When I was visiting Rome in 2012 I met a fellow tourist, an older gentleman from Australia, who told me that he had stopped a pick-pocket on the train who was trying to lift his wallet. He had cried out and grabbed the thief’s hand. As the train came to a stop, the locals on the train created a human wall and forced the thief out, while at the same time calling for the police. They then apologized on behalf of their city. Rome is a 2,750 year-old community that keeps on trying, in spite of its challenges, because its people believe in the city. This is how most humans act — cooperatively — most of the time, as this is part of our common social suite.
The Internet of Beefs (IoB)
But we are also influenced by our social networks and when these become what Venkatesh Rao calls the Internet of Beefs (IoB) then we collectively drag ourselves down. Rao defines two groups, Knights and Mooks, who continuously do battle on digital social media. Each Knight has many follower Mooks, and these Mooks do battle in the Knight’s name. Rao says that one such Knight is Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
“And in one corner by himself, of course, is Nassim Taleb beefing with all comers on all topics … Taleb muddying the factional boundaries of the culture war is one of the few genuinely amusing theaters of the conflict on the IoB. The blast radius around his twitter feed is not a safe space for anyone besides members of his own cult of Mesopotamian personality.” —Venkat Rao
In 2017 I got a taste of the Internet of Beefs from Taleb. I shared a link to a blog post as well as an image I had created. I did not notice that others were copied on the tweet, as this was a new feature on Twitter at the time. Within minutes, Taleb replied dismissively to my tweet, obviously without having read my post or checking out who I am. He said that, “These MBA charts are repelling. They stand against everything classical and rigorous.” I would like to note that I do not have an MBA, nor do I teach in a business school. Taleb’s Knightly tweet was swiftly followed by the Mooks. All who aimed to win the battle, without bothering to read the linked post, because the IoB is not about learning or understanding. It is only about winning the current battle and making points for the Knight.
The various camps on the IoB do not talk to each other with any intention of understanding. Social media — the preferred source of news for many people — tend to increase the outrage. The medium is the message, said Marshall McLuhan, and this medium is all about emotion. My own experience is that only 0.04% of people who view my Tweets on Twitter click on any link to read the full article. It is reported that 67% of Americans get their news from social media, so how they behave has a significant effect on what citizens are thinking.
“The average Facebook user only clicks on about seven percent of the political news stories in their feed, which means that the vast majority of the time, people are getting tiny little doses of information, with a big old dose of misguided confidence.” —ScienceAlert
Research on the self-perception of knowledge shows how viewing previews without going to the original article gives an inflated sense of understanding on the subject, “audiences who only read article previews are overly confident in their knowledge, especially individuals who are motivated to experience strong emotions and, thus, tend to form strong opinions.” Social media have created a worldwide Dunning-Kruger effect. Our collective self-perception of knowledge acquired through social media is greater than it actually is. And the outrage continues because we ignore our common humanity, the type of cooperation that motivated passengers on that train in Rome to force the thief out.
“We are beefing because we no longer know who we are, each of us individually, and collectively as a species. Knight and Mook alike are faced with the terrifying possibility that if there is no history in the future, there is nobody in particular to be once the beefing stops.” —Venkat Rao
Is constant outrage our only future or can we counter it?
An Engaged Networked Society
Using McLuhan’s laws of media (image above) we can see that the digital information ecosystem extends emotion through manufactured media spectacles, as the Christchurch murderer did. Traditional journalism with its attempts at presenting both sides of a story is obsolesced by the very nature of its assumption of a neutral point of view. Return to nature movements, such as anti-vaxxers, retrieve the pastoral impulse for an imaginary kinder and gentler society. We are left in a state of constant doubt as conspiratorial content becomes easier to access on platforms like YouTube than accessing solid scientific information in a journal, much of which is behind a pay-wall and inaccessible to the general public. To counter the self-imposed ignorance of something like the anti-vaccination movement, we have to first understand how people feel because feelings cannot be countered with mere facts.
Lesson 2: don’t bring a fact to a narrative fight
Experts and health professionals can arm themselves with white papers, peer reviewed studies, and symposia; but if these are our only weapons, we will only ever get so far. In an era in which experts are increasingly distrusted, the “we know best” mindset is counterproductive.
Those wishing to encourage vaccination need to identify and amplify the stories that emerge from the real lives and lived experiences of people in their communities (to start, they need to listen for them). It is no coincidence that the most effective climate advocacy in the world right now comes from the improvisations and stories of a 16 year old girl rather than the strategic plans of a generations old institution. —BMJ: New Power versus Old
Today, all citizens have to master sensemaking, not just the new digital skills, or temporary skills deemed necessary by corporations or governments. Democracy in the network era is when citizens continuously decide what and how they learn. Critical thinking requires us to constantly question assumptions, especially our own. To develop these skills, questioning must be encouraged. This runs counter to most schooling and training practices. When do students or employees get to question underlying assumptions of their institutions? If they cannot do this, how can we expect them to challenge all the crap on the IoB? The elites cannot have it both ways. They cannot have an educated and also compliant workforce, consumer base, or citizenry. We should ask if those in charge of our institutions really want an educated populace.
Real freedom lies in the people taking control of their own education.
“Le secret de la liberté est d’éclairer les hommes, comme celui de la tyrannie et de les retenir dans l’ignorance.” —Maximilien Robespierre (1758 – 1794). Translation — “The secret of freedom lies in enlightening people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.”
For society to change for the better, we all have to start making small changes. Get out and talk to other people. Change your travel habits. Read more and different literature. Take some time to sit and reflect. It sounds simple, and it is, but keeping at it will be the hard part. Many aspects of our digital platform economy are just too convenient.
While consumer social media networks are great for getting a diversity of opinions, they are not safe or trusted spaces. They nourish the Internet of Beefs. We need safe communities to take time for reflection, consideration, and testing out ideas without getting harassed. Professional social networks and communities of practices help us make sense of the world outside the workplace. They also enable each of us to bring to bear much more knowledge and insight that we could do on our own. Diversity of thought is our collective secret weapon against the Knights and Mooks.
“In formulating and in trying to solve these problems, do not hesitate, indeed seek, continually and imaginatively, to draw upon the perspectives and materials, the ideas and methods, of any and all sensible studies of man and society. They are your studies; they are part of what you are a part of; do not let them be taken from you by those who would close them off by weird jargon and pretensions of expertise.” —C. Wright Mills (1959)
As we become more connected we should not be cutting out social media, instead we should be using them in smarter ways. Today we all have to work and live smarter, by connecting to our networks and communities. These are essential to ensure that we do not become drowned out by the noise of the Internet of Beefs.