Two corners of the internet

Transcript: The thing to understand about the plastic crazy straw design world is that there are two main camps: The professonals--designing for established brands--and the hobbyists. The hobbyist mailing lists are full of drama, with friction between the regulars and a splinter group focused on loops... Caption: Human subcultures are nested fractally. There's no bottom.

Source: XKCD

I like to talk about what it’s like to blog, and I’ve contrasted it with other platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. However, it should be emphasized that Tumblr and Twitter are really not that far off from blogging; I complain about them because they sit in my own personal uncanny valley of social media. We risk overgeneralizing if we only look at blogs and blog-adjacent platforms. Even XKCD’s observation about fractal subcultures seems a bit biased towards blogging, and I’m not sure it’s really accurate as a generalization.

So the purpose of this post is to explore two other forms of internet interaction, which to me seem exotic. Each of these forms of interaction is used by a member of my immediate family, and I’ve been watching how they engage with it.

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A look back at the Brights

The Brights was a movement in the 00s to rebrand atheists as “brights”. It immediately fizzled, as everyone laughed it out of the room. Can you imagine calling yourself a bright?

I first heard about brights in 2007, but apparently it was coined some years earlier, by Paul Geisert in 2003. He and his wife Mynga Futrell founded The Brights organization, whose website still stands today. The word was initially supported by Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, but was immediately mocked by both conservative columnists and skeptical authors (not all articles are publicly available). Nowadays, nobody ever bothers to remember it except as a hilarious object lesson in how constructed labels can go wrong.

“Bright” is a funny word, but I will discuss it earnestly. I will deconstruct its motivations, analyze the arguments for and against it, and investigate where it ended up.

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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.

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Poe’s Law is and always was bad

It’s time for another trip to the ruins of New Atheism, to scavenge for clues about its downfall. Today we examine Poe’s Law, an adage that states that there is no parody of religious fundamentalism so extreme that it won’t be mistaken for the real thing.

This episode was inspired by a video by Sarah Z (1 hr), about a seemingly unrelated topic: made up stories on Tumblr. The central thread in her video is an obviously fictional story on Tumblr about a woman giving money to a homeless man, and being interrupted by a fedora’d dipshit. And with one thing and another it ends with a Gangnam Style dance number.

This tumblr story was posted to Reddit, where it was a joke about tumblr SJWs make shit up to reinforce their own persecution complex, and have so little attachment to reality that they believe their own nonsense.

The story isn’t just fake though. It’s a fake fake story. The story was not created by a tumblr SJW, and was in fact never posted on Tumblr in the first place. The screenshot was engineered by an apparently anti-SJW redditor who habitually created fake screenshots along similar lines. So in truth, it’s a story about how anti-SJWs make up shit to reinforce their own worldview, and have so little attachment to reality that they believe their own nonsense.

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Explaining Roko’s Basilisk

Before I move away from the topic of Rationalism and EA, I want to talk about Roko’s Basilisk, because WTF else am I supposed to do with this useless knowledge that I have.

From sci-fi, a “basilisk” is an idea or image that exploits flaws in the human mind to cause a fatal reaction. Roko’s Basilisk was proposed by Roko to the LessWrong (LW) community in 2010. The idea is that a benevolent AI from the future could coerce you into doing the right thing (build a benevolent AI, obv) by threatening to clone you and torture your clone. It’s a sort of a transhumanist Pascal’s Wager.

Roko’s Basilisk is absurd to the typical person, and at this point is basically a meme used to mock LW, or tech geeks more broadly. But it’s not clear how seriously this was really taken in LW. One thing we do know is that Eliezer Yudkowsky, then leader of LW, banned all discussion of the subject.

What makes Roko’s Basilisk sound so strange, is that it’s based on at least four premises that are nearly unique to the LW community, and unfamiliar to most anyone else. Just explaining Roko’s Basilisk properly requires an amusing tour of multiple ideas the LW community hath wrought.

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Effective Altruism: an outsider perspective

As readers know, I like to take retrospective looks at the New Atheist movement. What can I say, I was involved for ten years and I have grievances. But there’s another adjacent community I think a lot about, even though I was never personally involved: the Rationalist community, also known as the LessWrong community.  I also think about Effective Altruism (EA), a significant spinoff community that focused on philanthropy.

I always had issues with the Rationalist community, as well as personal reasons to keep my distance. But looking back, I honestly feel like Rationalism left a better legacy than either the Skeptical or New Atheist movements did, and that legacy came in the form of EA. I keep my distance away from EA, but at the end of the day they’re doing philanthropy, and encouraging others to do philanthropy, and I really can’t find fault with that.

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When will we learn to do remote socializing?

When I was an undergrad, I would host discussion groups with the atheist student group. We’d basically just declare and describe a topic and let people shout out their thoughts one at a time. In retrospect, there are serious issues with this discussion structure.

The first problem is division. If you have twenty people, on average each person speaks one twentieth of the time. There’s some sort of ideal fraction of time that people would like to be speaking rather than listening, and that fraction is greater than 1/20. So even if the discussion structure works adequately for 10 people, it tends to break down at 20. This caps the size of the group, as meetings become less engaging the more people join.

The second problem is inequality. On average each person speaks one twentieth of the time, but the typical person speaks much less than that, and in practice the discussion is dominated a few loudmouths. And yes, the loudmouths are disproportionately men. The loudmouths find the discussion engaging, while most other people do not, and now you’ve selected a group of loudmouths who vie for attention while crowding everyone else out.

This is now the discussion structure adopted by practically every remote social event. I hate it so much.

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