I’ve been an ideologue at times. I’m sure I still am in certain ways, in ways I don’t even notice. Perhaps we all are. Still, I find ideology exhausting and uninteresting. I rarely enjoy talking to people about meaningful issues when I can predict their beliefs. For this reason and others, I’m frequently saddened that our current environment has made so many of my peers so closed-minded. Of course, it wouldn’t be right for me to end this post without blaming social media, and true to form, I do believe the filter bubbles of social media play no small part in this phenomenon.
"Empathy is not endorsement."
When we talk to others one-on-one, especially about difficult topics, we have a responsibility to ensure that our message is heard. However, if it becomes clear that the message won't be heard, because the listener isn't genuinely curious and open-minded, we owe it to the listener and to ourselves to move on. This fact seems obvious, yet we seem committed to forgetting it.
I think of science as a verb, a process for discovering what's true, rather than a body of knowledge. Some people might say it's a process for discovering what's not true; that might be more accurate. In either case, when I run into people who distrust science, I wonder if they see it the same way.
I dislike when companies treat their customers like free, full-time product reviewers. I don't mind using email filters, but average users shouldn't be burdened to set them up, especially when the list of forbidden phrases becomes as long as mine has:
please review us!
Please rate your visit
How would you rate the support you received?
How was your recent order?
How was your visit?
How did we do?
Please tell us what you think about
you have a new item to review
you have new items to review
have a minute?
Complete a short survey
We want your feedback
I support the One Click Safer proposal for safeguarding social media. The concept is simple: instead of allowing users to reshare content indefinitely, social media platforms should remove the share button once a piece of content is two hops from its original source. If people three degrees from the author continue to find the content valuable, they would need to use copy and paste to share it further. In fact, I would go even further and propose that social media platforms remove the share button altogether; it's a simpler proposal that would be easier to explain.
In either case, these ideas make eminent sense to me. Sharing is a kind of chain reaction, and sharing on social media is wholly uncontrolled at the moment. Physicists have a term for uncontrolled chain reactions: explosions. Indeed, social media is dropping bombs on society daily, bombs of misinformation, lies, hatred, and outrage. Like the control rods of nuclear reactors, which slow fission enough to prevent meltdowns so that useful energy can be harvested, social media needs digital control rods, so that we can harness the power of information without destroying ourselves.
The internet used to be fun.
I just encountered a funny easter egg in the Wask shop of strange objects, darted off a quick email to the owner expressing my delight, and immediately received a response thanking me for finally noticing. There were no likes, no Retweets, and no comments from onlookers. My reputation didn't improve and I didn't gain any followers. Instead, two strangers connected over a common sense of humor and shared a quick laugh.
Isn't this what the internet was supposed to be about?
"Twitter and TikTok and all of the engagement economy companies are rewarding people, paying people in likes and comments and influence, for discovering the fault lines in society and inflaming them. That is, they are paid to be division entrepreneurs."
—Aza Raskin on Your Undivided Attention
We need to do away with the myth that cults are simply religions that are new, strange, or misunderstood.
Unitarian Universalism is very new, having formed in 1961. Few people really understand the group and it is unusual in its acceptance of diverse beliefs. Still, I don't think it's especially dangerous, destructive, or controlling at this time.
Cults punish disobedience. They demonize doubt. They rip families apart, attack critics, and teach that critical thinking is a trap. They convince their adherents that the world is out to get them and they demand that authority is never questioned. Cults treat dissent like a virus, hastily exiling nonconformists and freethinkers before their views can spread. They treat their doctrine as perfect and their people as disposable. (Of course, their doctrine can become more perfect over time.)
Focusing on beliefs misses the point. All religious groups espouse beliefs which others find strange, but not all religious groups behave this way.
Cults destroy lives. When we fail to label them properly, we give cover to that destruction.
I hope movie theaters move to a private rental model. I would pay good money to watch a classic movie with a handful of friends in a small theater with a good sound system and some popcorn.
Many theaters offer something like this, but it's pricey and the movie options are limited. With smaller theaters (2-5 seats), simpler accommodations, and customer-provided media (e.g., via movie rental apps), perhaps prices could be brought down and options expanded.
Although I strive to only relay accurate, evidence-based information, when I'm asked about medical issues, I nonetheless habitually remind listeners that I'm not a doctor and that my advice should be taken with a grain of salt. I think this is especially important online, where commentary from a medical doctor and commentary from a nutjob are visually indistinguishable.
How many conspiracy theorists and self-certified Facebook epidemiologists do this?
It’s so interesting watching older generations use GPS. My parents treat its directions as just one input into their decision-making process, like the clueless advice of an apathetic gas station attendant, whereas I just do whatever Google Maps tells me. I guess old driving habits die hard. On the other hand, they might say I'm too dependent on technology. Maybe they have a point.
As someone who is fairly minimalistic and tries to be charitable, I generally don't like exchanging gifts. When the podcast Hidden Brain recently published an episode about gift-giving, then, I had to listen. For this episode, Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam interviewed CMU professor Jeff Galak about scientific research into this subject.
Some findings surprised me. For example, researchers found that givers generally believe the element of surprise is crucial, whereas recipients care very little about surprise. They also discovered that recipients often appreciate inexpensive, sentimental gifts, like framed photos, significantly more than strictly material gifts that are much more expensive.
Other findings confirmed my intuitions. Recipients tend to value experiences over things, when all is said and done. Givers also optimize for the moment the gift is opened, hoping to witness a joyous reaction, whereas recipients care much more about how the gift will serve them in the long term. A funny mug garners a laugh, but does it really benefit the recipient?
One finding was particularly depressing, but ultimately unsurprising: gift-giving makes terrible economic sense. Someone with $100 to spend on themselves is very likely to spend it on something that they value at $100. However, a $100 gift is very unlikely to be worth $100 to the recipient unless the giver is psychic. When we consider that adults often reciprocate gifts with gifts of similar monetary value, it's clear that almost everyone loses. We would be better off buying things for ourselves. (Of course, the world at large would be better off if we donated our time and money instead.)
Ultimately, givers and receivers do a pretty poor job of understanding each other, despite their experiences in both roles. Galak's advice to givers? Just ask your recipients what they want. They may not mind and their answers might surprise you. Better yet, in my opinion, spend time doing something special with the recipient. If you end up spending less money, consider donating to an effective charity with the funds you would have spent on material things.
I can't do the episode justice in this short summary, so I really recommend listening to the whole thing. Our traditions around gifting need to evolve. This episode could help.
"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking."
"We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom."
—E. O. Wilson
I'm struck by this point made by Josh Faga in his article Starving for Wisdom:
It used to be the case that we had to make up our mind about something. But, the advent of modern mediums has been so successful at packaging intellectual positions into digestible vitamins that they have essentially "made up our minds" for us.
We don't make up our minds at all. Instead, we are presented a pre-packaged intellectual position that the medium we consume it over conveniently places into our minds for us; a process not too dissimilar from placing a CD into a CD player. Then, also not too dissimilar from a CD player, when in the appropriate situations, we are conditioned to push a button and "play back" the opinion that was burned on the CD.
To complete the feedback loop, whenever we 'play the songs' on our CD players, we are rewarded by those that have the same CD. We regurgitate the opinions and information we consume to the group of people that have also consumed it and receive our reward for having successfully consumed and spit back what we have 'learned'. This process is at the bottom of our ideologically possessed and polarized political landscape. We are educating, organizing, and rewarding ourselves for simply putting a CD in a CD player and pressing play.
I pay for YouTube Premium, yet find YouTube so effective at commanding my attention that I've completely disabled the app on my phone. As an alternative, I've painstakingly set up Firefox Beta with Unhook, an add-on that removes YouTube's most addictive components. (It feels wrong to call them features.) When I'm using my phone, I only watch YouTube through this browser.
I'm struck that even paying customers are subject to addictive, engagement-driven designs that serve to increase ad impressions, despite the fact that they see no ads. Does YouTube, or any other company for that matter, care when their paying customers want their product to be less addictive?
The Helix text editor fascinates me.
Vim has been my primary text editor for more than ten years now. (Technically, I've been using Neovim for two or three years, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll use the term Vim generically in this post. The two editors aren't that different, in the grand scheme of things, and their differences aren't relevant here.)
I think of Vim as an IDE that one builds themselves. That can be good and bad. I have a deep understanding of my editor's capabilities, for example, because I enabled many of its features myself. It's also completely free and it supports just about every popular programming language out there. However, configuring it takes time and handling conflicts between plugins can be annoying. I also find that it's difficult to keep abreast of the state of the art in text editing this way. It took me a while to discover that other people were using multiple cursors, for example, because that feature wasn't added to my editor automatically. I'm sure there are lots of other useful features I could add to Vim, if only I knew they were common in other editors. I don't know what I don't know.
Ultimately, if I were just starting out today, I'm not sure that I'd make the same investment in Vim. When command-line editing is truly required (my original motivation), Micro is a great choice, being much easier to use and more than powerful enough for most tasks. For everything else, JetBrains IDEs are pretty magical, if occasionally overwhelming.
Helix seems to sit somewhere in the middle. It's console-based, with modal editing and Vim-like keybindings, but with Everything Everyone Wants built-in: LSP, tree-sitter, fuzzy-finding, etc.
I'm not sure which editor I'll be using in ten years. Maybe I'll still be using Vim because it's comfortable, or JetBrains because it's straightforward. I'll add Helix to the list of contenders, though.
In a recent podcast, Cal Newport shared his view that the internet is best when it's decentralized, disorganized, and weird. Life was simpler when content from crazy people actually looked crazy, with green text, yellow backgrounds, wacky mouse pointers, ugly scrollbars, and bald eagle GIFs polluting the page.
I think he's right.
The thoughts webring is old-school, low-tech, and scatter-brained. It's sometimes nauseating, occasionally delightful, and definitely weird. I love it.
I consider myself a skeptic. I try not to believe anything that isn't supported by commensurate evidence. In my mind, a claim is a sacred thing, something to be carefully considered, not taken for granted or believed for some practical purpose.
Moderation is important, of course, but this is my default outlook. I want to know what's true about the world. Very little is more important to me.
Maintaining credibility is useful, too. I want others to take my views seriously. That might be harder if I had a reputation for believing things that aren't true.
Streaming is great if you like cable, but you want every channel to have a different password.
It may be true that everyone is a genius at something. There is someone on Earth who is better than anyone else at small talk. Someone is the world champion of adapting recipes or napping for just the right amount of time.
It can be fun to search for these abilities in others. What are you a prodigy of? Is someone you know expert at something amusing or unimportant? Consider sharing it with me. Don't comment here; thoughts wisely eschews comments. Instead, let's have a conversation about it. If we haven't met, you can find my email address on my website.
On the Internet, nobody knows you're just making stuff up.
If we knew the true identities of people who post on Reddit and Twitter, I think we'd be amazed at how confident and persuasive children can be.
Again, I'm guilty of what I criticize. I was never as smart or as clever as my Facebook notifications made me believe. It was all a mirage.
"Never proclaim yourself a philosopher, nor make much talk among the ignorant about your principles, but show them by actions. Thus, at an entertainment, do not discourse how people ought to eat, but eat as you ought… For sheep do not hastily throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten, but, inwardly digesting their food, they produce it outwardly in wool and milk."
The irony of this post is not lost on me. This page exists to communicate my ideas.
At the same time, I've adopted this approach in other contexts, on other topics that are very important to me. Boasting and moral posturing can be satisfying, but they don't achieve much. In some cases, they can even be counter-productive, turning reasonable people away from ideas and causes that we care about. There is a fine line between grandstanding and judging others, and as I've written previously, I don't know anyone who has genuinely changed their mind as a result of being scolded and judged.
It's unfortunate that social media encourages grandstanding when it can be so harmful. Why are we so angry, resentful, and divided? Perhaps we should follow the kudos.
Michael Pollan might put it like this:
Use the web. Not too much. Mostly learn from experts.
The foundational medical advice of the future may sound something like this: eat well, stay physically active, don't smoke, and avoid social media.
I don't want this micro-blog to come off as holier-than-thou. I am guilty or have been guilty of many of the things I criticize, especially when it comes to social media. I also know that I have blind spots. I just hope that my blind spots are different than the blind spots of others. I want to share my perspective and learn from the perspectives of others.
I'm frequently disappointed that, in general, people don't independently analyze claims. Rather, people join teams and allow those teams to decide for them what is true.
Social media is a confirmation bias machine. Facebook, for instance, is a great place to hear what we already believe. It's a terrible place to learn from the other and confront the weaknesses of our own arguments.
Is it any surprise, then, that political extremism, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience are flourishing?
I find it strange that we rarely hear the term "publicity stunt" anymore when they seem more common than ever.
I support Signal's decision to drop support for SMS and MMS. Software maintenance can be incredibly challenging and time-consuming. This decision will likely free up time for more important work.
John Carmack is rumored to have said, "Focus is a matter of deciding what things you're not going to do." I'm not sure if the attribution is correct, but it doesn't matter. It's a good point.
Contrary to the opinions shared on Hacker News, the world is not going to end. (Hacker News readers often forget that they are not the target market.) If anything, it might be easier to convince others to use Signal now. "Use this app to have private conversations with other people who use the app. It doesn't change how anything else on your phone works." In a world that remembers rouge software crashing computers, that fact is more important than it might seem.
Besides, abbreviations rarely correlate with usability. Signal needs to reach normal people. Let's keep it simple.
BeReal is interesting. A newly-popular social network, it allows users to photograph and share one moment per day during a randomly-determined, two-minute window. The thinking is that this will discourage curation. Users will see their friends as they really are, not as they pretend to be.
I'm not convinced. BeReal might limit fakery, but I think pretension will evolve rather than perish in this new environment.
Regardless, BeReal doesn't address the vast majority of problems with social media. I predict that users will still suffer from confirmation bias, addiction, misinformation, targeted advertising, privacy degradation, and the myriad other harms caused by social media.
I know many people who maintain "read-only" social media accounts. They have no intention of posting anything, but they want to see what other people are up to.
Years ago, it occurred to me that social media platforms discourage this. Almost all social media accounts include the ability to post content, whether or not the user actually intends to do so. Even my Twitch account, which I created to comment on video game streams, allows me to create my own stream. I have no interest in becoming a streamer.
It's easy to see why platforms do this: tempting users in this way is good for business. Among the millions of people who create read-only accounts, some percentage of them end up posting content anyway simply because it's easy to do so. Something similar happened to me when I created a Facebook account many years ago. I promised myself that I wouldn't like, comment, or post. That promise didn't last very long.
I find this to be so peculiar. There's no law of nature requiring that social media platforms give megaphones to people who would otherwise be passive readers, and yet this design choice is so ubiquitous that we don't even notice it. Would it be going too far to call this a dark pattern?
Perhaps this is another topic for Congress. We know that social media incentivizes outrageous and polarizing content. Why are we making it easier for people to yell at each other?
Artificial intelligence may soon be able to produce original music. It can already write and perform fairly convincing comedy routines. Are you ready to listen to 50 new Beatles albums, courtesy of our superintelligent machines? They may be coming sooner than you think.
I'm even more excited about live shows. Imagine watching this deadmau5 performance, except that his cuboid supercomputer is functioning autonomously. Having been trained by the artist, it taps into its otherworldly intelligence and creativity to perform unique scores in real time. It responds to audience sentiment, speeding up and slowing down with the energy of the crowd. Fans delight as they hear songs that have never been heard before and will never be heard again. It would be almost spiritual.
Before leaving Facebook, I ran a little social experiment. I wanted to determine how many people were actually paying attention.
My posts began triumphantly. "I'm so proud to have finally made a dream come true." The last sentence would likewise contain subtle gloating. Only the sentences in the middle gave it away. "There is no dream. Nothing came true. I just want to know who's reading this." I included a photo of myself smiling, surrounded by friends, for good measure.
I received a surprising number of likes. Some people congratulated me. Another dirty little secret of social media: many people aren't actually paying attention.
We change what we write based on what garners likes. We change who we are based on what garners likes. What are those likes really worth? Not much, apparently.
I'm interested in how social media relates to embarrassment. How far back does one need to travel through their feed before finding content that is embarrassing in hindsight? On Facebook, it's sometimes years. Only then does one unearth photos of funny hairstyles and bizarre fashion statements. I hope they can laugh about it. We all have those photos.
I hate to say this, but on TikTok, the most recent videos are sometimes the most humiliating. What is it about TikTok that inspires users to humiliate themselves? Is it a desire for fame? Recognition? Fitting in?
I'm not being very delicate here. I wish I could find it in my heart to be kinder, but the effect is real. Unfortunately, I think some TikTok creators would really benefit from some honest feedback about this.
Perhaps this happens because social media obscures honest feedback. As Jaron Lanier has observed, people who post on social media either get upvotes from fans or angry comments from assholes. Everyone else—the silent, uncomfortable majority—stays out of it. The content might make them cringe, but they don't care enough to write a comment saying so.
As others have suggested, we may need a digital equivalent to the awkward pause.
Recently, I learned that the Edge web browser references a different database of known phishing sites than Chrome, Firefox, and Safari do. A phishing link was texted to me, made to look like the Wells Fargo website. About one hour after I reported it to Google, it was banned in all of the latter browsers, but when I last checked, it was still accessible in Edge, allowing additional people to be scammed.
We should fix that. Perhaps Congress can do something; a rare bi-partisan issue. I would think it would be possible for these vendors to share lists of known phishing sites in a privacy-respecting manner.
I once considered adopting a rule that I would not discuss politics with anyone who uses social media.
Consider why we don't discuss politics during holiday meals. We understand that, over the course of a single dinner, we cannot possibly compete with the thousands of hours that our family members have spent watching cable news that year. In the same way, I know that my perspective, my opinions, and my questions cannot possibly make sense to most people who are subjected to hours of misinformation, half-truths, and confirmation from social media each day.
I immediately realized that my rule was unworkable. Likewise, it would have been impossible to completely avoid second-hand smoke several decades ago. Still, I think it's a good rule in theory. I hope for a future when more people recognize its appropriateness.
For whatever it's worth, I'm not the John Karahalis who occasionally writes short opinions in the New York Daily News.
To be clear, I'm not taking a position on those opinions. I just don't like talking about religion or politics in public, for the most part. I don't find it to be productive.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with John Carmack wherein he described his use of the Finger protocol early in his career. The Finger protocol, which predates modern blogging, enables the publication of status updates, simple maxims, and even longer essays. There are no likes, no comments, and no news feeds. Readers need to seek out content that interests them.
It strikes me that thoughts is very similar. I appreciate that it doesn't offer "modern" social networking features. I don't learn much from hot takes; I'm not sure anyone does. If you disagree with something I write and are genuinely interested in the subject, let's have a real conversation about it. I also welcome thoughtful written rebuttals. Comment sections don't foster these things.
Better is not always better. Ancient wisdom.
I don't know anyone who has genuinely changed their mind as a result of being scolded and judged.
As a contrarian minimalist, pack rat tendencies interest me. In particular, I've been thinking about how much time some people spend parting with their possessions.
Getting rid of things is not hard. I could throw all of my belongings in garbage bags or call a company to clear out my apartment. However, it is challenging to decide which material things to keep. It's hard to figure out which items spark joy.
Getting rid of things is not hard. Keeping things is.
Being right is not the same as being effective.
I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. Although it's often painful, I appreciate when evidence proves me wrong. The alternative is worse; running away from uncomfortable truths brings neither comfort nor growth.
This micro-blog won't focus exclusively on social media. However, given that the service that powers it, thoughts.page, offers a compelling alternative to the enchanting digital battlegrounds of Twitter and Facebook, it only seemed appropriate to share those thoughts first.
Incidentally, my biggest surprise in leaving social media has been just how little I miss it. Perhaps that's one of the lies it tells us, that we need it. We don't.
On social media, communication is not about learning. It's not about listening. It's certainly not about changing our minds. Instead, communication serves to score points, to show others how smart and how moral we are, to perform. It's no wonder we can't get along when we use it.
A keynote speaker once made an interesting observation that I hadn't previously considered. "The dirty little secret of social media," she said, "is that people mainly use it to brag about themselves and only incidentally see what others are up to."
I think she's right.
I believe that social media is making us profoundly antisocial, profoundly unhappy, and profoundly stupid. By using it, we are becoming ineffective, misinformed, and narrow-minded. I believe that we would be better off without social media or with a radically different form of it.
For whatever it's worth, I tweeted that sentiment in 2019, before it was cool to compare social media to cigarettes. Of course, I later deleted my account.
I believe that social media is the cigarette smoke of our time. Some day, our grandchildren will demand answers.
"You knew it was bad for you. Why did you keep doing it?"