Socially Optimized Positions, Authenticity, and Weirdness

Interesting Richard Hanania article, How to Be an Intellectual and Writing for the Public.

Its not that surprising his blog is a major success despite some of his views being contradictory or at odds with some of his more partisan readers. Intentionally or not, his views optimize for traffic and virality by being shared by members of a specific cohort/clique, who tend to have large followings and high social status. Such optimized positions confer high-status that attracts an elite, high-SES readership, and thus organic virality and growth not seen with more mainstream content or ‘normie’ readership.

Regarding masks, he writes:

Have a vicious hatred of masking. But when that gives you fans that are anti-vaxx too, constantly tell them they’re stupid, you hate them, and they’re the reason we can’t have nice things.

I observed this in early 2021 when the high status position was to strongly oppose masks and lockdowns, but at the same time strongly support vaccines and downplay vaccine side effects, which was Chamath’s position. Or downplay vaccine side effects and deaths but also criticize health officials and the media for overestimating vaccine efficacy (or also supporting Project Veritas in its investigation of Pfizer but also defending the safety of the vaccines (the Cernovich position)). Or opposing both the Jan 6th protests and the 2020 BLM/antifa riots. This is the same position held by Chamath, Marc Andreessen and other rich, influential people.

This does not mean socially-optimized positions are wrong or pandering; it just so happens to be positions that optimize for virality and having a high-status readership. Having someone like Marc Andreessen endorse your blog is equal to probably thousands of midwit readers, who have tiny or non-existent social networks and hence provide little to no virality or subscriber income.

Opposing wokeness but holding liberal views on others things (being a moderate/liberal who opposes the left) is the best of both worlds by having a large spillover from both sides but also minimal to no risk of cancellation/de-platforming. Plus, it’s a high-status position too, so you get high-SES readers like Scott Adams and Marc Andreessen. Basically, it’s rebranded centrism or right-centrism. It was popularized by the IDW in 2018 and has gained further popularity in 2021-2022 with Elon Musk and others seemingly endorsing this view, along with the rise of Substack, which is like the successor to Quillette (and former Quillette writers have moved to Substack).

From my own experience on Twitter and Substack, I would argue its more like center-right views dominate, like those espoused by Musk, Rogan, or Peterson, and that far-right views are relegated to the fringes, such as Chan sites or tiny, low-follower Twitter accounts. This shows how popular centrism is despite the insistence by the New York Times and the Washington Post of how ‘far-left/right views dominate discourse’, or how everyone who supports Trump is a far-right extremist or sympathetic to far-right views. The media in aggregate overestimates the popularity/incidence of the far-left and especially the far-right, but is inclined to the downplay the popularity of moderate views. This is understandable from a business perspective, because overplaying extremism probably leads to more clicks and ad views.

The most successful posts and authors seem to occupy one of two extremes, either from the ‘right’ arguing how society is in decline, or from the ‘left’, like Noah Smith, writing long, data-laden contrarian-style posts about how ‘things are not that bad’, but still keenly aware and skeptical of identity politics and wokeness. It’s not so much about ideological conformity or left vs. right, but employing ‘shared narratives’ which are politically/ideologically invariant and shared by many on the smart-left and the smart-right. Such themes include:

1. America’s position in the world is precarious
2. Society is on the precipice of upheaval, if not already there
3. Politicians are incompetent, inept, perfidious (on either side of the aisle)
4. Young people, men in particular, are directionless and little is expected of them from society
5. Too much identity politics, on either side of the aisle
6. AI will disrupt society, if it hasn’t already
7. The media cannot be trusted
8. Breakdown of law and order, and a general unease
9. Careerism is a poor substitute for meaning and and purpose, is an ill of modernity
10. Social media is bad for mental health
11. Modernity is not an ‘unalloyed good’ and has drawbacks, like the items above.

As for far-left views, it’s interesting how all the pro-CRT people have such small followings online despite otherwise having a lot of influence offline. Compare number of followers on major platforms of pro-woke people to anti-woke. Jordan Peterson, Musk, and Rogan vs. who? Ibram X. Kendi and AOC, the former whose Twitter account has a grand total of 420k followers compared to Jordan Peterson’s 4 million? Except for Tim Pool, the left dominates streaming, such as Destiny, Hasan Piker, and Vaush. (I am not sure why this is…maybe for the same reason the left dominates the entertainment industry, and Twitch is closer to entertainment compared to Twitter?) It shows where the power lies, which is in the institutions. Anyone who wants a middle class job needs to finish college, which means passing through the gates of indoctrination…and then it’s ‘DEI’ at work.

On the perils of audience capture:

I have already written about how most people are too risk-averse in most circumstances. Writers may be an extreme case. There seems for most people to be a psychological tendency towards audience capture. There are broadly two kinds of readers: those who want to learn and be challenged, and those who just want someone to aggressively and unapologetically tell them what they want to hear. I won’t lie to you – the latter group is much larger. This is why Sean Hannity has 6.3 million Twitter followers, and Tyler Cowen, as influential as you think he might be, only has 218K.

No sure…this would imply that copying Hannity’s formula would be easier or a short cut to success, by pandering to this large audience. But if someone tried to replicate Hannity’s hyper-partisan formula, it would likely fail miserably, by failing to court those invaluable, high-status centrist-leaning gatekeepers who hold the keys to viralness and organic growth on social media. Sean Hannity’s and Tucker Carlson’s average-IQ viewers do not have have many social media followers, unlike Andreessen, Yudkowsky, Adams and others. It also obviously helps greatly that Tucker and Hannity have the built-in audience and marketing from the backing of a $17 billion media conglomerate.

But I think authenticity or ‘being yourself’ are overrated and have major survivorship bias. That is, we only see the examples of successful people who are authentic (or people who were initially successful by being conformist or inauthentic and then when rich pivoting to being authentic (so-called ‘fu money’)), not all the authentic people who failed. Consider the choice of being inauthentic and popular, or unpopular and authentic. I think the former is the rational choice, because then you can take your profits from being popular and donate them to less popular causes that reflect your true authentic position. Success gives more options, which failure does not. If you’re authentic and a jerk but have some redeeming qualities, maybe you can pull it off, but a lot of people are just jerks without anything redeeming to compensate.

Weirdness as a virtue:

Speaking of which, while writing the list above, I noticed how many times I either wrote or was tempted to write “autist” in my description of various personalities. Aella is supposedly autistic too, and that plus sex is a powerful combination. Independent writing is probably not for the psychologically normal.

Again, not so sure about this. I follow many bloggers, and the two most successful are Freddie deBoer and Tyler Cowen. Yet they are polar opposites in terms of content and style. Freddie is a lot more ‘weird’ and revelatory, whereas Tyler does not discuss his personal life at all and is much more reserved. I think, like above, survivorship bias rears its head. Successful weird people like Nicola Tesla are immortalized, but this overlooks the many weirdos who fall through the cracks and are forgotten or ignored. If anything, being weird does not augur well for success, or maybe there is an optimal amount of weirdness. No, unless your job involves staring at data all day, autism is not a superpower. Neurodiversity is not so great. I think Mr. deBoer is right that society’s valorization or romanticism of mental illness does a disservice to everyone, including the very people who need help.

‘Convention’ exists, not owing to a lack of originality or a nefarious plot by bureaucrats to instill conformity or snuff out individualism, but because that is what ‘works’ compared to worse alternatives. After you gamble your parent’s money on crypto or sports betting, you finish college and get that boring job, because that is how money is made for the vast majority of people, not the other stuff. Maybe in an ideal world we can all pursue our passions, but this does not exist. The world is too competitive and difficult for it to be any other way.

Overall, I think the most important variable for success at writing is competence. No one wants to waste their time with incompetent people who don’t know what they are talking about. If you come off as competent, you can be forgiven for a lot even if you color outside of the ideological lines and what not.