Has the internet become dumber or smarter?

In a hugely viral post NEW ATHEISM: THE GODLESSNESS THAT FAILED, Scott argues that the internet has become dumber in recent years, and that the peak of ‘new atheism’ corresponds, to some degree, to the apex of such intellectualism, and that as the internet has purportedly gotten dumber, atheism has fallen out of favor. I agree that atheism online, in general, has been in a protected decline since around 2012-2013 or so, but it’s not because of the internet becoming dumber, but for other reasons, as I discuss here.

OWS the reelection of Obama can be likened to ‘peak-liberalism’ (as in welfare/left/social-liberalism, not classical liberalism or neoliberalism), as in the appeal of liberalism, which includes atheism, to the ‘general online public’ such as on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Then starting around 2013, with gamergate and the popularization of term ‘SJW’ [1], which in 2011-2012 switched from having positive/neutral connotations to being indisputably pejorative, liberalism began to lose some of its appeal online although it would still be very influential in terms of cultural institutions such as universities and Hollywood, but liberalism in recent years has met considerable resistance online as shown by all the backlash on Twitter and YouTube, and also to a lesser extent on Reddit. There has always been some resistance to liberalism, such as in 2009-2010 with the rise of the Tea Party, but it has gotten worse.

The social-justice-left has a lot of power, especially regarding ‘woke capitalism,’ government, the judiciary, and cultural institutions, but it’s far off its peak in terms of ‘general public appeal online,’ which was in 2012-2013. Videos on YouTube that try to push a social justice agenda get inundated with negative comments and down-votes as we saw with the infamous Gillette ad, and other examples. 6-8 years ago that probably would not have been the case. There still would have been some backlash but not nearly as bad as we see today. Possibly because liberalism, for the past half century, has been so powerful and influential and successful at spreading its message and agenda, that at some point the pendulum, already very extended, had to revert at least a little.

Second, has the internet gotten dumber? Scott laments about how the internet used to be much smarter:

This exercise is gradually bringing back memories of just how intellectual the Internet was around the turn of the millennium. You would go to bulletin boards, have long and acrimonious debates over whether or not the Gospels were based on pagan myths. Then someone would check Vast Apologetics Library tektonics.org and repost every one of their twenty-eight different articles about all the pagan myths the Gospels weren’t based on, from Adonis (“yet another unprofitable proposition for the copycat theorist”) to Zalmoxis (“there is no comparison, other than by illicit collapsing of terminology and by unsubstantiated speculation”). Both sides had these vast pre-built armories full of facts and arguments to go to.

 

At some point, in a way unrelated to the fall of New Atheism, the Internet stopped being like this. The topics that interest people today don’t get debated in the same way. People dunk on each other on Twitter, occasionally even have back-and-forth exchanges, but the average person doesn’t post long screeds and get equally long responses fisking each of their points. There’s less need for giant databases containing every fact you might need to win a particular argument, organized Dewey-Decimal-style by which argument you are trying to win. People just stopped caring.

I disagree. As discussed in the posts Cambrian explosion’ of intellectualism and Are we in a post-truth era? Possibly not there is evidence that internet has gotten smarter, and that the internet was dumber in 2004-2010, than since 2013.

Consider:

The rise of instant fact-checking on Twitter. Whenever a major politician such as AOC or Trump tweets something, fact-checkers, many of whom are unaffiliated with any particular organization or political party, will instantly pounce, dissecting the tweets for inaccuracies or omissions. 10 years ago, it was hardly like that at all, and it took days or even weeks for inaccuracies and half-truths to be debunked.

What about those “long and acrimonious debates?” They have moved to Reddit, Stack Exchange/Overflow, Twitter, blog comments, YouTube comments, etc., rather than debates being centralized to a handful of forums. Discussions on Reddit on certain ‘smart’ subs such as r/economics/. r/science, and /r/history/ can span thousands of words, just for a single reply.

Also I have observed that there is less tolerance for sensationalism, overgeneralizing, moralizing, inaccuracies, and hype, all of which categorically fall under the umbrella of ‘bullshit’ or FUD. Obviously, given that the internet of today is bigger than it was 15 years ago, there will be more bullshit and FUD on an absolute basis, but there is also much less tolerance for it, too. Sites such as Reddit, Stack Overflow, and Hacker news, which have voting systems, comments that are helpful, accurate, and or funny/witty, tend to get a lot of up-votes and are algorithmically ranked ‘above the fold’ and made readily visible, as opposed to comments that are wrong or moralizing, which are often down-voted and subsequently automatically hidden by various filters. In the early 2000s such filters were either more crude or nonexistent, so unhelpful or inarticulate comments were given as much visibility as useful/helpful ones, but also there as less social status as measured by karma points and reputation points (such as on Reddit and Stack Overflow, respectively) bestowed to smart, helpful contributors.

One can argue that such voting systems foster conformity and groupthink, but I have observed that original, well-argued positions, even if they go against the consensus of the community where they are shared, tend to be well-received. The only conformity is a dislike of poorly-argued opinions, predictable/stale arguments, preaching to the choir, moralizing, and unsuported assumptions, that characterize low-effort, low-information discourse. If you’re parroting talking points, from either side of the political spectrum, then you are signalling that you have not thought about the issue that deeply and mistakenly assume that such arguments are novel or persuasive, when they are not and are an admission of intellectual laziness and the presumption of such laziness of your opponent by believing that they will change his or her mind. Upon observing the immense popularity of mainstream pundits such as Tucker Carlson or Ben Shapiro, who use such arguments with ease against easy targets (‘owning the libs,’ as it’s sometimes called) , one may be under the mistaken assumption that such arguments are effective, novel, or persuasive, but the apparent effectiveness is more a reflection of the popularity of who is espousing them against an average-IQ unprepared opponent, than the arguments themselves being of any particular good or merit. When an average-IQ person tries to parrot such arguments against a high-IQ prepared opponent on a smart site such as Reddit, often they end up getting owned rather than doing the owning. Ben and Tucker’s shows are controlled, artificial environments in which producers spend large sums of money and use various lighting and audio effects, delays, and modulation to make their hosts seem as omnipotently smart and in-control as possible, but all of that is stripped away online.

The rise of the IDW, for example, and the intellectual-web, I think, is indicative of huge demand for nuanced, smart discourse, at least online. IDW-pundits such as Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, and even Joe Rogan have built huge platforms and huge audiences over the past three years by espousing centrist/moderate brands of liberalism or by listening rather than trying to push an ideology. Joe Rogan built a hugely successful podcast and YouTube account by having some of the smartest minds on his show, and with the exception of certain issues such as opposing trans people in sports, eschewing partisanship.

Related to the rise of the intellectual/smart-web, the rise of long-form journalism and the ‘new internet journalism’, such as on Medium.com and other blogging platforms, in which ‘smart’ articles that have an introspective, contrarian, or sorta navel-gazing bend tend to go massively viral, but also articles about smart topics such math or computer science (for example, a recent Medium post about the ‘unparalleled genius’ of Hungarian-American physicist, computer scientist, and mathematician John von Neumann, went hugely viral).

From Wealth, Intellectualism, and Individualism, Part 10:

‘Intellectualism culture’ also is observed in online journalism and internet culture, in post-2013 trends such as the rise of ‘long form‘ journalism. Pre-2012 – with the exception of a handful of sites like The New Yorker and New York Times – listicles, slides, and short articles dominated the internet journalism. The assumption was attention spans were too short for anyone to read a 7,000-word article online, which obviously was wrong:

Especially since 2013, there has been an increased demand for complicated, introspective, technical journalistic content, in contrast to less intelligent, banal topics like celebrity gossip. Although the latter is still popular, there has been a huge surge in interest the former, and bloggers and YouTube ‘vloggers’ that cover more esoteric topics are getting a lot of traffic and making a lot of money while ‘mainstream’ subject have long since stagnated. This is probably because, decades ago, intellectual topics were underrepresented, but are now liberated thanks to the internet and a generation full of people smart enough to appreciate complicated, esoteric stuff.

Pre-2012, the web was dominated by ‘listicles’ and ‘infographics’, as well as mainstream topics such as fitness and health, but in recent years there is huge demand for articles that call to question traditionally held and or politically correct assumptions (as we see on Quillette and WaitButWhy, which are hugely popular and smart websites that didn’t exist before 2013), but also the great popularity of physics and math blogs for even the most complicated and esoteric of subject matters, that have a found a large and captive audience. But even short articles are chock full of information, combining anecdotal evidence with data and case studies, written in a smart and conversational style, that was mostly absent a decade ago, when online articles tended to either be bombastic opinionated political screeds with few or no cited references (such as Paul Krugman or Ann Coulter columns), or were facsimiles of print content transcribed to digital form. As an example of the intellectualized style of the ‘new online journalism,’ the article What Do We Call Boomers Who Are Just as Screwed as Millennials employs the ‘wall of links’ method and juxtaposes the anecdotal ( 75-year-old British Uber driver Malcolm McClean) with a plethora of evidence and data:

Granted, being what amounts to a full-time cab driver wasn’t the retirement plan my father (nor his children) envisioned. For generations, the ideal in the U.S. was to stop working at 65 with a pension and gold watch to live for 20 more years on pensions and government subsidies in Boca Raton. But the combination of Social Security benefits beginning two years later, the abrupt stock market decline of 2008 and humans simply living longer, the notion of “retirement” has become as elusive to many Boomers as it’s long been for millennials. To wit: In 2017, the labor force of Americans 55 and older accounted for about 23 percent of the average annual workforce. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that by 2024, that percentage will likely surpass 25 percent.) Basically, guys like McClean and my dad can’t afford to quit working, which is why more than 400,000 seniors are doing gig-economy work, according to a study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

Here we see in just this single paragraph, seven sources cited.

A decade ago, ‘dumb’ sites such as Myspace dominated, which was clunky and unusable, full of annoying rap music, and could hardly be considered intellectual, whereas today Facebook and Twitter dominate, are much more user-friendly, and even if the political discourse is unrefined and angry at times, is at least somewhat intelligible and appeals to a more informed, politically-active audience than just shared a interest in rap music or sports. Twitter and the ‘chan’ communities have given rise to all sorts of weird, esoteric subcultures that value at least a shared intellectual thread even if their views are divergent.

What about those repositories and “perfectly preserved time capsules” of information that Scott mentions? The capsules and repositories have moved to Wikipedia, for example, which maintains an enormous database of every edit made to pages. For certain controversial or newsworthy individuals or events, such databases of edits and discussions span thousands of entries, such as for the Wikipedia page of Donald Trump. Also, there is more information online, about any subject no matter how esoteric, compared to 15 years ago. In the early 2000s there was hardly any information on the web about IQ. Today there are databases of hundreds of papers that have been made available to the public, book previews from Google Books, at least a dozen blogs, and dozens of websites and discussions about IQ.

Social justice warrior
[1]…the term switched from primarily positive to negative around 2011, when it was first used as an insult on Twitter.[1] The same year, an Urban Dictionary entry for the term also appeared.[1] The term’s negative use became mainstream due to the 2014 Gamergate controversy,[11] emerging as the favoured term of Gamergate proponents to describe their ideological opponents.[1] In Internet and video game culture the phrase is broadly associated with the Gamergate controversy and wider culture war fallout, including the 2015 Sad Puppies campaign that affected the Hugo Awards.[2][5][12][13][14][excessive citations] Usage of the term as a pejorative was popularized on websites such as Reddit,[15] 4chan,[15] and Twitter.