Posting Is The Most Powerful Force In The Universe (repost)
Sharing a classic now that the blog has grown
There’s been a huge influx of new readers over the last month or so thanks to the Worst Tweets bracket and hit posts like The Age of Doom and Content Moderation is Impossible. Welcome to all the new readers!
I thought I’d share one of the first posts from the early days of Infinite Scroll - and one that essentially defines what the blog is about and how I think about the social internet. Everything that’s happened over the last year has only reinforced the idea that Posting is an incredibly powerful, incredibly underrated force in our politics, society, culture, etc.
Over the course of several months in 2022, Jack Teixeira threw his life away.
He leaked documents. Important ones, classified documents that revealed critical information about the state of the war in Ukraine, foreign efforts to interfere in US elections, and the location and movements of politicians, among other topics. He didn’t leak them to a journalist, or publish them widely for the world to see. Instead he leaked them to small-time Discord groups, sometimes consisting of no more than a few dozen people.
Why would Jack Teixeira do this?
Leakers are often thought of as ideologically driven, committed to exposing secrets or waging information wars. But that’s not what happened here. Teixeira specifically emphasized to his Discord friends he did not want them to share the documents. Users of the server vehemently deny that he was a whistleblower. So why?
In the end, Jack Teixeira just wanted to seem cool. He wanted people in his Discord to think he was Jason Bourne, a guy with military experience and secret knowledge and access to power. He even got angry when his Discord friends didn’t pay enough attention to the leaks, which caused him to stop summarizing documents and start posting photos of the documents directly.
Jack was chasing something ineffable. Maybe you could call it clout or respect or even infamy. But chasing clout doesn’t tell the entire story.
Last year, Elon Musk spent $44 billion to purchase Twitter.
This was a stupid decision by almost any metric. There was no real argument that the company was worth that much. Twitter has rarely been profitable through its entire history as a business. It does not have any obvious current pathway to profitability. Even Musk himself realized halfway through the process how stupid the idea was, because he tried very hard to get out of purchasing it. Unfortunately for him, he had already signed a binding purchase agreement and he was forced to go through with the purchase.
Why would Elon Musk do this?
Elon Musk, more than anything else in the world, wants to seem cool on Twitter. He was the richest man in the world last year. He’s involved in projects touching on the future of humanity - brain implants, electric cars, space tech, and more. And yet it’s very clear that appearing cool on Twitter to the masses consumes him far more than going to Mars or building electric cars does these days. He’d deny this if asked, but it seems plainly true. He spends his time micromanaging the site in the strangest ways - such as paying for celebrity blue checks who don’t want them, replying to his own porn jokes with a burner account based on his three year old son, changing the CBC’s labeling to make a ‘69’ joke, and changing the company’s sign to say ‘Titter’, among other things.
I want to emphasize this is a man involved in the founding of three separate $100 billion companies. Musk already about as much clout as it’s possible for one person to have. And he is currently spending his time picking fights online in the most bizarre ways possible. He was the richest man in the world, involved in interesting and important work, connected with the most powerful people in the world, and with a small but loyal group of nerds following his every move. And he still cared so much about posting he lit $44 billion on fire and now devotes most of his time to a mediocre bird-themed social media app.
Elon was also chasing something. Perhaps he wanted to be universally liked. More than just a visionary tech founder, he wanted to be popular. To be adored, beloved by everyone, not just a gaggle of nerds. But that still doesn’t tell the story entirely.
JK Rowling, at one point, had a very good argument for being the most beloved person in the world. What’s not to love? The woman who struggled on the welfare rolls to survive, but who persevered and succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. The woman whose success created by far the best selling book series of all time, with beloved characters, movie franchises, theme parks and more. JK Rowling could have lived out the rest of her life as the world’s most beloved billionaire, with generations of adoring fans pouring out love at every opportunity. All she’d have to do is avoid making wildly controversial statements on the most divisive cultural issues imaginable.
Instead, Rowling has turned into a one woman crusade against transgender people and the trans rights movement. Rowling does not simply make the occasional comment. It’s hard to overstate how much this has taken over her life. She tweets and writes about transgender people constantly. She wrote a book where a man gains women’s trust by pretending to be a woman and then murders them. After massive backlash to that book, she wrote a book where an artist is unjustly cancelled for transphobic comments and then murdered by social justice warriors.
Since the beginning of April, JK Rowling has tweeted 59 times. A solid majority of those tweets (33) are related to transgender people, despite the fact that Rowling announced her new book’s release this month. This single issue has consumed her. It’s vaporized her image for millions of fans.
Why would Rowling do this?
Three stories above, and the only commonality is the complete inability to not post. Teixeira could have done literally anything with his life besides going to prison for the next several decades. Elon Musk could have kept revolutionizing rocketry or electric cars or any of his other projects. JK Rowling could have been the world’s most beloved author forever if she was content to dislike trans people quietly rather than loudly.
But the allure of posting was too strong.
The first time I watched the Lord of the Rings films it struck me that while everyone knows the One Ring will warp your mind, characters still fall into the trap. The ring has a will of its own. It’s a malevolent force in the LOTR universe, and it whispers to you. “Think how much you could accomplish with my power”, it says. “Just pick me up and use me, you are the one destined to rule”.
These characters know what the ring is. They are fully aware of the trap, but they’re still snared by it.
Posting on the internet is the One Ring. It whispers to you how interesting and cool you are. It murmurs that you’re always correct and your views are important. It tells you that everyone will recognize how right you are this as soon as you hit the send button. Think how many people will agree with your ideas! Think how many people will laugh along with your jokes! The allure of posting whispers to us all, and we’re sucked in by the promises of fame, clout, adoration and more.
Hitting the ‘Post’ button is putting on the One Ring, but so many of us still fall for the trap.
People have always been driven by the desire to gain status, and promote their views. They’ve always done stupid things to impress their friends. There’s always been a thrill from being counter-cultural, from getting lots of attention, from going against the grain.
What’s new is the scale that the internet provides. What was already a potent drug became irresistible. Previous generations played status games that were addictive like opium, this generation is playing status games that are addictive like super fentanyl (which yes, is a real thing). The algorithms we’ve designed to promote viral content cause a rush that can’t be replicated. The allure of posting can make you throw your life away purely to seem cool to a group of people you’ve never met in person. That allure can cause the world’s most beloved people to light their own reputations on fire, the world’s richest people to abandon their businesses.
Not everyone is addicted to posting, but those who are addicted are addicted hard. Posting is without exaggeration one of the most powerful forces in modern society. It’s affecting the way we report the news. It’s affecting the way politicians govern. It’s affecting how we talk to each other, how we experience our music, movies and culture, how we build relationships and run our businesses. Once you really comprehend how often some hard-to-explain episode can be neatly explained by this principle, it’s hard to pay attention to much else.
We’ve not even begun to figure out the ramifications of all this. I can’t pretend to have the final answer on why exactly we’re so addicted to posting, or what the consequences will be for our culture and our politics. And it’s too large a topic to neatly summarize here. But it’s what I want to explore with the launch of Infinite Scroll, and if you’re as interested in this as I am I hope you’ll subscribe.