Thursday, January 30, 2014

Tumblr is full of lies

In the past, I've been a vocal critic of Tumblr, particularly the reblogging format.  But in the past few years I've been "observing" Tumblr, much as a conservative politician might "observe" gay culture by going to gay night clubs every weekend in search of hookups.  As a result, I have a more refined critique of Tumblr.

For instance, I now see the strength of Tumblr: new blog discovery.  Finding new blogs is so easy that you'll find new blogs even if you don't want to.

On the other hand, reblog discussions are even more awful than I previously imagined.  You might as well try to argue with people over Twitter.

I also have an entirely new critique based on the content of Tumblr.  Tumblr will distort your perception of reality.

A typical discussion on Tumblr might consist of one person making a "politically incorrect" statement, and a bunch of people "calling it out" as just one more example of how messed up our societal attitudes are.  While people reject the politically incorrect statement, they simultaneously accept another hidden assumption: that the opening post represents "what people think".  Sometimes the opening post represents no such thing, but rather represents just one person.

Since the inception of the internet, people have complained that it doesn't really represent "what people think".  When there's no accountability, people become assholes.  Trolls are rampant.  The voices of extremists drown out moderates.  So on and so forth.

An excerpt from an SMBC comic

But upon further thought, doesn't the accountability of real-world conversations also distort how we think people are?  Assholes maintain a cover of politeness.  Extremists avoid confrontation.  Rarely is expressed an interest in politics or cat photos.  We are most likely to meet people of the same social class and education level as us.

So I realize that this leaves me on shaky ground.  If we have no good method of determining "what people think" (and in fact the very concept is ill-defined), how can I know that Tumblr is any worse than other parts of the internet, or any worse than offline?  Maybe Tumblr represents what people really think, and the things we hear offline are distorted.

I don't really have knowledge that Tumblr is worse than other parts of the internet, but I suspect.  More to the point, sockpuppets are rampant on Tumblr.  It comes from a combination of things:
  • Tumblr encourages and facilitates individuals to have multiple blogs.  Identities are not traceable between the blogs.
  • Because comments are replaced with reblogging, there is no moderation, and no one who can detect sockpuppets.
  • Blog discovery and viral sharing is so effective that new accounts can gain a lot of attention easily.
I don't track tags, I only read tumblrs that I specifically subscribe to, but I've still seen several obvious sockpuppets on Tumblr (usually new accounts that have one or two posts).  I can only imagine how many non-obvious sockpuppets there are that I've missed.

My contempt for sockpuppets is far greater than my contempt for trolls.  Sockpuppets know that they cannot win on arguments, and therefore intentionally resort to cognitive biases (ie we are swayed by the opinions of a crowd).  If we discover a sockpuppet, then we should take this as evidence against their position, in hopes of neutralizing the bias they have created.  Sockpuppets deserve to automatically lose, and be stricken from the record.

If I may speak more specifically about Tumblr culture, there are, for reasons unknown, a lot of people in minority groups.  And because of the aforementioned blog discovery and viral sharing, minority groups interact a lot with their majority counterparts (who may consist mostly of other minorities).  Many critics seem to think that Tumblr has a unique brand of social justice, but I think it's just that people in the majority groups were previously unaware of what people in minority groups have been talking about all along.  From the perspective of a long-time blog-reader, none of it seems genuinely new.

In any case, there is a bit of a "social justice" culture, as well as a hyper-awareness of that culture, and therefore a backlash counter-culture, and then a counter-counter-culture, ad infinitum.  This dynamic is the setting of most sockpuppeting and trolling on Tumblr.  Most typically, there are people (usually part of a minority group, but not part of the particular minority group under discussion) trying to get a rise out of those "PC nuts", and the "PC nuts" fall for it.

I have some familiarity with feminist blogging, and I know that many people would be miffed by what I'm saying.  I appear to be telling them to ignore the wrongness, as if ignoring has ever led to a change in the status quo.  (See example of someone opposing the expression "Don't feed the trolls".)  I largely agree with the points made here.  I do not necessarily advocate ignoring sockpuppets or potential sockpuppets.  I don't think that ignoring sockpuppets improves the situation, or that giving attention to sockpuppets necessarily makes the situation worse.  I do not think that just because their identities are false, that the negative feelings they create are also false.

Rather, I think we should devalue comments coming from new blogs.  And we should devalue comments whose strength comes not from substantive arguments, but from the mere fact that someone said it.  This is not just good practice against sockpuppets, but good practice in general.

(Also, we should escape from Tumblr but I'm not getting that wish any time soon.)