Post-Truth and Internet Websites
Originally I called this “Post-Truth and Internet Discourse.” But then I made the next paragraph:
I say discourse. What I really mean is “conversations on websites that facilitate them”.
At which point I realised I needed to get everyone on the same page. And that’s a different topic altogether. That’s this topic.
You see, I reckon that you probably don’t know the kinds of places I’m thinking of. They’re not really very popular.
I say a conversation is facilitated if it prioritises chronology over all else. Like real life. You say one thing and then someone else says another. So that’s Reddit off the board. And Medium. Both these sites hide conversations away in nests.
Of course, chronology isn’t everything. Real life has this terrible habit where everything floats off into the ether. So, you’ve got to keep that around. Which is one reason to get rid of Facebook. In principle, Facebook doesn’t get rid of everything, except, it does. Because it shows you the newest first, it makes it difficult to see the first comments first. Which is the critical feature.
You’re probably wondering why chronology is important. And the answer is pretty simple. To properly understand a conversation, you need to know why anything said now has been said. But every single human is reactive and conditional, so to understand now you have to understand then.
Think of joining a cocktail party late and wandering over to your friends. You catch hints of what they’re saying but don’t really follow. You can’t follow. Eventually you’ll probably get a handle on it, but you’ll never know why the conversation started and what was said before you turned up. You can very easily imagine yourself trying to talk about some matter they’ve already discussed.
I mean, imagine referencing the crisis in Hong Kong only to discover one of your friends is pro-China. There are so many ways that could go bad.
(But for real, dude does look like Disney’s version of Winnie the Pooh.)
This is obviously where the post-truth thing comes in. When people can’t see for themselves what’s going on. When what’s kicking things off is difficult to access. When the nature of popular websites tacitly says making such investigations is bad (otherwise they’d make doing so easy). When chronology is set aside, you create the space for lies, misrepresentations, flawed premises, mistakes and plain idiocy to take over.
But it’s not just about chronology.
There’s an Einstein quote that’s supposed to run something like, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand well enough.” I say supposed because I’m really not sure if he said it or not. And you shouldn’t be either. If you can believe them, anyway.
That took a lot of words, right? But it is, in fact, simple. Those aren’t complex words even though they’re alluding to what I feel is a complex notion.
This is why Twitter is bad.
Look, I might be able to get the substance of that paragraph into 240 characters (it’s 259) but I can’t really explain why the phrase “The right side of history” is a nonsense in 240 characters. I could say it’s a nonsense. I could hint that it’s wrong. I could, in fact, write:
The phrase “the right side of history” is a nonsense because history is not teleological. That is, it has no direction, destination or purpose. Events can have causes and outcomes and are part of processes, though.
but what I really want to say is:
The phrase “the right side of history” is a nonsense because history is not teleological. That is, it has no direction, destination or purpose. Events have causes and outcomes and are part of processes. But they’re all arbitrary in the sense they exist for no reason other than that they must exist for they have causes (and tend to cause other things to consequently exist too). And this process goes back all the way to the first thing that ever happened. Effectively, history really is “one damn thing after another.”
The arbitrariness is the critical point. But to make it simple, for it is a complex word, I must explain it. And to do that I need more words. The one I cannot do because the “Einstein” quote is right: simple is better. The other I cannot do because Twitter won’t let me.
Don’t believe me? Well, we can check. Paragraph One has a reading one of about Eighth Grade (Year Nine, i.e. 12–14). Paragraph Two the same (as expected). But a version of Paragraph One where we substitute in “But they’re all arbitrary” for the last sentence? Huh. Never mind. I was wrong. It’s also the same.
I can do that because I’m not inhibited by a word count. I probably shouldn’t have, though. It does add a lot of extra words, but for no point. Except to show that I couldn’t think of an example of what I meant.
But you get the idea, right? While we should aim to be concise we have to understand that simplicity (“understanding”) is the critical thing. and this objective is often in tension with brevity. Hence, we need to have the capacity to say everything that matters.
Of course, a lot of this is cultural.
A userbase that takes a platform which emphasises chronology and doesn’t have restrictive character limits isn’t going to be better than Twitter if the norm is to write 321 character posts. And the problems of the above websites can be tempered if the userbase otherwise values norms conducive to “good” discussions (such as honesty, caution, good humour or respect). This is worth pointing out and mustn’t be forgotten.
Yet, it will always remain that the most popular websites are designed in ways that actively work to harm conversation. The algorithms that promote and conceal content get all the attention because, ultimately, I don’t think people want to admit that what they like about Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and their ilk is inherently problematic too.