Reblogging, the root of evil

A straw on the camel’s back

“Cancel culture” is a bad and incoherent concept, run into the ground by conservatives who use it to attack any sort of cultural criticism from the left, while excusing any analogous criticism from the right. At the same time, I do see people on the left also use “cancel culture” as a way to discuss legitimately worrying problems, such as Twitter pileons. Such leftists do not necessarily accept the “cancel culture” framing uncritically, but you can’t not talk about it. You can’t talk about Twitter pileons without talking about cancel culture, because it’s burrowed into all our brains, and we’ll recognize it even if you don’t say it. And I don’t know what to do about that.

I have wondered if it might help if we just rename the problem. We’ve changed the name before; we used to call it callout culture, and now we call it cancel culture for some reason.  Although, that didn’t seem to help things at all.

Another approach is to shatter the “cancel culture” framework to pieces, and talk about the pieces individually. So, in the spirit of being the change I want to see, I will discuss just one piece: the reblog. Not really the root of evil–the title is hyperbole–but nonetheless an important structural element of the social media platforms that have it the worst.

Not all platforms are the same

Reblogging is a common form of engagement on some social media platforms, such as Twitter or Tumblr. If see someone else’s post, you can click a button to make your own post quoting them and perhaps adding a reply. Usually, the alternative to reblogging is a comment section, such as the ones commonly found under YouTube videos and traditional blogs.

Whether reblogging is common is different from whether reblogging is structurally supported. For instance, WordPress has a little-known reblogging feature that I almost never seen used. On Twitter, there is a built-in retweet feature, but people also frequently use screen-caps, a sort of structurally unsupported reblogging. Even if a social media platform offers no support for reblogging whatsoever, you can always just copy and paste quotes, and that gets the job done.

But I do think the structural factors make a difference. WordPress reblogging is unused because it’s buried in their UI. And if a social platform doesn’t support reblogging, it may even violate copyright to quote somebody too extensively. Social media sites like Tumblr typically have something in their user agreement granting everyone else on the platform a license to reblog you.

So why am I placing blame on a technical property of certain social media platforms? It’s because hate-reblogging is a core component of most internet pileons today.

If you see a post that irks you, you might wish to express a negative reaction. In order to express that negative reaction, you are most likely to use the default form of engagement, the reblog. The reblog causes your followers to see the same post. Your followers likely have similar views to you, and put trust in your opinion, so they too may have a negative reaction they wish to express. The cycle repeats, and in some cases blows up. The size of the blowup is not proportional to the severity of the original post, but rather, increases exponentially with virality.

Furthermore, reblog interactions, unlike comment sections, don’t have an owner, and therefore can’t be moderated.

I don’t mean to pin all the blame on reblogging. I was in the atheist blogosphere in the days when it got hot all the time. I remember gamergate, which was sort of a cross-platform phenomenon. However, I note that typically, when the blogosphere got hot, people would hate-quote each other, and this is a bit like hate-reblogging without the structural support. And I think the fact that we had to step over structural barriers to hate-quote each other was a cooling force that no longer exists today on Twitter.

Of course, we don’t necessarily want to block public criticism entirely. Criticism does fulfill an important social function after all. So I think a cooling force–a small structural barrier–is exactly what we need.

People on Twitter and Tumblr tend to view their chosen social platforms as hellsites, and they tolerate it because they believe that all social media have their own problems. In contrast, nobody in the blogosphere ever says they feel trapped on the platform, nor does anyone ever defend blogging by saying every other social media is just as bad. Yes, different social media all have problems, but no, they are not they are not all equal. There are important and identifiable structural differences between social media platforms that make some worse than others.

So if you’re on Tumblr or Twitter, get out, get out, get out, if you can.

Why you can’t get out

I’ve been complaining about reblogging for a long time. I wrote about it in 2012 while explaining why Tumblr was a terrible platform–a few days before joining Tumblr myself. Nine years of using Tumblr did not change my mind, instead I feel I was more correct than I knew.

However, I must also admit that reblogging is not without merits. For one thing, it makes discovery much much easier. I’ve talked about how dead my blog felt early on, and how hard it was to downsize my ambitions. But if someone popular reblogs you, that’s a quick way to get discovered and skip the awkward growth phase.

Secondly, reblogging allows you to maintain a content stream by just sifting through other people’s content, without making original content. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. Content sifting is a legitimate and valuable activity, one that I do myself through link roundups.

So yes, getting off of Twitter or Tumblr might be a bit harder than I made it out to be. Even if there were a hypothetical social platform exactly like Twitter, with all the same people and features, minus retweets, you may lose something you love. So if you can’t get off Twitter, you are officially forgiven. (In any case, we only need a certain fraction of people to get off of Twitter to achieve herd immunity.)

One of the more creative solutions I’ve seen, is from the new social platform, Pillowfort. Pillowfort structurally encourages reblogs, but does not allow reblogs-with-additions. Thus, if you reblog someone, it will quote them exactly without commentary, implying some level of endorsement. To add commentary, you must use a traditional comment section, which is moderated by the author of the OP. So you can reblog, but it’s difficult to hate-reblog. I don’t know if Pillowfort’s solution will work, or if people will just find ways around it, but I think this is the sort of clever thinking we need.

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