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Twitter, Intelligence, Audience Capture, Polarization, and TikTok
A connoisseur of the digital age, Gurwinder Bhogal is a writer of celebrated Substack essays and viral Twitter threads. Our episode with Gurwinder will be arriving in your feed on Thursday, 13 March. In the meantime, feast your mind on our pre-interview deep dive into Gurwinder’s greatest hits.
Themes (Each Unpacked Below)
I. Twitter | II. Intelligence | III. Audience Capture | IV. Polarization | V. TikTok
“Curiosity and humility are essential weapons in the perpetual war against self-deception. Luckily, the two are mutually-enforcing: being curious makes us humble, being humble makes us curious.”
Some key concepts drawn from Gurwinder’s “megathreads.”
Megathread (Feb 7, 2020): “40 powerful concepts for understanding the world.”
Woozle Effect: An article makes a claim without evidence, is then cited by another, which is cited by another, and so on, until the range of citations creates the impression that the claim has evidence, when really all articles are citing the same uncorroborated source.
Tocqueville Paradox: As the living standards in a society rise, the people’s expectations of the society rise with it. The rise in expectations eventually surpasses the rise in living standards, inevitably resulting in disaffection (and sometimes populist uprisings).
Golden Hammer: When someone, usually an intellectual who has gained a cultish following for popularizing a concept, becomes so drunk with power he thinks he can apply that concept to everything.
Emotive Conjugation: Synonyms can yield positive or negative impressions without changing the basic meaning of a word. Example: someone who is obstinate (neutral term) can be “headstrong” (positive) or “pig-headed” (negative). This is the basis for much bias in journalism.
Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a goal, it ceases to become a measure. E.g., British colonialists tried to control snakes in India. They measured progress by number of snakes killed, offering money for snake corpses. People responded by breeding snakes & killing them.
Radical Phase Transition (Gurwinder’s term): Extremist movements can behave like solids (tyrannies), liquids (insurgencies), and gases (conspiracy theories). Pressuring them causes them to go from solid → liquid → gas. Leaving them alone causes them to go from gas → liquid → solid.
Megathread (Feb 11, 2022): “40 useful concepts you should know.”
Twyman's Law: The more notable the data, the more likely it's wrong. This is because errors and data manipulation are far more common than genuine notable (i.e., surprising) results.
Proteus Effect: In virtual spaces, people become like their avatars. For instance, using a "sexy" avatar tends to make a person more flirtatious. This suggests people's personalities are largely a performance choreographed to social expectations.
Gibson's Law: “For every PhD, there is an equal and opposite PhD.” In matters of law and policy, anyone can find a subject-matter expert who supports their view, because having a PhD doesn’t necessarily make someone right, it often just makes them more skilled at being wrong.
Curse of Dimensionality: The more detailed you make your data, the less insightful it becomes. Adding just 1 extra parameter to a graph causes the graph's volume to expand exponentially, dispersing the contained datapoints and negating meaningful associations between them.
Mismatch Theory: Moths evolved to navigate by the moon, a good strategy until the invention of electric lamps, which now lead them astray. Equally, humans evolved to be tribal, a good strategy until the Digital Age, where it now leads us to act like polarized goons online.
Ben Franklin Effect: Getting someone who dislikes you to do you a favour can get them to like you, as people's identities are a story they tell themselves, and if they're kind to you they need to square their actions with their identity, so they tell themselves they like you.
Megathread (March 18, 2023): “40 mind-expanding concepts you should know.”
Dysrationalia: Just because someone is intelligent, doesn’t mean their intelligence is pursuing intelligent goals. It’s possible to devote a genius-level intelligence to justifying idiotic opinions and behaviours.
Idiocy Saturation: Online, people who don't think before they post are able to post more often than people who do. As a result, the average social media post is stupider than the average social media user.
Grice’s Razor (or Principle of Charity): Most people are bad at expressing themselves, so don’t interpret their words literally, but rather by what they are most likely to mean. What they are most likely to mean is whatever the best possible interpretation of their words is.
Bandwidth Tax: Being poor is expensive; constantly managing scarce resources requires such mental effort (intellectual and emotional) that there’s little brainpower left for anything else. Thus, poverty makes it hard to escape poverty.
Shaker's Law: Those who announce their departure from an online discussion almost never actually leave.
Law of Accelerating Returns: For 300,000 years, humans didn’t have computers. Then, in less than a century, we invented PCs, the web, smartphones, and generative AI. New discoveries facilitate newer discoveries, so technological progress is not linear but exponential.
Feynman’s Razor: If you can’t explain something to a child, you don’t understand it yourself. This is because it's only when you fully grasp a topic that you can distil it down to its essence.
Gurwinder's Defibrillator (to restart your heart): Everyone is adrift in an alien world, born into a struggle they did not choose, bullied by impulses they cannot control, searching for answers they will not find, and condemned to a fate they do not deserve.
Some of key insights and quotes drawn from Gurwinder’s “Why Smart People Believe Stupid Things.”
Many delusions do not prey on dim minds, but bright ones. In the article, Gurwinder cites research showing those who scored higher on a “cognitive reflection test” (a measure of reasoning) were more likely to display political bias.
While “rationality” is often defined as intelligence in pursuit of objective truth, “intelligence” can be used to pursue any number of other goals.
Intelligence is often merely a tool for pursuing personal well-being, tribal belonging, social status, and sex, which often leads to the adoption of what Gurwinder calls “Fashionably Irrational Beliefs” (FIBs). Reminiscent of Rob Henderson’s luxury beliefs.
While unintelligent people are more easily misled by other people, intelligent people are more easily misled by themselves.
“Master-debaters” are naturally drawn to areas where arguing well is more important than being correct: law, politics, media, and academia. Which is to say, industries of pure theory, secluded from the real world: conditions ripe for echo chambers and feedback loops. Gurwinder cites “wokeism” as a prime example.
Since we’re are talking about intelligence right now, we’re more than likely of above-average intelligence, which means that we should be extra vigilant.
Curiosity and humility are essential weapons in the perpetual war against self-deception. Luckily, the two are mutually-enforcing: being curious makes us humble, being humble makes us curious.
Ultimately, Gurwinder concludes, rationality is less about intelligence than character. For while humbleness and curiosity may not win you many arguments, the arguments you subsequently lose may bring you closer to “the grander prize of truth.”
“The correlation between intelligence and ideological bias is robust.”
“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep” (Saul Bellow).
“Despite being irrational, wokeism is nevertheless an intelligent worldview.”
“Whenever I post of a cognitive bias or logical fallacy, my replies are soon invaded by leftists claiming it explains rightist beliefs, and by rightists claiming it explains leftist beliefs.”
“I’ve studied cognitive biases my whole life and I’m no better at avoiding them” (Daniel Kahneman).
III. Audience Capture
Some of key insights and quotes drawn from Gurwinder’s “The Perils of Audience Capture.”
In 2016, yearning for YouTube fame, 24-year-old Nicholas Perry began uploading mukbang videos: a type of video whereby one consumes various dishes while talking to the camera. Before long, Nicholas began to amass a following, which set in motion a negative feedback loop: the more Nicholas Perry ate, the more viewers cried for more. On his successful journey to YouTube fame—3.5 million subscribers and counting—Nicholas had would sacrifice his health, chronically gaining weight to the point of requiring a mobility scooter: all for the audience.
Audience capture is not just a conscious process, but an unconscious one. It involves the gradual and unwitting replace of one’s identity with one custom-made for the audience.
Charles Cooley has dubbed the phenomenon of “the looking glass self.” We see ourselves through imagined eyes in social situations (the spotlight effect), we tend to alter our behaviour in the presence of a photo containing of eyes (the watching-eye effect), and we tend to adopt the traits of our avatars in virtual spaces (the Proteus effect).
While audience capture was a problem pre-Internet, social media—fully equipped with feedback loops, network effects and echo chambers—has accelerated the phenomenon to unrecognisable proportions.
Thanks to the implicit incentive structures of algorithmic virality, influencers increasingly exaggerate the more idiosyncratic aspects of their personalities, slowly becoming crude caricatures of themselves.
In the political sphere, audience capture tends to pull creators from the centre (algorithmically anonymous) to the fringe (algorithmically famous or infamous). This invariably leads to what Gurwinder has termed “the prostitution of the intellect.”
To pre-emptively combat audience capture, Gurwinder ensured that his brand image—the person that his audience expected him to be—was in alignment with his ideal image—the person he wanted to be.
“We develop our personalities by imagining ourselves through others' eyes, using their borrowed gazes like mirrors to dress ourselves.”
“Put simply, in order to be someone, we need someone to be someone for.”
“This is the ultimate trapdoor in the hall of fame; to become a prisoner of one's own persona.”
“If you chase the approval of others, you may, in the end, lose the approval of yourself.”
Some of key insights and quotes drawn from Gurwinder’s “Dramageddon: The Virtual Civil War.”
In 2022, from book titles to news headlines, usage of the term “civil war” has exploded.
In a UC Davis poll of over 8000 Americans, 50% of respondents expected a civil war in the next couple of years.
Social media is to blame, argues Gurwinder, but in a much stranger way than merely pushing people towards war: it’s convincing people they’re headed for war when, in fact, they aren’t. People are falling for a cognitive illusion of a social kind; which, in a roundabout way, runs the risk of becoming a self-fulling prophecy.
Twitter does not merely bring out the worst in people due to the road-rage-esque effects of anonymity and distance. In fact, Twitter applies two reality-distorting filters to our vision: it attracts toxic people, and it amplifies them.
Moreover, the population of Twitter is not so healthy in the first place. This is especially true of politics Twitter, which exercises an outsized influence on the platform already. For not only are people with narcissistic traits more likely to use social media, the very same terminally online narcissists are also more likely to both be political activists and exhibit politically correct or alt-right attitudes.
Despite being optimistic early on, Gurwinder now fears that Elon is not the solution, but part of the problem. The “woke mind virus” consumes activists and reactivists alike. Neither the woke nor the antiwoke are immune.
To add insult to injury, not succumbing to tribalism not only eliminates the reward, but doubles the risk. On Twitter, the middle-ground attitudes of Sam Harris and Claire Lehmann only resulted in the pair were getting hit by traffic from both directions—to the point that both ultimately self-ejected from the platform entirely. It’s interesting that few notable partisans have followed suit.
In sum, Gurwinder concludes, while there won’t be a physical civil war in the West any time soon, but there is a hysteria surrounding civil war that could prove just as destructive along psychological lines.
“This exhausting feeling of division, despair, and doom—which I’ve since dubbed dramageddon—would be strongest in the aftermath of lengthy sessions on Twitter, but would fade whenever I went outside and interacted with locals, who’d invariably remind me that in the real world most people were calm, friendly, and largely united.”
“Tweets in which I mean-spiritedly attack others get 10 times more likes and retweets than ones in which I'm reasonable and nuanced.”
“Just as a magnifying glass focuses diffuse sunlight into a blistering beam, so Twitter focuses background chatter into the clamour of war.”
“The more credible threat posed by dramageddon is much simpler than civil war: it is, to put it frankly, turning our brains to shit.”
Some of key insights and quotes drawn from Gurwinder’s “TikTok Is a Time Bomb.”
The first pleasure-weapon of mass destruction may just be a little app on your phone called TikTok. First emerging in 2017, within three years TikTok had already become the most downloaded app in the world, later surpassing Google as the world’s most visited web domain.
Facebook and Twitter use recommendation engines as features to augment the core product. With TikTok, the recommendation engine is the core product.
Since TikTok videos are generally much shorter than YouTube videos, and skipped/played at a faster rate than any other media format, TikTok’s “For You” algorithm constitutes a perfect storm in terms of gleaning behavioural data from its usership.
Though we are only at tip of the iceberg with regard to studying the effects of TikTok consumption, researchers have already observed a new phenomenon whereby otherwise healthy young girls are developing Tourette syndrome-like tics from watching videos related to the disorder.
There’s a substantial body of research showing a strong association between smartphone addiction and the shrinkage of the brain’s grey matter—otherwise known as “digital dementia,” an umbrella term for the onset of anxiety and depression and the deterioration of memory, attention span, self-esteem. On Reddit, one can already find multiple threads dedicated to complaints about a phenomenon known as “TikTok brain.”
The fact that CCP have banned the usage of the app for Chinese children should raise eyebrow or two. Instead of TikTok, China has rolled out Douyin, described by Tristan Harris has called a “spinach version” of the app, where kids don’t see twerking and toilet-licking, but science experiments and educational videos.
In August 2021, the CCP issued a statement calling for an end to TikTok-style “tittytainment” for fear that “our young people will lose their strong and masculine vibes and we will collapse.”
In sum, Gurwinder concludes, TikTok is not a matter of America versus China, but America versus America. It is not a murder weapon, but a suicide weapon.
“For thousands of years, humans sought to subjugate their enemies by inflicting pain, misery, and terror. They did this because these were the most paralyzing emotions they could consistently evoke; all it took was the slash of a sword or pull of a trigger.”
“But as our understanding of psychology has developed, so it has become easier to evoke other emotions in complete strangers. Advances in the understanding of positive reinforcement, driven mostly by people trying to get us to click on links, have now made it possible to consistently give people on the other side of the world dopamine hits at scale.”
“TikTok’s capacity to stupefy people, both acutely by encouraging idiotic behavior, and chronically by atrophying the brain, should prompt consideration of its potential use as a new kind of weapon.”
“We’ll surely sound like alarmists; TikTok destroys so gradually that it seems harmless. But if the app is a time-bomb that’ll wreck a whole generation, years from now, then we can’t wait till its effects are apparent before acting, for then it will be too late. The clock is ticking. Tik. Tok…”