This post is deep. He covers so much you have to read it and I think you will get pulled in and see how you are affected or have been affected in various ways
"Our behaviors on these platforms are too often conflated with who we are."
We Aren’t Holding The Right People Responsible For Cancel Culture
The way we talk on the internet is broken, but users are not the ones who broke it — tech companies did that, and they did it for profit.
Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News; Getty Images
Last week, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan asked a question at a Congressional hearing that seemed to come out of nowhere. While the biggest tech CEOs — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, and Google’s Sundar Pichai — were being questioned about antitrust violations and harm they’ve done to consumers, Jordan used his valuable time to ask about...cancel culture?
The laughs came in hot. It was “the dumbest question,” internet commenters charged. Jordan quickly joined the inglorious canon of technologically challenged lawmakers who are seemingly unable to hold tech CEOs accountable with actually good questions (remember Zuckerberg’s “Senator, we run ads” moment?).
But here’s the thing: Even though the question was badly phrased (“Is the cancel culture mob dangerous?”) — and its messenger wasn’t great either — the setting was absolutely right. For all the noise that gets made about “cancel culture,” it is in fact technology companies who should have to answer for it. The way we talk on the internet is broken, and users are not the ones who broke it — tech companies did that, and they did it for profit.
The idea of “canceling” originated in Black Twitter. It first described a relatively benign form ...al boycott: a group of people making the case for others to withdraw their support from an individual or an institution. Boycotts aren’t new, obviously. But sometime within the last two years, the phrase “cancel culture” picked up steam and morphed into a monstrosity, a catchall phrase for heightened internet discourse, colored in with words like “dangerous mob.”
The panic is in part due to a wide range of behaviors that have become linked with so-called cancel culture: Run-of-the-mill boycott efforts like campaigns to encourage ot...o unfollow someone on social media or calls to withdraw someone’s invi...s to speak at events (particularly at universities) got lumped in with groups lobbying employers to fire employees for any given reason.
A few critics, like New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, have argued that these behaviors go beyond your regular ol...on boycott — that, in fact, they amount to “the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism.” Through intimidation, these critics charge, the cancel-happy internet is threatening the founda...ism itself, creating expectations of conformity.
What we now broadly consider “cancel culture” is in fact a convergence of three relatively new forces: the easiest access to like-minded people in the history of humanity; a technology-facilitated culture of rapid feedback; and the conflation of Twitter with some sort of huge and all-important public square.
These forces are incredibly powerful, and they are changing our world. But they do not present people problems so much as they present a technology problem. And for all too many — particularly conservatives and centrists stoking the fires of the culture wars — it’s easy to mistake these problems for a single coherent ideology that really doesn’t exist.
It’s perhaps true that the stakes of being wrong in public — or at least, being perceived by somebody, somewhere, as being wrong — are higher now than they were even a decade ago. It’s also true that a lot of people feel like they can’t freely speak on social media because of those stakes. This mood is, more or less, what critics mean when they say “cancel culture.” But this mood, far from a rot at the core of liberal society, is actually a direct result of how technology companies have set up our arena of digital speech, and the consequences it has had on our institutions.
Our behaviors on these platforms are too often conflated with who we are. This is to our detriment. We forget that the platforms themselves impact behavior, mediate it, intercept it, and reframe it. Angela Xiao Wu from New York University, writing about how we analyze platform data, argues that “platform data do not provide a direct window into human behavior. Rather, they are direct records of how we behave under platforms’ influence.” It’s another way of saying that understanding ourselves based on what we do on these platforms completely overlooks the fact that the platforms themselves are not neutral.
Technology companies have goals. They have capitalist interests in how much time you spend on the platforms, how much you engage, how often you return to them again and again and again. All of these elements can be further manipulate...tical gain. The ways we congregate online is a result of a bunch of people trying to make money. That’s how we ended up here.
Facebook and Twitter have positioned themselves as the new public square. This is not a paraphrasing — both Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have referenced their platforms as such. But heralding themselves as champions of free speech on ginormous scales just obfuscates their actual purpose: to monetize our interactions in order to grow. Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told me that social media platforms “calling themselves the public square was a clever ploy from the get-go to avoid regulation.”
It also helps them avoid any semblance of responsibility for what they have created: environments that are, by design, optimized for emotional and divisive content, and mysterious algorithms that seem to be aimed at maintaining audience attention even at the expense of damaging digital conversation. Many academics, reporters, and thinkers have argued that these platforms do far more harm than good — to the point where abolishing them may be th...y solution: “All signs point to a system beyond reform,” writes Charlie Warzel in the New York Times.
The sites on which much of the cancel culture conversation takes place are the reason this notion exists in the first place. As such, tech CEOs should absolutely be questioned on “cancel culture” — by which I mean: the consequences of the rules they’ve set up for online speech.
It is undeniably true that people who are upset at something can quite easily find more people who are upset at the same thing. This is a boring observation in 2020, but that’s only because we have entirely lost sight of how new this is. In 2003, if you belonged to a group that was mad about a newly published op-ed, the group could yell about it over MSN Messenger. If it were a particularly passionate group, you might even have a forum on a website. But that was the extent of your digital protest.
Now, you and I could latch onto a hashtag and find each other, and within a few hours, we could become a united force. But in doing so, observers risk overemphasizing strangers’ political alignment. People who are unified about one thing for a brief moment — say, disapproving of the New York Times’ editorial decision to run...nion piece by a senator — are not politically aligned forever. They don’t trade ideas on how to elect a replacement senator. There is no Cancel Party of the USA. They are not a “culture” — they are hardly a movement.
But algorithms intent on driving more emotional content to users have allowed for thriving hyperpartisan echo chambers that hinge on feeding an outrage machine. Disparate individuals who might share a few perspectives politically are lumped together indiscriminately, until they are an indistinguishable mass.
Even still, expressing frustrations with an individual or an institution’s actions aren’t new. What’s changed has been the dynamic of feedback culture. Institutions used to receive disconnected pieces of feedback you know, letters in the mail they could ignore, emails they could delete. But now, institutions can face swells of criticism in real time — and when they see their name in the unfortunate lights of the trending bar, they might feel more pressured to act.
Posted on August 7, 2020, at 1:08 p.m. ET