An ode to AIM

After a 20 year run, AIM is being shut down in December. I’ve had my AIM account since May 14, 1998, so this makes me sad for a number of reasons. But I think it’s also worth reflecting both on the consequences of AIM dying, as well as the general state of technology.

I used AIM a *lot* in the late 90s, before moving to ICQ. Back then, there was sort of a holy war between AIM and ICQ, and the more serious computer users (read, an hour of internet time a day) seemed to use ICQ. From my personal experience, I stopped using ICQ in 2000 when a new version (I think it was 2000b) was released that was so buggy it was unusable on Windows 98. The community I was around all sort of migrated to AIM, and have used it ever since.

So long before what is now called “social media”, AIM served as a way to keep friends together, but not incessantly. I have my chat client logged into AIM right now, and even though I haven’t used it in years, I have a whole list of people who are also still logged in. It’s sort of like an active rolodex. In many ways, the buddy list now serves as a communication channel to people who I have no other way to contact anymore. Some might be stale, but the possibility is there. Until December.

I’m not sure why AOL wants to discontinue it. One of AIM’s main problems is that it’s centralized, through a protocol called OSCAR. I have no idea how difficult it is to maintain an AIM server. I have run jabber servers before, and they are usually pretty low maintenance. I wonder if there is some bureaucratic issue going on. Maybe AOL has to pay someone a license to keep it running, and now they’ve decided it is too expensive. Maybe there are a lot of security issues with the protocol, and they want to get rid of their security team that deals with it.

I wish they were more transparent about it. I wish they would do something for the AIM community– maybe set up a small nonprofit whose sole purpose is to collect donation money to keep the AIM servers running. Or make it all totally free software so someone could patch it to be decentralized, and keep it all still running. But again, this is all speculation, I have no idea. The one thing I do know is it makes me sad.

I’ve also become disillusioned with this new generation of technology. I’m a huge fan of personal liberty, using technology to empower individuals, and using computers to make cool projects and maybe even solve complex problems. But technology now seems to be about agreeing to 40 page EULAs you can’t possibly understand, and about companies taking more and more control over your life.

I recall a conversation I had with someone years ago, complaining about the then-new Windows product activation. IMO, if you pay for software, you own it, and the idea that you have to continually justify it to the company is the worst kind of leash possible. Their response was that there would be a lot of complaining, and eventually people would just go along with it and it would become part of an accepted norm. And it seems that now, the strange idea is not that you would need to get permission to run software you purchased, but that you would run software locally at all, because it’s all in the cloud (aka someone else’s computer).

Beyond that, I’m a big believer in respect for tradition, something that has been completely abandoned in the modern era. A less laudable version of this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It seems that there is a rush to throw out the old in favor of the new. The problem with this is that we continually redefine the old in shorter and shorter lifespans, and we also redefine the criteria by which we judge “new is better.” This leads to making the same painful mistakes over and over again.

That was a long winded way of saying I’m going to miss AIM, I’m going to miss all the friends I’ll never be able to chat with again, and I’m sad with the general state of what is called technology.

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Speech only stays free if we renew our subscription

Another way to say this is “history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.” One of the surefire ways to know a generational shift has taken place is that the same issues come up, often with the same arguments. The latest example is with “political correctness” or PC.

Here is a public debate from Firing Line, the show hosted by William F. Buckley, from August 28, 1991 (26 years ago), starring a few names you might recognize, including Dinesh D’Souza.

“Resolved: That Freedom of Thought Is in Danger on American Campuses”

 

And here is a discussion from July 27, 2017 (less than a week ago) from the United States House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, regarding free speech on college campuses:

“Challenges to Freedom of Speech on College Campuses”

 

Even though the discussions are not isomorphic, they are a fairly clear demonstration that issues which might have once seemed hashed out and “settled” have re-emerged for a new generation. Perhaps if everyone paused, watched the first debate, and read pieces that were written in the previous iteration, we might sidestep some of the pitfalls that will readily present themselves this time around. But I suspect this is wishful thinking.

Patreon is the canary in the coal mine

I just watched the second half of Dave Rubin’s interview with Jack Conte, the founder and CEO of Patreon. For a number of reasons, I think this interview and the events surrounding it were some of the most important in a huge battle going on right now. I’ll summarize the events as I understand them, and then explain why I think it matters in a larger context.

Patreon is a service that allows you to “subscribe” to someone, and every time they post an “update”, you give them money. The way this works varies, for some people it’s a monthly payment, for others its per “post”, and so on. It cracks one of the oldest traditional problems: how does an ordinary person support an artist they enjoy, so that artist can keep creating art?[1] This is fantastic, and a lot of people who I respect and learn from now make a living from the service, and in my opinion we’re better off for having it.

The trouble began a few days ago when a journalist named Lauren Southern had her Patreon deactivated, without notice, for violating their “content policy.” Due to the faceless, lackluster way her account was revoked, she made a video complaining that not only IHHO was the suspension based on false information, she was suddenly without any income and without any chance for appeal. This created a major public backlash against Patreon, which prompted Conte to make a video detailing the evidence that lead to her suspension. Southern posted a hilarious response video, and the surrounding drama lead to an expedited discussion that just took place. In my opinion, Comte seemed apologetic for the mistakes he acknowledged Patreon made, and sincere about reforming their procedures so this doesn’t happen again.

On face value, it seems like yet another story of drama created from a startup with more money/vision than experience. But I think it’s actually a very important episode in a very complex paradigm shift that seems to be happening right now. But before we can understand why Patreon is important, we need to understand what’s happening with Youtube right now.

For decades, the public narrative has been controlled by what we collectively call the Mainstream Media. CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and so on. And for decades, everything they aired had to fall within a certain set of boundaries. New television shows have to be run through a process, and journalists had to fit a certain mold, which varied based on the outlet. Youtube changed this. With Youtube, anyone who wants to can upload videos, and provided they don’t fall into certain categories (copyright infringement, illegal activities, etc), it’s free and they can share it with anyone they want. Over the years some people have created brands and followings, and Youtube set up a system where they could play ads on videos, and those people who have millions of views can make money from it. The most notable example of this is PewDiePie, who I think makes several million dollars a year.

However, in order to put ads on videos, you must have advertisers willing to pay to put up the ads. And many companies have jumped at this exposure. But in the last few months, things have started getting strange. Many “Youtubers” have found that some of their videos get “demonetized”, and the reasoning why isn’t entirely clear. I’ve heard various anecdotes, from people such as boogie2988, who found that his “Francis” videos were getting demonetized, and from The LA Beast, a competitive eater, who found that videos with the word “vomit” in the title or description were demonetized regardless of the contents of the video. In a recent Rubin Report, Tim Pool discussed this issue at length. The lack of transparency from Youtube is scary, and it matches the pattern of other massive companies who seemingly can do whatever they want. In some ways this is the cost of treating a private corporation as a public space, but at the same time, if there’s universal expectation that a company behaves like a public space and the company does nothing to “correct” this, it makes you wonder what the word “public” even means anymore.

There are a number of theories floating around as to why the Youtube issue is happening. It’s clear that, especially after the 2016 election, there is a massive lost of trust in the existing media institutions, so maybe companies like CNN, who seem to be losing viewers, are seeing Youtube as a threat and pulling some strings behind the scenes to neutralize it. Large corporations in general tend to be allergic to anything which they think might cost them money, which includes videos of the wrong topics or which are embroiled in the wrong kinds of controversies. Or Maybe Youtube has long been trying to figure out a good way to handle these issues, and this latest iteration of probing hit a few land mines and freaked everyone out. It’s difficult to say.

The nice thing about Patreon is that it actually solves all of these problems. Most artists who use Patreon (that I’ve seen) have a bunch of subscribers who all pay a little bit, like $10 a month, and this can add up. Professor Jordan Peterson, who rose to the public eye after some controversy last September, is now supported by almost 5,000 individual patrons with over $50,000 a month, and he’s using that money to create some of the most profound lectures I’ve ever watched. Others like the scientist Sam Harris, and even the discussion point, the Rubin Report, are all at least partially funded by Patreon. There’s no large corporation that can find any of these channels “objectionable” and then revoke their advertising, because they are viewer supported. It’s basically the public television of the 21st century.

I think one of the biggest problems in the English speaking world right now is the lack of actual discussion. There are a multitude of opinion silos, some of them larger than others. Institutions like CNN and Fox News have their own narratives, supported by select facts to craft the appearance of relevant news stories while also pleasing their funding sources. Smaller silos, like various Facebook groups, are in many ways smaller versions of these institutions, adhering to a small-p-party line, and generally maintaining a rather fundamentalist intransigence. While people like Donald Trump are very largely to blame, they are far from the only culprit. The inability to see someone who holds a different opinion from yourself as human is the first step towards a nihilistic chaos that would only prove we learned nothing from the 20th century.

One of the reasons Patreon is so important is that it offers a lifeline to people who are trying to escape from the surreality and craft an existence which does not require a negotiation with Mephistopheles. Lauren Southern clearly has a conservative bent, and her work is controversial. If her fans, many of whom are also conservative, only hear about her account and other conservative Patreons also getting suspended, it’s easy to misconstrue this as Patreon taking a political side. On the other hand, if Patreon is overly transparent and puts out response videos to everyone the way they did for Lauren, it will put a massive strain on a startup that is surely having plenty of other issues to deal with. There are also questions about when a Patreon wants to have an appeal but wants it to be private, or how transparency deals with sensitive information, or deals with Patreons in countries with laws that conflict with their policies, and so on. And if we assume good faith on Youtube’s part and assume all their demonetizings were the result of algorithmic issues, should a company like Patreon even try to automate these problems, or are they forced to manually look at every complaint?

For now, I’m going to take Jack Comte at his word and hope that Patreon actively improves their processes. By doing this interview, they are already leaps and bounds ahead of Twitter and it’s “Trust and Safety Council”, a group whose claims of “trust” and “safety” would make Solzhenitsyn laugh. It seems like we might see a direct discussion between Southern and Comte, mediated by Rubin. I think that would be fantastic. If more companies in the US started following suit and actually addressing issues when they happened, I might start to have faith in American corporations again. Might.

[1] The more vernacular words for this are “content” and “content creator”, which I utterly despise because they suck all the meaning and spirit out of the essence of art.

KATA IΩANNHN ΜΕΡΟΣ 1/? (Gospel of John Part 1/?)

Εν αρχῇ ῆν ὁ λογος                                                                                

και  λογος ῆν προς τον θεόν

και θεός ῆν  λογος.

(from http://www.ancientgreekonline.com/JohnGospel/JohnChapter1.htm)

I have a couple advantages here: first, this is probably the most famous sentence in the entire Bible, and it’s also very simple Greek, so it’s difficult to mess up. But there are a few things here that are worth explaining if you’re unfamiliar with languages besides English. Let’s start with the first line:

Εν αρχῇ ῆν ὁ λογος

As you probably already know, this translates to “In the beginning was the Word.” Let’s take a deeper look though. We can see it doesn’t translate word for word, because the greek has 5 words and the English has six. This is due to how Latin and Greek handle articles. Simply put, sometimes it doesn’t use them. So we have the first two words, “Εν αρχῇ”, meaning “In the beginning”, but there is no “the” between “In” and “beginning”, whereas the end of the line “ῆν ὁ λογος” directly means “was the Word.”

Next, the noun for “the beginning” is actually “αρχη”, but this is in nominative form. All languages use cases, but some (like English) are very, very implicit, whereas languages like Greek, Latin, and German are more explicit. Here’s a simple table that attempts to illustrate the basic cases of Greek:

Nominative: this is the case of the subject
Genitive: this is the case “about” or “of” the subject.
Dative: “with” positionally or location-wise
Accusative: relating to the direct object

(Here’s a better and more in-depth explanation of the cases in Ancient Greek: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_nouns)

The word “Εν” makes the noun take the dative case, therefore “αρχῇ” is written instead of “αρχη.” I might do another post listing the cases for specific words, but I believe this is sufficient for now. The word “ῆν” is in the imperfect tense, and I believe the rest of the line should make sense.

I’m going to avoid addressing the word “λογος” here because it’s worthy of a full post if not a full book. I’ll suffice it to say that this word is very complicated, one of the most complex I’ve encountered, and it has a meaning similar to the idea meant by Platonic form. In a sense, I think John is suggesting that it means an archetype, and suggesting a rather important theological idea.

και ὁ λογος ῆν προς τον θεόν

This one gets complicated due to the word “προς”, which in most Bibles translates into “with”, but it has many definitions. For example, from Luschnig/Mitchel, it’s translated as “to/towards” when the object takes the accusative. I have to look more into this word to see the possibilities, and it’s especially tricky because Google Translate only works with modern Greek.

However, roughly speaking, this translates into “and the Word was with God.” It actually translates directly into “and the Word was with the God”, but this is simply another example of how the Greek language works, just like we saw with “beginning.” One thing worth noting here, because the word “προς” (with) takes the accusative, the word for God “θεόν” is in the accusative rather than the nominative form.

και θεός ῆν ὁ λογος.

Here “God” is back in the nominative. This is a little interesting because the direct translation is technically “and God was the Word”, but in Greek, like with Latin, the endings of the words change based on their case, and thus their role in the sentence. This means that the order of the words is actually irrelevant. 

So finally, our English translation:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.

This concludes our first look into the Gospel of John, stay tuned for line 2.

Ad Maiorem Gloriam Dei

I’ve lived in Berlin for over 2 years now, and being around so many different spoken languages has rekindled a very old interest. For many years I’ve been on a self-directed study of the history of Western culture, beginning with Homer and ending with philosophers like Noam Chomsky (as a linguist). This involves reading a lot of philosophy and history.

Typically when you read a such a book, like works of Kant, they are actually a response to some event which occurred earlier. Sometimes you need to do background research to figure out the lineage, and sometimes they cite it directly; for example, in Summa Theologica, Acquinas directly quotes Aristotle as he analyzes and responds to him, whereas Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno are in large part metaphorical political satires.

Another important point known to anyone who has studied languages is that when you translate, you lose a lot of meaning. This loss can occur in many forms: it could be that the target language doesn’t have a word that captures such a meaning, such as German’s “schadenfreude”, or that in the original language the word has several meanings, not all of which carry over. It could be that the phrase in the target language is very awkward, even though it has the correct meaning. Or it could even mean that the word in the original language conveys via sound or tempo a particular feeling that is lost.

In high school, I was fortunate enough to study both French and Latin, and being surrounded by so many languages and linguists in Berlin has inspired me to revisit Latin by way of Lingua Latina, a book I highly recommend. I’m about halfway through Lingua Latina Pars 1, and even though I need a dictionary, I can still mostly make out what’s being said in works from people like Acquinas and Cicero.

However, for some works, such as Summa Theologica, this only presents half the picture, as Acquinas was studied in Ancient Greek and cited Aristotle in the original, even though he responded in Latin. Seeing as I haven’t studied Ancient Greek, this creates a difficulty for me, and one which I now intent to tackle.

So over the next undefined period of time, I’m going to try teaching myself Ancient Greek by translating the Gospel of John. There are a few reasons for taking this approach. The New Testament, unlike the Old Testament, was written in Greek, in part because they were trying to spread the word of the Gospels to the Gentiles, most of whom spoke Greek. Second, from what I understand, the Gospel of John in particular is a good starting place because it was written by someone who had Greek as a second language, and thus is more accessible to someone trying to learn it.

Once I finish this translation, I’ll make an attempt at the other Gospels, and maybe once I’ve finished that, take another stab at Aquinas. It’s worth noting that the while the New Testament is written in Koine Greek, works like Homer and Aristotle are composed in Homeric Greek, which is centuries older and, from what I understand, more complex. It’s also worth noting that both of these are totally different from modern Greek, so this will not help me converse with someone from Greece. Oh well.

I’m not sure how often I’ll get to translate a line or a chapter, but I’ll post translations with notes along the way, and try to make this accessible for someone who hasn’t studied Latin or Greek before.

Land of the Free for 30 Minutes

I just returned from a trip to the United States. I have lived in Germany since March 2015, and thus I’m not sure if things in the US have gotten worse, or if I’m beginning to notice it more. The three concepts that summarize my trip to the US: upsells, noise, and hidden charges.

The flight to the US was foreshadowing. Multiple attempts by the (American) airline to get me to buy their “rewards” card which I assume is a fancy way of saying credit card. Promises that I’d save so much money in the future with them. They also wanted to make sure I knew about upgrades I could buy in addition to the base service in theory provided by the cost of plane ticket: I could 1. check bags for free 2. board sooner 3. have more room 4. have more refreshments than provided to everyone else. The one thing that stood out here was that while they kindly offered mini TVs in the seats with video selection, they charged for headphones and played ads before every video you wanted to watch.

I arrived in the US, to be funneled through to the passport control area. The first thing I noticed was the blaring noise. There were around a dozen big screen televisions in the room, all blaring some special airport version of CNN, with the exception of the TVs right next to the passport officers, which had a video of Obama on loop welcoming everyone to the US. Beyond passport control and stepping into the airport was just as bad, except now there were hundreds of noises from people (all Americans) shouting into their cell phones. As I took a shuttle over to my transfer terminal, I remember some lady on a business call, and based on what she kept shouting into the phone, kept wondering what precisely made this call so important that it couldn’t wait until she arrived. And why my ability to have peace and quiet was somehow trumped by her need to share with the world how important she was. I suppose I could have tuned this out by popping onto the airport wifi, but even this was limited: free for the first 30 minutes, and then an offer either to purchase an hour’s worth, a day’s worth, or a month’s worth, all at “special rates.”

My next flight was even worse, because there was no food provided, which the airline used as an excuse to blare periodic announcements that you could buy refreshments at an additional price. Then they rolled a cart through and directly asked all the passengers “would you like to purchase anything”, while waving bags and cans in your face, as if to entice you to pull out your wallet. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these employees, who are probably being hustled by upstairs to turn as much of this overpriced crap as possible. And of course they only took plastic, which becomes difficult if you only have a european bank card and American cash you had assumed would be perfect for such emergencies.

Upon arrival, I had a ride from the airport to my destination. It turns out that in Suburban America, a wrong turn– highly likely on these homogenous streets– costs you up to ten minutes, because logical routes are blocked off by random concrete slabs that might as well have “fuck you” painted on them. I’m sure there is some sort of Freudian analysis behind this road design, because it certainly makes no sense otherwise. The other thing I noticed: police, everywhere. I think in the short ride from the airport to my destination, I saw more police randomly floating around the roads than in three months of life in Berlin. I heard no sirens, and saw no fires or accidents, so I’m not entirely sure what they were doing.

The final thing I’ll note here is all the hidden charges. In Germany, if you go to a store to buy something, there is a price listed on the shelf next to that item. When you take the item to the checkout, the number that shows up on the cash register is the same number you saw on the shelf. In the US, this is not so. I remember going to get an espresso for the cheap menu price of $3.20, and when I was rung up, the number that appeared on the machine was $3.50, due to taxes. Let’s reflect on this for a moment: what is the purpose of this? I’m pretty sure sales taxes do not change that much, and certainly not so often they require a hidden variable to be appended to your charge at the end, lest it varies day by day or hour by hour. Are Americans expected to do the math on their own, calculate X percent of the menu price of an item, and magically add it so they can compare it to the number that shows up on the screen?

It almost seems like this is a kind of social conditioning, where when you have two numbers that conflict, you’re supposed to automatically accept the number that the authority– in this case, the cash register– tells you. And if you have an issue, your only options are to bring it up to the low wage clerk who probably doesn’t care, or to file a “complaint” with a faceless organization that might take 6-8 weeks to respond, if you are lucky. In other words, in such a tiny semantic detail, you are being conditioned to mindlessly accept whatever shit is given to you. Maybe this is why Americans also tolerate the blaring tv screens, the annoying phone calls, the endless upsells and don’t even bother to question why prices for everything keep going up, and yet they are offered less in exchange for those prices every time.

But who cares what I think. After all, in Germany, my freedom lasts longer than 30 minutes.

Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Twitter

Due to some drama that was birthed on Twitter and quickly grew legs, I deleted my Twitter account in early June 2016. I had a few reasons for this: it was making me more unhappy than happy, partly because almost every new tweet contained references to topics that upset me. I also viewed it as an experiment in addiction, to see if I would go through withdrawals of some sort. Sure enough, after blocking Twitter domains in my hosts file, I found I would be going to it multiple times a day, every time when onscreen activity had reached a lull and I wanted to avoid the attention deficit. In the same way that going on a trip to another culture might teach you about your own, when I cautiously resumed Twitter again about a week ago, I found that it was nearly unusable.

Before exploring internet chats more extensively, I think it’s worth taking a step back and asking some fundamental questions about human nature. I’m reminded of a speech Eleanor Saitta gave at OHM in 2013, looking at how worldviews may differ if you view people as inherently good versus inherently bad. If we are inherently good, then perhaps there is some trauma that happens to us (coming of age, perhaps?) which chips away at the optimism over the years; if we are inherently bad, then maybe life experience teaches us over time to empathize with others. Is that the lesson William Golding was trying to teach us in Lord of the Flies? But it seems that lesson is countered, at least to a degree, by the results of the Harlow Monkey experiment.

Clearly we are social creatures to a degree, otherwise solitary confinement would not be considered torture. However, confinement can take many forms, and I’d argue that one of them is the veneer of “free speech” when the social norms are quite the contrary. There is an ongoing debate in the US right now about just how free “free speech” can really be, which seems to be complemented by a very angry movement to throw out every tradition in the book. Perhaps the best question to raise that capstones all of this: “At what point does a word become more than just a word?” Then we begin to add more questions: who decides where this point is? What gives them the authority to decide this? What if I disagree with them, and want to set my own point? And what if I fundamentally disagree with such a loaded phrase, calling into question the entire premise– that words will always remain just that, words?

That last point would be quickly defended by the late Frank Zappa, who stressed the point on CNN Crossfire when he was attacked during the PMRC discussions of the late 1980s. It’s also defended by the US Supreme Court in Watts vs United States (1969), where they ruled that “crude political hyperbole… did not constitute a knowing and willful threat.” That said, it is very interested to see what words are explicitly included in the “Seven words you can’t say on TV“, and which words are left out– does this mean they are so vile that we should just “know,” without being told, that they are unacceptable?1

I think it’s now clear that words are just that, words. However, I readily concede that words within context, especially when that context is directed at someone, can summon rather potent emotions from their target. This is after all, why we often use titles and honorifics: “Sir,” “Madam,” “Your Holiness,” and so on. These words convey an intent of respect. They are the verbal version of why we generally wear our Sunday best when meeting the President. It logically follows that words can also convey other intents, sometimes for malicious reasons. An online search for the phrase “hate speech” demonstrates this fairly quickly.

And here is where the challenge comes in, especially in Western cultures where we try to respect the concept of individual sovereignty, freedom to choose, and so on. In addition to the explicit right to “free speech,” we often also expect a right of “free listen”– that is, and especially in our own home, we want to be able to choose what words we read and hear, and what words we block out. In our home, this is a personal choice we do not need to defend or justify to anyone. However, the more public the conversation becomes, the more others may demand that participation in the public context requires waving these choices.

But perhaps “public” is the wrong word to use here, because although it shares roots with words like “republic” and “publish”, I would argue that there is no such thing as a general, shared public. After all, what does it mean to make something public? Perhaps you’re suggesting it is “available” to anyone, but a FOIA document is also technically available to anyone willing to wait the required months or years. Maybe you mean something related to accountability, but its unclear what that means without specifying to whom they are accountable. Or perhaps we just use “public” as a catchall word for a context that we believe many people have access to participate in.

Imagine for a moment that you are a citizen in a small town in America. You were born there, grew up there, and know everyone well enough that when you wave at them, they wave back. In addition to the written rules, there are a lot of unwritten rules that, as a community, you all mutually understand. One might assert that the collection of individuals, the greater-than-sum community, and all these unwritten rules comprise a “public.” Then we can extend this and say that something which acts in the interest of the individuals, the community, and the unwritten rules, comprises a “public good.”

Now, it turns out that there is a small town in another state, which resembles yours in many ways, but there are some key differences. Maybe they say “coke” instead of “pop,” like dogs instead of cats, or maybe they drive on the left side of the road instead of the right. The differences might seem silly, but they go against your native grain, and conjure very uncomfortable feelings. They force you to ask questions about things you want to consider stable. As a community, you might even say they go against the “public good.” Anyone who has studied Psychology 101 can see this quickly (and unintentionally) invoking the fight or flight reflex, and leading to less than desirable outcomes.

In a sort of Scarlet Letter sense, we often take our emotions and apply it to the person who says “coke” or the person who likes dogs. Instead of being an individual who has a trait, hobby, or taste we disagree with, they become “the dog man” or “the coke drinker.” Often this is harmless, and the man you know who works at the bookstore becomes “the bookstore guy.” But when we take this approach with a negative emotion, it sometimes invokes the fight or flight reflect. Do they become the outcast like the Sarah Woodruff, or do we decide they are a sort of Grendel who bears the mark of the Beast?

Now rewinding back to our origin, let’s revisit how we handle things on Twitter, on Facebook, and other websites we call “social media.” Rather than seeing the individual or the community, we see a post, often removed from a greater context. And in particular, we see a symbol– a phrase, a word, a picture, an implication. More to the point, because we are creatures based on pattern recognition, when we have such a symbol that is missing context, we strive to fill that void and create a new context for it. And because that symbol may invoke some emotions within us, we use those emotions to create the context. This, I would argue, is how, like cattle, we brand the usernames attached to those symbols.

At least in Western Culture, our society is based on a fight of good versus evil. We see traces of this fight in works like The Iliad, or in many places through history. Further, one might argue that from the blank slate, you become good by defeating evil; otherwise, if you are inherently good, you maintain being good by defeating evil. And if we’re taught these lessons from a young age, in our small (or large) towns, it logically follows that it might provide a motivation to action when we see things on Twitter/etc which we identify as evil. But there is one key problem with this approach.

Notice that while The Iliad text begins with the Rage of Achilles, the story itself begins far before the text begins. In fact, one could suggest that the Trojan War is a response to a previous battle, and the good and bad sides are determined by who writes the story. This lesson has been lost in the modern age, where we are flooded with stories of happy endings, where the demon has been defeated, and we forget that after Beowulf defeated Grendel, he found this was only the first battle.

So what really happens when we and our group of “twitter friends” join a mob and “take down” someone whose words we view as “racist”, or “sexist”, or anything else? And what is the end goal? I would argue that we are battling against the symbol, forget that there is someone on the other side, and in a race to defeat the monster (neglecting they might have friends), we ourselves become monsters. It creates a toxic, polarizing environment in which Might Makes Right, and whoever is the hero of the day gets to define what that Right will be. It necessarily leads to further conflicts, and more important, it can ruin lives. And yet, none of this is considered when someone is pounced upon because someone on Twitter misinterpreted a word they used.

In the end, these are simply observations. I don’t mean to justify one thing or denounce another. Further, I don’t think this is anything new. I do offer that “social media” has helped both accelarate these nasty reflexes in people, as well as retarding the lessons people would normally learn when making mistakes and seeking atonement. It does mean, though, that I will be taking a far more catious approach to anything represented in 140 characters or less.

1It’s also worth noting that when I touch on a very “heated” topic, I must increase the number of sources I explicitly cite, as if using them as a shield, or deflecting anticipated anger. It’s an appeal to a greater authority if I ever saw one 😉