Tag Archives: social psychology

Deconstructing a Viral Article

In mid-March 2016, Robin Weis’ article “Crying” went massively viral, getting hundreds of up-votes and comments on HackerNews, as well as many shares elsewhere. Rather than focusing on the subject of the article itself, I’m going to focus more on the meta-narrative: why the article was so popular and what its popularity says about post-2008 society.

By showing vulnerability in describing her crying habits, Robin exudes authenticity, a major theme of post-2008 society. Here is a passage showing vulnerability, hence authenticity:

I’ve always considered myself to be a bit of a crybaby, triggered frequently and privately and sometimes for hardly any reason at all. I’ve also always considered myself to be a fairly strong person, stable and resilient and able to work through challenging situations. I found it difficult to reconcile that part of myself with my overwhelming sensitivity, and I wondered about the exact nature of the things that were capable of pushing me over the edge. Naturally, I turned to spreadsheets to help me find the answers to my curiosities.

A defining characteristic of post-2008 (and 2013) society is the synthesis of intellectualism and individualism. Her account of crying is a very personal (hence individualistic) and she is obviously very smart, being that the site is about data visualizations (data visualizations could be considered a STEM field, combining statistics with programming, requiring a high IQ), she is a highly competent writer, and an introspective and possibly introverted person (INTP), completing the synthesis. From Post-2008 Themes:

The common thread here is individualism, a defining characteristic of post-2008 society…Our culture of individualism prizes individual accomplishments (like a physics or math discovery), popularity (Instagram & Twitter followers), and merit (related to individual intellectual accomplishments), which tend to be harder and more exclusive and celebrated than collectivist ones. Religion is inherently collectivist, generally having a low barrier to entry to salvation. Same for political parities, which tend to have low barriers to entry for participation. Neither spotlight the individual. But a degree in physics or math, while much harder to obtain than going to church, brings much more prestige to the individual than being a random churchgoer. Perhaps some are tired of the celebration of ‘self’ and wish to return to simpler, more collectivist times. As I discuss earlier, some individualism and intellectualism is need to for society to advance, and there is is probably an optimal balance between the two.

This is also related to the the post-2008 rise of the ‘STEM nobility‘ and ‘STEM celebrity‘, with ‘STEM people’ becoming ‘esoteric celebrities‘ through blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, and other mediums. Wikipedia editor and blogger Guillaume Paumier is another example, as well as ThunderFoot on Youtube.

From Meta Narratives:

A meta-narrative is why was this tweet so viral? What does its viralness say about the state of America, the economy, and society? The explanation, according to this blog, is that we’re in a ‘smartist era‘ since 2008, and especially since 2013, where intellect and science is more valued than ever, and this is related to the post-2013 SJW backlash and the rise of ‘nerd culture’. Culture is emulating economics, where nerds are more valued in terms of higher wages, approbation (the tweet going viral) and appropriation (The Big Bang Theory show, Instagram culture, etc). Nerds create value though merit and talent; SJWs, on the other hand, seek to persecute nerds for nor being inclusive enough to other genders or races, or for not sufficiency spreading their wealth. Rising stock prices and rising home prices are rewarding nerds for the economic value they create, and now society, in general, is too. The viralness also seems to debunk the belief that America is ‘dumbing down’, as the joke requires an understanding of fractals, a concept that until recently was considered esoteric. If Twitter and the internet existed in 1985 instead of 2015, I don’t think such a tweet would have gone viral. Meta narratives are subjective, so yours may differ from mine, and perhaps a narrative doesn’t exist. Notice how the meta-narrative is much longer and perhaps more interesting and thought-provoking.

Had she written about a more mundane or gender-specific topic (gardening, cooking, fashion) and maybe had a fashion blog instead of a data visualization blog, no one would have cared and going viral would have been impossible. Even though fashion, gardening, and cooking are huge industries, they are saturated. Unless you have a huge advertising budget, you can get much more traffic focusing on niche or esoteric subjects than larger, mainstream ones. Consider there are 50-100 million people interested in cooking and or fashion, vs. only, say, 20,000 interested in data visualizations. Intuition would dictate to focus on the former, but this may be wrong because those popular subjects already have 1000′s multi-million dollar brands behind them, sucking in all those millions of people, whereas ‘data visualization’ has far fewer sites relative to the total audience size. 30% of 20,000 is still better than 0% of 50-100 million. Being an esoteric celebrity may not compare to being Angelina Jolie, but it’s still many magnitudes better than being a nobody. As evidenced, for example, by the huge viralness of a WaitButWhy article about the Fermi Paradox, there is a surprisingly large demand for complicated, esoteric stuff.

I wrote many articles covering the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, but as far as I can recall have only written five or so articles about Trump, Hillary, Sanders, and the 2016 election, mainly because those subjects have become so saturated. There are simply too many people writing about those things that it’s impossible to write a perspective that hasn’t already been covered by at least a dozen bloggers and journalists. In 2008, social media was only in its infancy, and there was no vox.com, fivethirtyeight.com, or Bloomberg View. Topics such as NRx, meta narratives, intellectualism, eugenics, HBD, and Social Darwinism, although not nearly as popular as politics, have far fewer people writing about them.

As I show in the example of Warren Buffett, intellectualism, competence, and merit is what draws people in, not being extroverted. Every year, thousands of people flock to Omaha for Buffett’s annual shareholder meetings – not because Buffet is a people-pleaser, but because he is very competent and his insights are invaluable. Elon Musk, another example of someone who is extremely competent, had the most popular Reddit AMA ever. Richard Dawkins, who lately seems to have gotten into habit of offending the easily offended, also had an enormously popular AMA.

According to the ‘social taxonomy‘, it the article could be categorized as: smartist era > individual > intellectualism culture > naval gazing and introspection.

Ingroup/Outgroup Dynamics

Ingroup/outgroup dynamics are a topic of much interest to both the ‘alt right’ and rationalists. From Wikipedia:

In sociology and social psychology, an ingroup is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member. By contrast, an outgroup is a social group with which an individual does not identify. For example, people may find it psychologically meaningful to view ourselves according to our race, culture, gender, age or religion. It has been found that the psychological membership of social groups and categories is associated with a wide variety of phenomena.

Scott has written extensively about ingroup/outgroup dynamics, in one of his most important articles “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” observing how groups that share many similarities may be the most acrimonious, an example being German Jews versus Nazis:

Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But the Nazis and Japanese mostly got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately positively disposed to the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares.

Other historical examples include Irish Catholics vs. Protestants. Or Israeli Jews vs. Palestinians, both being Semitic people residing in a close geographical proximity.

Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?

Online, however, I have noticed that some of the smartest, best-informed actually tend to hold some variant of conservative, libertarian, or neoliberal views on economic matters but are somewhat liberal on social matters.

I would wager that the liberal ‘liberal vs conservative’ dichotomy tends to be blurred among some of those who are smarter, so depending on how you word the question can result in answers that may or may not conform to these categories.

Answering ‘yes’ to the question ‘Is poverty a major issue?’ can be interpreted as liberal, but the solution may not necessarily be a liberal one.

Liberalism tend to be populist (Sanders’ campaign), but some call liberalism ‘elitist’, so it’s kinda confusing or contradictory how it can be both.

In this sense, for welfare liberals, the ‘outgroup’ is neoliberals, who tend to be more critical of direct democracies and populism, preferring variants of utilitarianism run by an educated, well-informed ‘elite’ over the ill-informed masses.

For NRx, the ‘outgroup’ may not be liberals, which is the most obvious choice given than NRx is a right-wing ideology/movement/whatever. Instead, perhaps, it’s ‘low-information’ and ‘democracy’, both from the ‘right’ and ‘left’, as one type of ‘outgroup’. As in the case of utilitarianism, it’s possible to be on the ‘left’ and still reject direct forms of democracy.

As very recent example of ingroup/outgroup dynamics over small differences, the post-2015 ‘cuckservative’ movement, which pitted ‘traditional conservatives’ against ‘establishment conservatives’, with insults hurled between both sides on Twitter and blogs, despite both sides being ‘conservatives’.

Thus, possibly in every group, there may be two ‘outgroups’: one involving small differences (establishment conservatives vs. alt right, neoliberals vs. welfare liberals) and an ‘outgroup’ of broader differences (conservatives vs. liberals).

I Can Tolerate Anything Except Factual Inaccuracies

This story is going hugely viral: Economist Removed from Plane for Algebra

The outpouring of sympathy and firestorm of righteous indignation, similar to that observed after the Ahmed Mohamed clock story, is more evidence we’re in an era of the ‘STEM celebrity‘, of which economics is part of. Had an obese snoring passenger been removed from the plane for being an annoyance, no one would have cared. Nor would anyone have cared had a lawyer been removed from the plane for being suspicious. A major reason why STEM is so respected compared to other professions is because it’s seen as a last bastion of intellectual purity and rigor in a world of materialism, fluff degrees, sensationalism, partisanship, and hype. In effect, STEM and its practitioners have become our new ‘priesthood’, who people turn to for answers and respect.

The title “I Can Tolerate Anything Except Factual Inaccuracies” is a play on the Scott’s famous article “I Can Tolerate Anything But the Outgroup” which went hugely viral, getting over 10,000 Facebook shares. What I mean by this is when reading the comments in response to the plane story (or almost any news story where there is ostensibly a victim and an oppressor), there is a difference in reaction depending on the intelligence of the commenters. For commenters of average intelligence (group A), the tendency is to reduce things to black and white ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy. Prima facie, the passenger was victimized; the airline is evil/wrong. End of story.

For more intelligent commenters (group B), there is a need to ‘understand’ the motive for why the passenger was ejected (maybe the airline had a perfectly good reason to so, or the woman was justified in some way to complain), beyond just ‘good vs. evil’, playing devil’s advocate, as well as dispelling any factual inaccuracies in reporting. They are sorta like antibodies of the internet and online journalism, latching on to inaccuracies and omissions wherever they may infiltrate. In other words, for smart people, accuracy and the ‘truth’ tends to be more important than ‘tribal’ loyalty or whether something is ‘bad or good’ or ‘right or wrong’.

Here’s a contrived example comparing these two different styles of discourse (group A):

Group B:

This is related to intellectualism signalling, contrarian signaling, and counter signaling. For smart people, not being being too wed to a ‘tribe’ or a fixed ideology is a way of signalling intelligence, worldliness, and critical thinking to other smart people, thus boosting status. Trying to find inaccuracies and counterarguments is some sort of bizarre ‘game’ played by public participants. It’s like….we agree on ‘X’, but I will defend ‘Y’ if it somehow boosts my status among other members of ‘X’.

In addition to playing devil’s advocate and contrarian signaling, another type of signaling is virtue or holiness signaling, whereby a commenter will tacitly agree with the article…but then raise a big issue about the absence of ‘X’, about how the article or author doesn’t take it ‘far enough’, or how the author’s personal credentials may compromise his thesis. In nitpicking, posturing, and pestering, the commenter may be trying to to gain status by one-upping the author.

This probably is why NRx and ‘rationalists’, as much as they may disagree on certain issues, keep commingling…because they both seem to reject simplistic, prosaic, or reductionist views of the world and humanity, seeking or gravitating to more complicated, nuanced explanations and solutions.

On one hand this is good: inquisitiveness and Socratic questioning helps debunk SJW-hoaxes and is keeping the media in check. However, always putting ‘correctness’ above group affinity or loyalty may impede the ability to formalize anything, because too much effort is expended arguing over loose ends. For writers, it means constantly having to use ‘hedging language‘ in anticipation of the inevitable counterexamples that will arise and may be pointed out in forums and discussions. I think it can get out of hand. It you read something and find a counterexample even though you otherwise agree with the rest of the essay, maybe just keep that observation to yourself. We all want to be right, but that means someone else has to be wrong.