Or the camera?
In an excellent 2017 conversation between Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen, and Kara Swisher, an audience member asks Reid and Marc if the cause of our inability to have rational conversations is that too many of our conversations are happening digitally instead of in person.
Why Current Things are impervious to rational conversation
Reid gives a strong example of an organization called Village Square dedicated to in person conversations that are civil and polite.
Marc on the other hand challenges the premise of the question, referencing the book Infamous Scribblers to describe how, hundreds of years before social media, Ben Franklin and others were using pseudonyms in newspapers to attack people in far more vicious ways than people do today.
In other words, the idea that we can return to a golden age where everyone was polite and rational is a pipe dream, because that golden age never existed. The health of our current discourse is abysmal, but it’s always been abysmal. The status quo is the norm, not the exception.
How Twitter amplifies polarization
Now, this isn’t to say that Social Media doesn’t exacerbate polarization.
It’s fair to say that Twitter drives most people to extremes, either far left or far right. You can think of Twitter as a machine to maximize outrage: It will serve up an endless series of examples of things for you to be outraged about.
And, due to motivated reasoning and the other biases, if you're on the right, you will interpret all the outrageous examples as proof of the hypocrisy of the left, and vice versa. And then the algorithm will reinforce that harder and harder as you get driven further to the extreme.
There are studies that show that if you take people who have differing views and put them together in small groups, they’ll often moderate their views in order to coexist in harmony. But if you take people who have similar views and put them together, they’ll often strengthen each other’s views, subconsciously competing with each other for the status of most loyal to the group.
That’s what Twitter does: it simultaneously places you in a community of people with the same views as you, *and* also puts you within earshot of a community of people with opposing views.
Someone on Hacker News described a variation of this dynamic called “The Toaster Fucker problem:”
Man wakes up in 1980, tells his friends "I want to fuck a toaster" Friends quite rightly berate and laugh at him, guy deals with it, maybe gets some therapy and goes on a bit better adjusted.
Guy in 2021 tells his friends that he wants to fuck a toaster, gets laughed at, immediately jumps on facebook and finds "Toaster Fucker Support group" where he reads that he's actually oppressed and he needs to cut out everyone around him and should only listen to his fellow toaster fuckers.
Apply this analogy to literally any insular bubble, it applies as equally to /r/thedonald as it does to the emaciated Che Guevara larpers that cry thinking about ringing their favorite pizza place.
If you’re a highly rational person, you get disgusted with the dynamic. You’d think there’d be enough rational people who can enforce norms of civility. Incorrect!
Extremists will always care more than people in the middle (see The Intolerant Minority). Whereas people who want to be left alone are by definition no good at recruiting or defending their tribe.
If you disagree with The Current Thing or The Bizarro Current Thing and you try to convince both sides to moderate, you will have no home and you will get accused of treason by both sides. Non-aggressors will always lose to aggressors. This is why there’s no durable middle.
This is why people pick sides. This is why we can’t have nice things.
This increasing extremism helps explain why everything is so bonkers. COVID and Ukraine were our first Twitter-native pandemic & war, and both entailed purity spirals that influenced crazy policy proposals and nearly led to a world war.
Politicians look to Twitter to identify what their constituents want, and since Twitter amplifies the loudest voices and scares the silent majority from speaking, politicians only hear from the most extreme sides of the base and mistakenly think it represents the majority.
Is Social Media the Engine or the Camera?
Marc Andreessen recently tweeted: is the internet an engine or camera?…Are things actually more stupid today, or were they always stupid and we’re just more aware of the stupidity now?
Of course, Communism and Nazism predated the internet, and those movements were crazier than anything we’re seeing today. People have been taking political sides and forming up mobs and killing scapegoats since….forever.
It seems obvious that the internet is both: It’s a camera that becomes an engine. People act differently in front of the camera—they perform for their tribe, especially when people’s tribal loyalty is in question, as it always is in a society where our tribal bonds are formed over beliefs instead of genetics or geography.
And the internet offers the widest camera angle possible—everyone is in the frame 24/7, always at risk of being called out.
And this is why we don’t prioritize rational conversation: We care more about being part of the tribe.
Everything makes much more sense when we understand that people are hard-wired to choose a tribe, stick within it, and defend it unconditionally.