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The internet is flat.
Three-dimensional human beings can’t thrive in a one-dimensional space
Welcome to Galaxy Brain — a newsletter from Charlie Warzel about technology and culture and big ideas. You can read what this is all about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. You can also click the button below to subscribe. And if you’ve been reading, consider going to the paid version.
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There’s a line that Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian used to repeat back in the halcyon days of 2012. It went something like: ‘The world isn’t flat — but the world wide web is.’
Ohanian meant that the internet was an engine of opportunity — that it democratized industries and put people on a more even footing. You could start a business or a publication with a few clicks, and then immediately put it in front of millions of eyeballs! This, of course, was an overly utopian view (the internet does democratize opportunity — but also entrenches many power structures). Reality, as always, is far more complicated than a catch phrase.
I’ve been thinking about a different internet flattening, namely the way that social platforms collapse time and space and context into one big pancake of conflict. I wrote a bit about this phenomenon in my inaugural post for this newsletter. It’s called context collapse, which is when a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another — usually an uncharitable one — which then reads said information in the worst possible faith. (For that piece, I spoke to Elle Hunt, a journalist whose movie opinion tweet exploded into a culture war argument as result of this audience switching.)
This collapse is not just about movement between audiences. Kashmir Hill recently wrote a smart piece for the Times about the way that our digital pasts are weaponized against us, citing the extremely public and boneheaded decision by the AP to fire Emily Wilder for her tweets (and, likely, her past activism). Hill’s piece is grounded in the notion that, even just a decade ago, it seemed ridiculous to think that we’d all hold digital ephemera against each other. We’d grow up, get used to the spaces we were in, and we’d extend some grace. When everyone has a vast digital past, there’s some mutually assured destruction at play, right? But that’s not how any of this has played out.
“Part of the problem is how time itself has been warped by the internet,” Hill writes. “Everything moves faster than before. Accountability from an individual’s employer or affiliated institutions is expected immediately upon the unearthing of years-old content. Who you were a year ago, or five years ago, or decades ago, is flattened into who you are now. Time has collapsed and everything is in the present because it takes microseconds to pull it up online. There is little appreciation for context or personal evolution.”
The temporal phenomenon Hill describes usually works in one direction. There are very examples of trudging through a person’s archives to reconsider them in a positive sense — Guy Fieri seems to be one of the few examples of a public figure whose once mocked past has actually aged like a fine wine. There’s a good reason for this: some people bury awful shit in order to avoid accountability. I also think most people are fundamentally less interested in the bad-to-good narrative than the good-to-bad narrative.
Combing through a person’s past to change our opinion of the present is, of course, a pillar of the whole important, yet interminable cancel culture discussion. Which is really about the extremely thorny relationship between the passage of time, personal evolution or lack thereof, and group enforced accountability. None of us seem to even have the precise language to talk about all of this, much less agree upon outcomes.
The internet makes this accountability discourse all much harder and more chaotic, collapsing time and audiences and cultural norms upon each other at speeds we barely register. Take yesterday when, seemingly out of nowhere, actor Ellie Kemper (of The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame) started trending on Twitter for supposedly being “crowned KKK queen in 1999,” and has remained there for the last twenty fours.
Only this wasn’t quite true. From what I can gather, photos of her at a St. Louis semi-secret society debutant event (of which she was crowned queen) called the Veiled Prophet Ball emerged and the internet ran with the “KKK queen” label. A 2014 article in The Atlantic about the ball, which details the society’s racist roots, early confederacy links, and complicated history, went viral. A number of journalists tried to inject some nuance into the conversation, noting that the society and event, while definitely problematic, isn’t the KKK. In fact, they argued, the society is similar to many American institutions with upsetting and once glossed-over histories, all of which are fair game for scrutiny, reexamination, and deep criticism.
The Kemper event is an instance of context collapse happening on multiple fronts — time, audience — at once. There’s a problematic group. There’s an event that happened 21 years ago, with visual documentation. There’s a well-known but not A-list celebrity. There’s a random tweet (I believe the user who kicked this off has roughly 800 Twitter followers) that gets some pick-up and sends people digging around online. These factors cause an old article to go viral, and leads Twitter’s curation team to attempt to turn the conversation into something…helpful?
Anyhow, you get this:
The Trending widget, while attempting to add context, only throws fuel on the fire, giving news outlets the ability to write a piece about the controversy because it is now newsworthy by virtue of it “trending.” These stories often include the context collapsed tweets because they’re good content, but then try to distance themselves from any definitive stance, which feels a bit disingenuous. This was my favorite disclaimer, from the site Pedestrian.TV:
I don’t mean to get in the weeds of Kemper’s politics/upbringing/potentially problematic family, etc. I’m not trying to suggest she’s good or bad or anything, really. But her example is a particularly thorny flattening facilitated by multiple online systems interacting with each other.
Consider the following questions and their potential answers: Has Kemper evolved personally and politically since 1999? Likely, yes. Has she interrogated her past and reckoned with her past participation in this event? Unclear. Is it important she and many others do so? It would seem so! Is it important society hold her accountable or is it important society forgive her/not dwell on this? Or do we need to know more before rendering judgement? Perhaps the answer is…all of the above?
All of these questions reflect the nuances of a situation. And all of these questions are also irrelevant, because the ecosystem in which the broader conversation is conducted flattens them all into nothingness. She is either a KKK queen or an unfairly maligned cancel culture victim or some complicated muddled mix of the two, which isn’t interesting enough to hold a headline and so is usually discarded in favor of one of the binary options. And so Kemper becomes the momentary main character of Twitter. Within minutes, it ends up not being about Kemper at all. She’s just the latest place filler in peoples’ larger cultural war. It looks like this:
Earlier today, Vox’s Rebecca Jennings wrote about the push for influencer to weigh in on every political controversy — while also speaking to the experiences of every user that follows them. “I don’t know that the demand for influencers to speak out on complex political issues is entirely about the issues themselves,” Jennings writes. “It feels more like a test: Am I, as a fan, justified in having this parasocial relationship with you? Who are you, anyway? Should I be uncomfortable with how much attention we’re all giving you?”
While Jennings is talking about a specific influencer, I think this idea applies to almost anyone who builds an online presence, no matter how small. Parasocial relationships forge powerful bonds — which, of course, is the reason they’re so lucrative for influencers and celebrities. But there’s a danger lurking there as well. A relationship between an influencer or celebrity is intimate and real, but it is also the one-sided illusion of friendship. It is an inherently shaky foundation for any sort of relationship — and the easiest way for a fan to equalize the power imbalance, to exercise is any sort of control, is to threaten to or actually sever that relationship. If I’m going to associate my identity with yours, you better act right.
The social internet promised us deep human connections — the sort that requires nuance and patience for messiness — but instead, it’s just turned us all into brands. Brands are monolithic. They are purposefully devoid of nuance. A brand is supposed to evoke a blunt emotion (Luxurious! Dangerous! Dependable! Built to last!) and are meant to remain consistent through space and time. Once you are ‘Built Ford Tough,’ it’s expected you remain Ford Tough for quite a while. There are cars to move off the lot.
Online, especially with public facing people, the impulse to quickly categorize individuals into brand affiliations is very strong. In some cases, the impulse for the categorized individual to respond by leaning into the brand is equally strong. I see this all the time with contrarian-minded people on Twitter who, once cast as the villain, decide to devote most of their energy toward being the heel even if that behavior isn’t a particularly accurate reflection of their IRL personality.
The internet facilitates these powerful, complex parasocial relationships but, at the same time flattens everything that makes the messy, human elements of relationships possible. It flattens audiences, it flattens time and it flattens a lot of nuance.
Where does that leave us? In a tricky spot. Many of the current conversations about power and accountability are conversations we desperately need to have. Now, I’m not all that hopeful that many of the stakeholders are willing to have them — many would rather just flatten the complexities themselves into a vague ‘cancel culture.’ But, even in an ideal world of good faith participation, we don’t really have productive spaces to have such discussions. The world isn’t flat but the world wide web is — and three-dimensional human beings can’t thrive in a one-dimensional space.
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