The Ballad of the Canceled Cretin

In the last 24 hours, we have seen a classic case of the following tweet:

Antonio García Martinez (henceforth referred to as AGM), a deeply unpleasant guy, former Facebook product manager and author of a book about his life and tech or something or rather, was ousted from Apple after a few weeks after thousands of people signed a petition to complain about him being hired [Note: I previously incorrectly stated that he didn’t last a day - apologies]. Why? Because of his awfully-written, misogynistic, racist book that was a New York Times bestseller that somehow didn’t get him in trouble before. From what I’ve read, it’s a truly weird book, one that’s not particularly well-written, pumped with self-conscious prose that’s worded to evoke Hunter S Thompson with none of the life experience and talent that he had. It’s also laced with horny and/or racist anecdotes.

Naturally, this means that Silicon Valley’s finest thought that Antonio needed defending:

One of these geniuses is Robert Scoble, a guy who has been working in Silicon Valley for decades without anyone knowing what he actually does for a living, adding the kind of anecdote that only a guy who got famous for showering with Google Glass could possibly post:

Robert Scoble also may have specific reasons why he doesn’t like guys not getting jobs because of stuff they did in the past - his history of sexual harassment.

The funny part of this story is the way in which the situation is being framed by AGM’s defenders: that he’s a huge prick, one that wrote a book that is full of horrible shit, perpetuating the attitudes and beliefs that suppress people’s ability to work and live in society, but he’d never deprive someone of their livelihood. This is the kind of thing that caused the Basecamp debacle - the failure to understand that by using your platform to be derisive and cruel toward a certain race or gender, especially in an industry already plagued by racism and sexism, you are doing the work that deprives people of their ability to survive and thrive. By saying that - and I quote - “most women in the Bay are soft and weak,” AGM spreads the rhetoric that deprives women of opportunities - getting a job, getting a promotion, being able to raise capital, and so on - and then justifies it by saying he’s doing “gonzo journalism.”

The dirty secret of all of this is that the press lauded his book. The New York Times called it a “must read.” The Wall Street Journal gave it an effusive puff-piece. I can’t seem to find one review that actually highlighted the grotesque nature of many of his statements - not even from the FT - and it’s disappointing that this book got so much press without eviscerating him for his putrid takes. This was only five years ago, too - roughly a year before the groundbreaking New York Times story around Harvey Weinstein suddenly gave people a conscience. This isn’t to say they’re wrong for having a conscience, just that I cannot believe that so few people noticed this shit when they read the book. It’s been there a while! Ellen Huet at Bloomberg did, though, as did CNN’s Hope King, who dunked it through to the core of the earth by saying the book “reads like four year's worth of Medium posts from a scorned man.”

Twitter avatar for @ellenhuetEllen Huet @ellenhuet
now remembering that, somewhat randomly, I reviewed Chaos Monkeys as a fresh-faced Bloomberg reporter in 2016… Image

Zoë Schiffer @ZoeSchiffer

Apple employees are circulating a petition demanding an investigation into the hiring of Antonio García Martínez — a former Facebook PM seen by many as misogynistic. Read my latest w/ @CaseyNewton & @mslopatto — which includes the full text of the letter:

Interesting fact: the most dissenting reviews were by women of color, and the puff pieces by men, which should surprise nobody.

I think this is why you’re seeing a lot of these well-to-do white guys get extremely defensive over people getting in trouble for things they’ve said and done. It isn’t just about accountability - it’s also about the fact that they had convinced themselves not only that they got away with something, but felt that the lack of consequences for their actions meant that they were justified in them. AGM likely thought, due to the success of his book and a lack of professional or personal problems despite baring his rotten little soul, that he was not simply untouchable but also famous for these things. People seemed to like his book and his acerbic, cruel nature, so why would he stop?

I mean, nobody at Vanity Fair stopped him from describing Mark Zuckerberg as a genius, but not in the “Asperger’s, autistic way.” Why would he believe he’d have to change?

And that’s why they’re all having extreme mental distress over “cancel culture.” On some level they knew that these views were wrong, or at least that they would hurt people, but they had convinced themselves that the general rules didn’t apply to them because they were successful. The sad truth is that they may have been correct - I refuse to believe that so many of these guys thought this way and acted this way without people seeing and hearing it at length and saying nothing. It’s not that they didn’t break the societal rules, it’s that society (as society does!) enhanced and changed and created new moral rules. The brain malfunctions of guys getting mad about cancel culture are likely guys who may, deep down, have truly held these sexist, racist, classist and bigoted ideals close to their heart, and believed that the future would continue adhering to them, and when the future did not, they have started to cry and whine, perhaps crying the very tears that they mock liberals for weeping.

The reason that so many of these guys keep getting in trouble is that they are acting the same way they’ve always acted. These people have always been this way. They do not seek to learn or grow, despite the startup mantra about “always learning.” They do not see personal growth as anything other than buffing out the edges on their own sculpture - they do not want to get better in any way that does not optimize their own personal wealth. You can become a different person in a year, or five years - I truly believe that - but this isn’t the case here, and oftentimes isn’t the case at all.

The question they’re indirectly asking is “why is this a problem now?” - a seemingly fair but hypocritical stance to have. These are the same people that espouse the view that things must be disrupted and things must change, and that society should change with them. Why won’t they accept when social norms are “disrupted” by people who see a better future too?

There is also a societal issue where we have lionized assholes. Outside of the regular “strong man good” patriarchy, we’ve equated trailblazing with burning bridges, with “getting past” the personalities of “brilliant” people because we “believe in their vision.” And, societally (especially in the tech space) we are going to have to reconcile with how much we’ve pumped up the profiles of huge, raging assholes like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and by extension the people that have funded them and learned from them.

Scoble whines about the “new Apple” that wouldn’t hire him, claiming that Cupertino “used to be all white men” when he was growing up. It’s hard to find a kind reading here - there is no celebration of diversity, no context to calling Silicon Valley “like the United Nations,” and little way to read this other than as a complaint. It’s at worst a conservative trope - the idea that white guys now have it hard because of diversity, that “reverse racism” exists despite the data saying otherwise. The anxiety that men like Scoble feel isn’t so much that white guys are going to not get hired anymore, but that society may be leaving them behind - that being a selfish asshole in the right place at the right time isn’t enough anymore, and that being a white male might not automatically grant you seniority in the tech community forever.

Coinbase and Tech's New Anti-Culture Philosophy

Coinbase today is making headlines for banning negotiations on salary, justifying moving away from a model that, and I quote, “disproportionately leaves women and underrepresented minorities behind.” They continue to say that “in fact [they] want compensation differentiation, but it should be solely driven by demonstrated performance and outsized impact on our company and for our customers.” This is also from the company that banned political and societal discussions at work, thus creating an environment where your compensation (both present and future) is tied theoretically to your performance, but in practice to the whims of those that manage you.

It’s another way in which modern management culture is seeking to remove any chance you can possibly have at disagreeing with the management - while they can say that they’re “increasing compensation targets to the 75th percentile of its peers,” none of this actually guarantees a more equitable or unbiased hiring dynamic. While contract negotiations do affect women and minorities from making as much as white men, the solution (much like the decision made around discussing politics and society) isn’t to entirely remove the ability to negotiate pay, but create a more equitable and thoughtful way in which pay is considered and work that into negotiation.

As is often the case with tech companies, instead of having a thoughtful, careful analysis of what’s going on and creating a framework around that, they have simply cut out the process and thrown it in the trash. Negotiation around compensation is something that can, will, and in many cases should happen - if someone doesn’t feel as if they’re getting what they want, they should be able to express that, and a company should be open to that discussion. The blunt-force “no negotiations” policy doesn’t actually solve any problems because it doesn’t offer any solutions - it doesn’t address pay equity, it doesn’t address bias, it doesn’t address…anything? It mostly just says “trust us, we’ll pay people better, and we intend to pay people we think are doing good work more, because they’re good. Somehow this will not be biased.”

This is all particularly troubling because of Coinbase’s history with bias. Coinbase literally paid female and black employees less, and now they are removing the ability for people to negotiate and telling us to simply trust them that they’ll not do that again, despite never truly admitting to doing it or apologizing for anything. Now Coinbase will set whatever Coinbase wants to, and there will be no negotiation, but don’t worry, those who are lucky enough to work there will theoretically make more - despite not, it appears, disclosing their compensation.

This is the beginning of Silicon Valley’s move toward a monocultural management structure. Founders and boards have always sought to hold as much control over the company as possible, usually focusing on how much stock they have and who they appoint, with a vague understanding of establishing a “culture.” I now feel like companies are reacting to the world becoming more aware of the clear biases and disparities in the ways in which the color of your skin and your gender affect your place in the working world, and sadly, I believe we’re going to see some companies entering this culture war with the idea that they can simply erase exterior culture from their company.

By removing the discussion of politics and the ability to negotiate pay, companies are slowly chipping away at the ability for the worker to express any dissent. In their minds, they’re simply removing something that is a “distraction” from doing “great things,” but in mine it’s a logical movement to strip workers of their identities. Company Culture generally reflects what the company believes in, but currently reflects the diverse views and actions of the people that work for it. To me, these moves are a bad sign that Silicon Valley and startup culture is going to move toward dealing with sticky issues in a far more blunt force way - by vastly curbing any opportunity for disagreement with management by draining the personality and diversity from the business.

Basecamp’s employee exodus may have operated as a cautionary tale, but I feel as if it will only become one for established companies. What it’s likely done is give a template for white, male founders to follow to attract and hire people who agree with them, by creating a policy that is both inherently exclusionary and also annoyingly hard to argue with if you need a job. Coinbase is even more worrying - the company has thrived despite their serious diversity issues and banning political discussion, which means that people will not see this as a cautionary tale at all.

This doesn’t mean that these are good companies, nor does it mean that political or societal discussion is in fact distracting. What it does mean is that management now has a template to suppress discussion and dissent in favor of removing “distractions,” which can be framed as anything annoying or boring to them - or, more specifically, “distractions” that could cause problems in the future, like discussions of working conditions on company channels.

It’s the creation of Private Relations - internal company messaging that is controlled from the beginning to benefit those in power and retain said power at all costs. Companies can and will hire people that reflect their image, and by controlling internal discussions and messaging, they can suppress anything that might step outside of the norm or propagate dissent. You can still hire diverse candidates without being a diverse company - you can simply make sure to select those that will be quietest and easiest to deal with - token hires, just like Coinbase has already done - and suppress their voices with policies. You can fake an “open management” culture by making sure that everybody is able to have their voice heard - as long as you do so through a very specific set of channels, controlled by advocates hired and organized by those in power.

As I regularly say, this isn’t new, it’s just something that startups are now going to adopt. Basecamp and Coinbase proved that you can survive if you start to suppress conversations within the company, and I think this naturally opens the doors to more worker suppression and control. And I think that it’s going to be the beginning of a truly awful culture war - the creation of companies that are proud to be anti-diversity and anti-inclusivity, hidden in a shroud of “not wanting discussions that distract us from building cool shit.” It will include people talking about being “anti-woke” and “anti-snowflake,” claiming that such forces are created because people feel like they “have to” discuss politics and society.

This will be Silicon Valley’s culture war - disrupting fairness in hiring by creating policies that won’t necessarily break laws, but will seek to quiet voices that step outside of the company rule. These rules will claim to be inclusive - removing the friction between work and worker - but will seek to keep the powerful in power, and simply stop the uncomfortable conversations and situations from ever occurring.

Living In The Future Is A Class Issue

This weekend, I got the second piece of tech I’ve ordered in the last year that took several months to arrive, the Eight Sleep pod pro cover. It’s effectively a large mattress topper that combines sleep tracking tech with a high-tech way of cooling/warming two sides of your mattress. It was possibly the least enjoyable thing for me, on account of my dyspraxia, to install on my own, but it has led to two of the best nights of sleep I or my wife have had in years, mostly because she is a very cold sleeper and I am a very hot sleeper. It is a purchase I’ve resisted a long time due to the price and the pain if it didn’t work (it was a nightmare to get out of three boxes, getting it back in feels impossible), but it has legitimately been amazing. The problem? It’s $1300 to $1650.

I also got the Hero Health pill dispenser, a $30-a-month subscription to a giant, clanking product that dispenses and notes when my wife and I take our medications - both of us need to, and our adherence has now been 100% since we got it a few weeks ago. I got Tonal about two months ago and I’ve got trimmer, leaner, I look better than I have in a while - and that, of course, cost $3500. Just like all of these connected fitness products, there’s also the option to take on debt - 0% interest free for those who qualify, but with punitive double digit interest for those that don’t.

I originally wanted to write this as a kind of exploration about how the smart home has radically improved my ability to have a positive, successful human life, and how transformative a lot of these things have been for me, which is true but also an example of privilege, and how some of the greatest ways in which tech can improve a life are financially separate from the majority of people. I am guilty - and was nearly guilty of writing a piece that was basically “look how lucky I am!” and I remain guilty of the things I am so lucky to have.

While these truly transformative pieces of technology are built and exist today that affect billions of people, and are seemingly “accessible,” the very nature of the cost of these products means that they are inaccessible to most people due to both the financial conditions the average person lives in and the logistical issues involved.

Peloton and Tonal are both sold out for months, meaning that anyone putting down these thousands of dollars must be able to part with that money, but also be able to part with it for several months with no value add, or take on the debt necessary to complete the purchase. And if they don’t use it after taking on that debt, selling it on is both burdensome and difficult in and of itself, especially with Tonal. The common defense of these products is that they are cheaper than a gym membership, which makes sense until you recognize the upfront cost and the total lack of utility of these connected devices without a subscription. There is the opportunity to get more value out of them if you spent a similar amount on going to the gym (if you use them as such, they are significantly cheaper than a personal trainer), but with a significantly higher up front financial burden and a mandatory monthly fee.

This isn’t new - it’s always been the case that early adopters are privileged, because they can afford more things and can also afford for said things to not be as good, and thus upgrade to better things when they come along. New, exciting and futuristic tech is always expensive, then over time becomes cheaper as companies begin to work out ways to strip out features or use cheaper materials, or said materials somehow become cheaper. Then again, there’re also companies like Peloton that raised prices so that people would think the bike was better.

Hero - while significantly cheaper - still requires a $50-100 downpayment on the device and a $30-a-month subscription to physically organize and dispense your pills. Hero (or something like Hero) should be in the hands of every senior, as approximately 125,000 deaths and 10% of hospitalizations are caused by a lack of nonadherence to medicine (this article is from 2017, but I can’t imagine things have improved). But it isn’t - it’s a tech-enabled, WiFi-powered $30-a-month per person device (as you can’t use one device for two people’s medicines). While yes, you could use reminders and other things, having taken care of two elderly people and their litany of medicines, it is both extremely taxing and a matter of life and death to get medicines right.

Despite 93% of Americans saying they use the internet, only 77% report that they have a broadband connection at home. The pandemic heightened this divide by showing exactly how students from low-income families were shut out of remote learning when they lacked access to the internet or a computer. 19 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds - all while we move into an increasingly internet and tech-dependent society that does not seek to make basic access to internet and technology a right.

While it’s easy to think that just about anyone can log onto a website on their smartphone, the pandemic made it blatantly obvious how privilege has segmented access to the future. Even if someone can afford a computer, it may not be fast enough to run the software they need to, and even if it is, their home internet connection may not be. While it’s a great thing for some people that jobs have become “remote-friendly,” we assume at that point that people have the space in their home to delineate between work and home, the technology in their home to actually operate as an employee within it, and when all that’s said and done that it’s possible for them to be happy and thrive doing so.

Tech has absolutely given more people access to more knowledge, and more people the ability to communicate with more people. But I feel like the way in which tech is progressing, both in its demands of people’s money and their access to quality internet, is increasingly being catered toward people with more resources. I get it - this is literally capitalism capitalisming at its most capitalist - but I can’t stop seeing the ways in which technology is increasingly focused on making the quality-of-life for the average privileged person better while leaving behind everybody else.

If you’re privileged, you can have everything automated - your bed, which adjusts its temperature to make you sleep better, can tell your coffee machine to make you coffee, which will wake you up so you can go to work on your computer for a company that you’re able to work for remotely, which works because you have the means to have a separate office space or have cannibalized your own home to make one, and can operate because you can afford to live somewhere with high-speed internet. You are able to take a break and get on your Peloton, which works because you have high-speed internet, and thus you’re healthier, and you’ve slept better and thus can get stronger and healthier because of your bed. You’re able to get healthy food delivered to you because you can afford the cost of Instacart, or Prime Now. And ultimately you have access to better jobs because of your ability to stay online without having to share the device.

The future we grew up thinking about is here - it’s just not equitably distributed. The excitement and bubbles in tech are likely growing because for those with the money to spend and the ability to create companies, the future feels exciting and immediate. But the future that most people experience is severely hampered by massive inequalities. There are absolutely technological achievements that have been made available to the masses - streaming media, for example - but a great deal of things are made to make the successful more successful, the rich get richer and the privileged stay privileged.

There are very few easy solutions here. The startup ecosystem rewards those who come up with ideas that VCs believe will be valuable companies, and that value is oftentimes established by the privileged’s investment in said thing. It’s hard to encourage companies to appeal to a larger subset of people and price to them as a result if they think they can price higher and attract a more sustainable (IE: richer) customer base. When the money is coming from the privileged, and aimed at making experiences that appeal to the privileged, the result is products created for the privileged, priced for their convenience and joy. And on some level perhaps these products aren’t possible to make cheaply, and that isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault - it just makes the chasm between the haves and have nots that bit larger, opening more opportunities for a healthier and wealthier life to those who already might have one.

On a governmental level, the obvious choices are infrastructural - we need everybody to have high speed internet, and it needs to be a utility. It’d be a classic shitty conservative thing to get mad at, but there needs to be some way in which we get everybody some basic level of home computing - it’s ridiculous that we took every student remote without making sure that every single one had the means to connect and interact with their student body.

I don’t know if there’s any great solution to the problem of technological accessibility, and I feel like the pandemic made that gap wider. The things that made the pandemic easier (or even bearable) for people - ways to exercise, ways to interact, ways to work - were all inherently reliant on having the physical or fiscal means to make your home function as an office, a gym and a home. The demands of a remote future are not as simple as “hey, no office time”! - they inherently require an investment of money and space that the majority of people don’t have, and we lack any of the social services that would require fairly creating a remote only future.

The Problem With and Necessity Of Banning The President

Donald Trump was the President of the United States for four years, and many people disliked him for being both an awful, cruel person and extremely bad at the job, myself included. He was banned from both the Twitter and Facebook the day after the January 6th invasion of the capitol building (not, say, when he said “when the looting starts the shooting starts” or any number of other horrifying things he said) by hundreds of pissed off racist terrorists. Facebook’s oversight board, a group of people that are professionally engaged to sit around and go “hmmm” and then make the wrong decision, decided to say that Facebook was justified in banning Trump, but that they had to “reassess” the “penalty” of his indefinite ban.

Trump of course, despite being banned from social media, still got press about how mad he was about the whole thing and how unfair it was, and so on. He’s been totally deplatformed, and so much of his ability to disseminate information came from going on Twitter/Facebook and every single member of the media talking about it all day, regardless of its content. He lost his ability to create entire news cycles in seconds, or go on a rant about how Barbara Streisand had been “very cruel” in a radio interview in 1973. Many conservative demagogues do the same thing, creating miniature moments of shared chaos for their brain-melted fans by saying that Biden is going to try and ban us from eating more than one Hamburger a year. They thrive not on outright lies, but on lies of omission and influence - bad faith readings and intentionally-worded misleading statements that exist to drive people into a frenzy.

The difference is that none of those people are or were the President of the United States, and Donald Trump lacked any of that nuance. He continually spread racist dogma (which did not get him banned), blamed China for global warming, and continually spread lies about voter fraud. The ramifications of Dan Bongino or Ben Shapiro misleading and upsetting people are not small, but they are significantly smaller than the Commander In Chief doing so (Bongino remains unbanned on Facebook, but is banned on Twitter - the Bongino Report still exists).

Twitter has been declarative that Trump is permanently removed from the platform, likely recognizing the wide-ranging damage that he caused. Facebook, on the other hand, is clearing teeing up the opportunity to unban him in the future, knowing that their independent oversight board would likely give them the ability to unban him in the future, as he made lots of money for them and Mark Zuckerberg likes money. The specific mechanism they relied on - which has worked flawlessly - is that the Oversight Board can simply choose to kick a decision back to Facebook, totally invalidating the reason that the Oversight Board exists. When Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs said that he hoped the oversight board would “uphold the ban,” he clearly meant the ban that was initially made rather than the permanent one.

“As Facebook suspended Mr. Trump’s accounts ‘indefinitely,’ the company must reassess this penalty,” the board said. “It is not permissible for Facebook to keep a user off the platform for an undefined period, with no criteria for when or whether the account will be restored.”

This is exactly the thing that an oversight board should exist not to do - Facebook should be the blunt-force applier of rules that does not step outside of them, not the board. A group of academics was always going to rule in favor of keeping Trump on the platform - this is the ultimate job for people who’s entire job is to pontificate and seem smart, to find a philosophical and academic reason to keep a monstrous person on the platform in the name of “free speech.” Another quote:

“The Oversight Board is clearly telling Facebook they can’t invent new, unwritten rules when it suits them,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a co-chair of the Oversight Board and a former prime minister of Denmark, on a call with reporters.

Except…they can? And should? Facebook should absolutely invent new rules to deal with new things, such as, say, the President of the United States of America inciting violence. They can and should invent new rules to deal with new things, and Facebook’s oversight board so far has not really acted in the best interests of anyone other than Facebook. They have done the exact opposite of what an oversight board should do - they have chosen to give oversight back to the company that they have oversight upon, thus relieving themselves (and Facebook!) of responsibility. Facebook can say that they were made to choose to unban Trump or not unban Trump (I strongly believe they’re going to let him back on) and deflect any criticism by saying “oh, the oversight board told us to.” The oversight board will say that they made decisions based on the rules, and thus nobody will accept blame. It’s a perfect system.

Should They Have Banned Trump?


I actually believe both platforms should have banned Trump a long time ago, based on how they apply their rules to other people. They should’ve done it when he said to “not be afraid of COVID,” or at least suspended him for a week as a measure of saying “hey, stop saying shit like that,” though there is an argument that “not being afraid of COVID” is an opinion, which is part of the whole “medical science is politicized” thing that we all can thank Trump for pushing. Trump has shared doctored videos numerous times, which is against Twitter’s rules, and generally repeat offenders of Twitter’s rules get suspended or banned. The Big Lie tweets clearly hit their “civic integrity” rules:

Civic Integrity: You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process. 

Despite that, he remained unbanned on Twitter until the invasion of the capitol building, because of the vague idea of his tweets being “of the public interest,” the same justification Facebook used. Facebook happily let election misinformation spread, and Twitter managed to curb it but still let Trump post misinformation.

I understand the issue here. Suppressing the ability for the President of the United States to communicate on a platform seems scary, but this was not something that was done because Donald Trump said something bad about Twitter or Facebook. It was done because he directly and transparently incited violence - not for all the hateful, horrible shit he spread, not even for the misinformation he spread, but because he incited violence. He shouldn’t come back because of that, but also because of all the other stuff he did, in the same way that being a hateful, cruel piece of shit should get you banned from Twitter or Facebook.

The argument that Trump is a public figure and thus his tweets are “of the public interest” makes no sense - Trump is not being “silenced,” he is being taken off of social media platforms. Does that mean he has less of a platform? Yes! Did he absolutely lose the right to use those platforms? Yes! If anything, his permanent ban should stand as an example of how the rules do apply to people in power, and the removal of said ban suggests that the rules do not apply to the powerful.

The idea that we absolutely need to hear what Trump would say on Facebook and Twitter is silly. He is still fully able to communicate - people still get his emails, he has his weird blog thing he does now, the media will still take his calls - but he cannot do so on the platforms he has clearly broken the rules on. The suggestion that Trump is owed anything is ridiculous - and should apply to anyone, on both sides. If Bernie Sanders or Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden went on a protracted rant about how COVID is a myth, they too should be suspended.

The fact that you are a public figure should make you more sensitive to the measures of the rules, not less, as the ramifications of your communications are more significant and more likely to cause actions in others. As a result, the rules should be more likely to apply to you - for the public good. Trump being the president or a former president does not give him the right to break the rules, and allowing him to do so, or allowing him to skate around them, only seeks to show that a social media platform is not democratic. There are already issues with the capriciousness of the application of bans and suspensions on these platforms, and if anything Trump’s ban should be permanent to partly show that nobody is above the law.

Unless, of course, these platforms wish to make arbitrary decisions for public figures, which is sort of what they’ve been doing. But the right way to do things is to equitably and directly apply these rules to public figures, to the point that some are regularly suspended or banned because they can’t abide by them. If we want fairness of expression, we have to apply it equally, and it starts with keeping Trump permanently rejected from social media platforms in which he operated as president.

How Parasocial Relationships Have Defined The Tech Industry

In my mind, the parasocial relationship - where someone develops a totally one-sided relationship with someone who has little or no idea they exist - may be the most important psychological effect of the modern tech era. Felix Biederman put it well:

The thing he’s referring to is Bill Maher saying that watching other people on Twitch is a “waste of fucking time,” in his usual insufferable manner, and I think Felix’s point is that yes, theoretically it’s a waste of time because it creates a fake relationship, but at the same time many TV shows and forms of mass media do the same thing, and that there’s not really anything wrong with that.

The imprinting of a relationship onto a form of mass media is something that’s been obvious for a long time - talk shows are inherently conversational, talk radio basically exists for people to feel like they’re “in the room” or being talked to directly by the host, and so on. TV shows are intentionally or otherwise made with characters that either exhibit qualities to make them likeable (or unlikeable) and attract people to feel a certain way about them - creating, consciously or not, a relationship with a totally fictional character. Hell, I think we all know someone that’s said (or have said it ourselves) that a particular song “feels like it speaks to them.”

The reason that I think that these relationships have become so important is that they define a great deal of interactions on social media. The popularity of influencers is something that’s grown because of how they expose themselves via social media, even if said social media is extremely mediated or contrived. Celebrities and influencers can post whatever they want and respond to anyone they want (theoretically), and as a result there are many fans that believe that there is an actual relationship taking place when they interact on social media, despite the very high likelihood that the celebrity or influencer has never nor will never see the interaction.

What’s important to recognize here is that this isn’t something that requires someone to be a huge celebrity, just someone that’s popular in their own particular sect. And I believe that social media layers on cues that strengthen these quasi-parasocial (IE: very light communication, through likes or retweets or the occasional reply) or parasocial relationships. Someone following you on Twitter creates a certain level of attachment - we believe that we are connected somehow, even if said follow never actually results in any kind of other reaction.

The weight of certain social media-based reactions is such that we can, in our minds, say that we “know” someone that we don’t. I’ve definitely said I know people because they follow me on Twitter and I follow them, and we’ve had at best the lightest possible interaction in the world. And this strengthens the network - Twitter is considered more intimate, with the flimsiest communiques resulting in people believing they are far more connected than they actually are. People boast about who’s following them as if they’re their friend, and people react with jealousy - they have assumed a relationship (parasocial-by-proxy? I ain’t a psychologist!) based on who does or does not follow someone. When someone stopped following me a few months that I admire, I felt bad - partly because I assumed I annoyed them (most likely they were just like “eh I don’t wanna see these posts”) and partly because I had, consciously or otherwise, assumed we had some sort of vague friendship despite talking once.

This is also a phenomena that fuels my work - reporters follow my tweets, they thus have an idea of the person I am and have formed some view of me in their head, and thus when I approach there are the beginnings of a relationship in one or both of our heads. This is not something I do deliberately, and I believe it’s the effect of anyone’s consumption of any social feed. You get a feel for the person, you build a relationship in your head with them, and thus when an actual relationship builds, there are the building blocks of something. The same happens on online dating - we read a profile, we see a picture, and we make a conscious decision to communicate with them, likely writing a message that is entirely based off of our interpretation of their descriptions.

I feel that these parasocial relationships also are a huge fuel for podcasts that are groups of people talking. We are willing bystanders to an intimate (contrived or otherwise) conversation between friends who banter and debate in front of us, and we feel ourselves grow closer to them, feeling that we want to be part of the conversation. We hear relationships grow in front of us in vast detail, and we are part of the continuum of events that strengthen and grow relationships, so, naturally, we see ourselves as part of the relationship ourselves despite the podcasters not specifically knowing we are listening. This is intentional to the medium - podcasts are parasocial by nature, inviting us into an intimate setting (a private conversation) - which is compounded by any aspect in which the speakers are vulnerable or, indeed, when things go wrong or are seemingly spontaneous.

This is also what’s grown Peloton - people create relationships with the instructors they watch, and the intentionally spiritual and emotional language of said instructors makes them feel wanted, represented and cared for. The “live” nature of classes adds another layer of intimacy - the assumption of imperfection (despite this being a highly mediated and professionally-organized set) - that anything can happen - creates an air of vulnerability at the same time that the viewer is vulnerable (intentional physical distress), combined with extremely strong, loud personalities. People consume Peloton content as if they have a workout buddy, and thus they build their own relationship with the instructor.

I think that a lot of social media is empowered by the creation of these relationships, and the way in which a parasocial relationship can seem two-sided by the breadcrumbs that someone can leave to create them. People feel as if they’re part of someone’s life when they watch them for hours on Twitch, and may feel as if there’s an actual relationship that’s been built because the streamer sees and responds to what they say in chat. Social media and its growth is somewhat built on this subtle emotional manipulation - the imagined proximity to famous people, or people that we feel similar to who are above our station, which makes us feel that everything is “for us” when it’s really for a thousand, or a hundred thousand, or a million people.

I don’t think this is a conscious manipulation in many cases. People just respond to people because it’s nice, or they think they have something to say, and the platforms make it easy to do so. And there’s nothing wrong with that - in fact, I’ve had a few celebrities that I’ve actually met in real life and had dinner/drinks with entirely due to social media, which is bonkers on its own level, and this likely makes me act in a different way and assume that other celebrities that may follow me in the future were closer in proximity to an actual relationship with me than they actually are. I am fully conscious of how ridiculous this is, but the platforms are engineered to create this effect. Perhaps I am also assuming a lot about how relationships would be made in real life otherwise - real-life relationships are oftentimes made of similarly tangential events and serendipitous events, but I don’t think the interactions that build them are so fleeting.

I imagine that any service that involves actually giving money to the person in question likely compounds these scenarios. Patreon and Twitch create a sense of ownership in a relationship - you, as a person, have “given” something to the other person, and thus may think you have created a relationship or are “owed” something as a result, despite you very clearly paying for a service. Patreon’s ability to let people have more access creates more intimacy, which creates a stronger parasocial or quasi-parasocial relationship with the subscriber. This creates users that feel attached to the person or group in question, which raises expectations of them, even if it doesn’t create the expectation of a relationship.

Social media’s immediacy and access to those that we admire is part of what makes it so attractive and engrossing. Even a solitary like or response from someone we admire creates a relationship in our mind - we’ve talked to them after all - that may or may not really exist, and layering that on top of the actual conversations with people we know makes it all the more engrossing. It’s why Clubhouse was so attractive at first to startup people - they felt like they were part of an intimate fireside chat with Marc Andreessen, or Elon Musk, or whatever celebrity they wheeled out because it was coming right into their ears, and it felt exclusive.

The reality of our digital relationships can be questionable at times, but I believe that the relationships that we project onto other people are the things that make these platforms so utterly inescapable to some. Influencers that grow that seem like “normal people” likely get famous because that’s exactly the point - what they say and do, and the faux-intimacy they grow with their viewers creates a human connection that these people want from their lives, with someone they find approachable who also happens to be famous. They see fame and fortune as attainable, they see “coolness” as attainable through these parasocial relationships, and it makes them feel happy. The chasm between the fortunate and famous becomes much smaller thanks to social media - we see ourselves in others, and perhaps we see ourselves with others that don’t know we exist.

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