Sunday Sparks Issue 4: Social Cooling and Pseudonymity
Gooooood evening and Happy Sunday!
If there's one sentiment that this week captures, it is "out with the old and in with the new". We got a new president on the 20th with a deluge of Bernie memes, promising an end to the world of yesterday and a new, magical era of tolerance, humility, and good manners.
While Bernie capitalized on his internet celebrity to use his virality for a good cause, not everyone has or wants this luxury.
Some of the most profound and important voices on the internet are concealed faces and garbled voices. Yet, in the information economy, they play a huge role in teaching, exploring, uncovering truths, and invention.
One such voice was Scott Alexander's, the famous writer behind Slate Star Codex. After a run-in with The New York Times and deleting his blog in response, he is back on Substack. This issue was triggered by his introductory blog post:
The one main thing I got out of this post— Man, this guy can write. I've been a huge fan of Scott Alexander's work for a while and the ethos and structure of this post summarizes why. Not only is he one of the most profound thinkers in the online rationalist world, but he also writes in a way that is extremely accessible to mere mortals like me.
Scott brings up several important points about anonymity and his reaction to the New York Times' threat to dox him. As he mentions, while deleting his blog might have been an overreaction to NYT's threat, sometimes you need to "set yourself on fire to shed light on the situation". What prevents the internet from being a sewer of content from professional-opinion-havers, marketers, and algorithms controlling and monitoring every move is people who are unafraid of freely expressing their opinions behind a cover of pseudonymity. While Scott did reveal his identity, his action re-engraved one of the most important policies of internet decorum—"Don't, under no circumstance, dox people".
What NYT sowed in such doxing threats, they reaped in bad publicity, a deluge of emails and canceled subscriptions, and a long-term lack of trust. I wonder how long big media companies like these, or at least the op-ed sections, will last while blogs, subreddits, and Twitter threads monopolize trust and attention.
One of the consequences of living in a society where doxing is a birthright and anonymity is banned is the constant pressure on individuals to not screw up. We already have a reputation tracker for our financial lives—our credit scores. How would society look if we extended this to our social lives?
Nosedive is a funny, yet dark Black Mirror episode on this concept. It follows the story of a woman who desperately tries to boost her social reputation score and eventually ends up going insane. This might seem like an imaginary tale far from the realms of reality, but it's already happening. China has a social credit system where a low score can prevent you from getting a house, a job, or even a date. This could never happen in the west? I wouldn't be too sure of this. Changes like these have a tendency of creeping upon us.
While our physical lives are set against a planet that is slowly warming, our social lives are set in platforms that are cooling. "Social cooling is the name for the long term negative side effects of living in a reputation economy." These side effects are:
- A culture of conformity
- A culture of risk aversion
- Increased social rigidity
The problem is that because our thoughts and intentions are judged and recorded, we are choosing to engage in less socially risky ideas that could get us ostracized. As this website says, "Privacy is the right to be human". If every thought is evaluated and remembered, the most advantageous way to live life is to not express thoughts at all. Personally, this is not the kind of society I would want to be in.
One solution to a society that is heading in this direction is the ability to create and maintain pseudonymous identities and make money from them. Pseudonymity, unlike anonymity, is a state where you can build up a reputation from your thoughts and your work without victimizing yourself to social mobs. Scott Alexander, Pierre Delecto, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the entire world of Finstas are attempts on pseudonymity.
This video is a great primer on the need for pseudonymity and what a platform for pseudonymity would look like. As Balaji says,
Your bank account is your stored wealth. Your real name is your stored reputation. Only you can debit your bank account but anyone can debit your reputation.
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Lastly, I want to leave with a question—What's something you've been thinking a lot about recently?
Until we meet again,