects my ego, which can be quite a bit. They’re jerks.
I’ve gone off on a tangent, though.
My point is that there are a million different ways to say something. The way that works for me won’t necessarily work for you. The words you use will be processed differently by readers based on their own experiences. Reactions will also vary based on your audience’s impression of who you are. When I write something persuasive I try to keep in mind the sort of person I’m addressing. I make my best attempt at empathy and step into their shoes. When I’m writing something general, or for myself, my tone is different. I usually use less confrontational language and humor.
The voice(s) I write in varies. Not like the ones in my head. Those are all pretty consistent. They just want whiskey. And murder. Haha! I kid. About the murder. Not the whiskey.
There are some rules one should follow if they want to throw their thoughts out there on the internet. Simple ones. I’ve been thinking of my personal list as I watch traffic from around the world come in to the post in which I broke mine. This has had Consequences, some that you might consider good and others you might consider bad. Yours might not match my own, but I think these are pretty universal.
- Don’t hit the publish button immediately — When you finish your masterpiece, whether it’s addressing a subject you’ve been planning to discuss for months or is a reaction piece to something you’ve just seen, heard, or read, wait. While it is best to have someone proofread it for you, if you don’t have anyone available, go back in a few hours and read it over. Odds are very good that you’ll find things to fix.
- Think about your title — Your title is the first thing people will see if your blog gets linked on social media or someone finds it organically. It’s the big print. It’s what search engines weigh the most heavily when serving results. Don’t be clickbaity. You’re better than that. Even if you aren’t, don’t be clickbaity. Please. Only you can help make the internet a better place.
- Know that someone will get angry — Be prepared for someone to tell you you’re an idiot. It may be that you framed an argument poorly. It may be that they didn’t read everything you wrote, misread something, or read it on the train and missed an entire paragraph. Your piece may have been framed perfectly and understood, but you’ve managed to attract trolls or otherwise intelligent people who are just wrong. They must be wrong if they disagree with you. The alternative is just crazy talk!
- Someone will miss the point — The more people that read what you write, the greater the chance that someone is going to miss the point completely. Given enough time and enough content, this will happen. Murphy’s Law ensures that it will be the one you care most about making.
- You will be horrified — If you publish anything that presents an opinion you will eventually wind up seeing someone disagree with you about something you think any rational human being believes. You could say that Hitler was a bad man. You could say that human beings are fallible. It doesn’t matter. What is worse is when you find someone agreeing with you for the wrong reasons. Somewhere on the internet your post about cute kittens will be getting Likes from neo-Nazis because it includes a picture of a cat with a Hitler mustache.
- You will learn things you weren’t prepared for — When you’re putting your thoughts out there you’re telling people something about yourself. You may think you have prepared yourself for people to learn more than you intended. Maybe you did. But, the internet is interactive. Particularly if you link your blog via social media, you’re going to get some data you weren’t expecting. Who likes, loves, shares, pins, or reblogs what you’ve had to say will tell you a lot. Comments people make will surprise you. And not always in negative ways. Often it’ll be something inane, like search terms that attract people from Finland.
- Sometimes you should hold off on a reply — You’ll be tempted to reply to every single comment people make. You’ll want to clarify a point or argue a premise. It can be a trap. If you actually believe in what you’ve said it can lead you into trouble. If you find that someone’s response to your work has made you angry, don’t immediately engage. Waiting a little while before making a response will help you avoid saying something you don’t mean and help you avoid fighting on the internet. No one wins a fight on the internet. It’ll also help you to recognize when you just shouldn’t reply at all. Sometimes it just isn’t worth the fight.
- Stats can be a trap — Don’t just stare at your site analytics. You can get some interesting data, like the aforementioned interests of Finns, but it can be tempting to get lost in your site stats. A post about a video game got a few hundred hits, one about something in the news didn’t break one hundred, and the one with the clickbaity headline has… holy crap, it’s up to several thousand! I know I said not to use clickbait titles, but wow! I mean, that’s ad revenue traffic. Maybe just one more time.
Unpopular opinion time! It’s been thrown about a lot recently. The term white privilege, also white male privilege or male privilege, has been just about everywhere. Often, it’s heard as “check your privilege.” As a white male, I hate the phrase. Not because I’m being called out for something I have and am jealously guarding, or because I don’t think that women or individuals of some races experience prejudices I don’t, but because it’s attacking the issues the wrong way.
Words mean things.
From the Oxford Dictionary:
A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people
Beyond just a dictionary definition, though, are the colloquial implications that permeate a word. They don’t necessarily change a word’s meaning, but add connotations that aren’t always intended. In modern American parlance we recognize a difference between a privilege and a right. One is something that is granted conditionally and the other is applied to all. When someone refers to someone as being privileged, the implication is that they’re not only advantaged, but that their advantage is unearned, unfair, or both.
When a woman tells me “check your male privilege” because I don’t have to worry nearly as much about being sexually assaulted, or even just because I don’t have to put up with as many drunk assholes who don’t understand “I don’t want to talk to you”, at a bar, they’re wrong. I don’t have something special, and that’s the implication. That I’m being treated better than I should expect to be. That’s not the case. WOMEN HAVING TO DEAL WITH FEAR OF ASSAULT AND HARASSMENT IS WRONG! (All caps and an exclamation point? That’s some serious stuff right there.) I’m not subject to a privilege, they are being denied a RIGHT.
Police being more likely to use appropriate force against me if I’m arrested isn’t a privilege that I enjoy. It’s a RIGHT that too many black Americans are denied.
A male superior at work listening to my opinion in the workplace isn’t a privilege, but a courtesy that should be extended to everyone at my level. When women’s opinions are ignored because they come from women, that’s the problem.
Too often, what I’m told are privileges being applied to me are rights that others are being denied. The rules are being applied the way they’re supposed to be in one case, but not in another. We’re not competing with each other, so you having a disadvantage isn’t the same thing as me having an advantage. Unless you’re of the opinion that more white people should be shot, men should make less money, or straight individuals should be beaten in the street more often. If so, please get off my blog.
Language is important. I’m gonna’ set up an example here, and hope you’ll stick with me. There’s a foot race, and everyone lines up at the starting line. One person is rich given a head start, allowed to leave the line 5 seconds in front of the rest of the runners. He has an advantage. A privilege. All of the rest of the runners, save one, are told to run at the same time. They start from the same point at the same time. They are your baseline, all with an equal chance to succeed. That person who was held back is allowed to start running 5 seconds after everybody else. That person is suffering a disadvantage. They’re being forced to compete unevenly.
Gay ladies and gents, my ability to walk down a street at night reasonably secure in the knowledge that I won’t be attacked isn’t a privilege, it’s a right. That means that you should be able to do the same! Saying that it’s a privilege implies that I shouldn’t be able to walk down that street by myself. Saying that you’re denied the right to walk down that street implies that the people preventing you from doing so are wrong. Homophobic assholes who let me pass unmolested aren’t doing me a service. When they prey on gay people for their gender preference, THEY ARE THE ONES DOING WRONG. Anyone who disagrees is a shitty human being. Your disadvantage is not my advantage. We aren’t competing.
Here’s where it gets a bit sticky. Activism and rights movements (Rights! Yes! The correct word!). It’s not a fair world, unfortunately. Everybody in that foot race in my example above is just trying their hardest to get to the finish line as fast as they can. That group who started together? The baseline? They probably didn’t even realize that someone got held back and was forced to start later than they were. It isn’t that they’re callous, uncaring, or don’t want that person to have a fair shot. They’re just so wrapped up in their own run, looking at what’s in front of them and trying to keep from being overtaken, that they didn’t even notice when someone was cheated. The person given the head start ahead of them was given special advantage; a privilege. “You all had an advantage!” isn’t the same thing as “I was given a disadvantage!” Don’t demand that the mass of runners be held back to start with you. Demand that you be allowed to start with them. Loudly enough that everyone can hear.
Telling someone they have an advantage makes them want to hold onto it. Saying that someone else is at a disadvantage can make people want to remove it. Yell about it. Scream about it. In 1960 the Greensboro Four didn’t say “Why does that white man get to sit at the lunch counter?” They asked, “Why aren’t we allowed to sit next to him?” If you can’t spot the difference between those two questions, you’re not going to be very effective at bringing problems to peoples’ attention or changing their minds.