The Eyeball Conundrum (Codex Vagus: essay 12)

As we watch the unfolding (or rather, the unravelling) of the will-he-or-won’t-he dramedy of Elon Musk’s bid to buyout Twitter, we are becoming increasingly aware that the platform has deeper unresolved issues than a billionaire takeover. The number of active Twitter users have been at a standstill for the past few years and there is no sign that the Twitter user-base will have any substantial growth in the future. Every single day, we see someone being cancelled for one comment or another – some just innocuous or slightly careless, others glaringly offensive – posted on Twitter. Users are increasingly reluctant to engage, and understandably so. But Twitter, like so many other social media platforms, is designed to drive engagement through controversy. Polarization and conflict is Twitter’s bread and butter. Yet the power of public humiliation brandished by Twitter has become so random and so overwhelming that it is driving users off the platform. It has come to light that the fundamental structure of Twitter is a self-destructive mechanism. As a business model, selling engagement through conflict may be non-viable in the long run. The same applies to many social media platforms whose algorithms deliberately direct users towards controversies most likely to trigger them into engagement. Since it is the nature of capitalists to sell the noose that will hang them, these social media platforms may eventually self-destruct their way out of business.

Codex Vagus is the title I gave to essays unrelated to creative writing on this blog.

Codex Vagus: essay 12

According to Lindsay Ellis (who herself was recently cancelled and left both Twitter and YouTube over a comment that was similar to that made by male YouTubers of the same genre without incident), the term “to cancel” comes from a 1981 song by the band Chic titled “Your Love Is Cancelled”. After gradual spread and assimilation, the term evolved to mean the public shaming it has come to represent today. Then eventually, as many such words tend to, it was adopted by the far right as derogatory term to criticize whatever progressives were doing. Or in the words of Lindsay Ellis, it had turned from African American Vernacular English term to a right-wing grievance buzzword. And as a reaction to that, some Leftists have begun to dismiss the notion of “cancel culture” by saying it does not exist.

A lot of people seem to attribute the rise of cancel culture to the #MeToo movement. The timeline, however, is a little muddy. The term “me too” was used in the context of sexual assault by activist Tarana Burke on her MySpace page in 2006. But the movement itself did not get widespread attention until sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein was exposed in 2017. Meanwhile, social media cancelling was very evident in the Dongle Joke Incident of 2013 which had no obvious ties to the MeToo movement. And the Justine Sacco Incident, which also happened in 2013, clearly had nothing to do with the MeToo movement.

Actual sexual abusers like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacy deserve to be exposed. But there have been plenty of cases like the Dongle Joke Incident in which a careless joke that was not even addressed to – but overheard by – the exposer went viral on social media and resulted in the loss of careers, not only those of the two men who shared the joke between them, but of the woman who exposed it as well. Justine Sacco made an acerbic joke which she believed satirized white people who were numb and insensitive to the real world problems of marginalized minorities. A lot of people clearly failed to see it as satire, Sacco was made out to be a truly racist person, and she lost her career.

These unfortunate incidents may have demonstrated the power of social media, which lead to the successful activism of MeToo. If that were the case, it would mean that social media outrage-storms did bear some positive results for the world. The general consensus, however, is that MeToo inspired cancel culture. Some actually powerful people fear being cancelled. They have taken to criticizing “cancel culture” out of this fear. But the likes of Harvey Weinstein are quickly becoming the exceptions to the rule. The real offenders taken down by #MeToo have long since become outnumbered by nameless, powerless people undeservedly destroyed. In the vast majority of cases, we should admit, “canceling” is just another word for self-righteous bullying. There is nothing new about that action, only about the instrument being used.

Outrage is good for social media. A single offensive post can trigger thousands of angry responses in a matter of hours. The eyeballs, engagement, and retention time generated will almost automatically translate into revenue. The business model is similar to that of selling popcorn to the crowds at a disaster site. Except the next disaster can randomly befall on any member of the crowd.

Users of social media, whether they are aware of it or not, are becoming more and more like voyeuristic spectators rather than active participants. Everyone is increasingly anxious about what a poorly worded post or an unpopular opinion can do to one’s life. Sometimes, it does not even have to be an unpopular opinion. Lindsay Ellis’s transgression was pointing out the similarities between Disney’s Raya & the Last Dragon and Avatar The Last Airbender both of which have Asian-inspired in production design but are not really Asian in story structure, and neither of them were Asian-made nor flattering to Asians. (Imagine cartoons caricaturizing Jews in the same way.) Other YouTube channels have pointed out the same similarities without incident. But when Ellis said it, it was interpreted as racist against Asians. (And Disney isn’t?) And of course the people who were most vigorously attacking Ellis were white women. In the wake of this cancelling, Ellis, who is neither rich nor powerful, has left social media, including YouTube, her main source of revenue. It seems to me that the real crime Ellis is being attacked for is that she is smart. There is nothing original about attacking intelligent or capable women. The history goes back to medieval witch hunts. It is a rather banal motivation for bullying, online or otherwise.

Among the many tweets that followed this incident, there was a noticeable number of tweets saying something along the lines of “can’t wait for Jenny Nicholson to tweet something bad so that we can cancel her too” when she had not done anything wrong yet. Clearly this “cancelling” is divorced from correcting abhorrible behavior and only seeks to attack intelligent women. Quite tellingly, one “minority woman” involved in this attack campaign was later exposed as a white male.

Not only was Ellis’s comment not damaging for anyone, was not taken in good faith, and twisted to fit an antagonistic narrative, but the backlash to the innocuous comment had actual financial repercussions for this small YouTube creator. (Lindsay Ellis financed healthcare for five people through her enterprise.)

In situations like this, becoming the victim of bullying – no matter how you try to rationalize it – is a random occurrence devoid of rational justification. To say that someone was cancelled due to being careless about telling a joke is like saying that a woman was raped because she was wearing a short skirt. Becoming a victim is not the victim’s fault.

And if you are offended at that notion, this essay – naturally – gets worse. A lot worse.

But before we get into that, let me digress: In recent news, some Japanese junior-high school students trampled and destroyed an art exhibit. An American friend was impressed that the media coverage did not lead to a witch hunt hounding the students and calling for punishment. I explained that in Japan, such witch hunts have happened before, and sometimes lead to the suicides of children and/or parents. This lead to secondary witch hunts calling for accountability from teachers, administrators, journalists, bureaucrats, and politicians, damaging many careers in the process. Sadly, aggressive news coverage only gets less aggressive when people fear the blowbacks. Such blowbacks will eventually arrive to the US and beyond.

Before I digress further, I think it is time for me to issue a belated trigger warning (rape, sexual abuse), although you should expect some abrasive real talk if you are familiar with my writing.

Now let me get into the dirty part. I would like to call your attention to a long forgotten movie titled “Lipstick“. It was neither important, influential, nor memorable. At the time of release, it was widely considered a shameless vehicle for Margaux and Mariel Hemmingway to enter Hollywood. The nepotism was deemed more scandalous than the script. Released in 1976, the story was about a fashion model who was brutally raped and took the case to court, only to be subjected to a ruthless public interrogation about the sexual assault. The opposing lawyer, hell bent on humiliating the plaintiff into falling apart, cross examined her brutally whether any element of the violation was consensual. And claimed that she was inviting the attack through her profession as a fashion model. He made his arguments mostly by painting the plaintiff a whore. This was a common practice in rape trials of the era – and in some places still is – and a frequent movie trope. Real rape victims who took the matter to court in this era frequently said that the grueling cross examinations of the trial, which took advantage of the victim’s inability to process the trauma, was “like being raped a second time”. The movie, though mediocre as it is, tries to communicate this idea of being raped a second time.

Most present-day juries understand that rape victims struggle to process the trauma and courts try to avoid allowing public humiliation of the victim as valid defense. But the slack seems to have been taken up by social media in the guise of public opinion. When J. K. Rowling was accused of being a TERF, she made a public announcement in which she revealed that she was a rape victim, and thus was prone to become uncomfortable when seeing people who looked like men enter previously female safe-places like public toilets. (Since the majority of trans women do not go through full physical transition, many of them still look quite like men). Therefore, Rowling is reacting to her trauma as a rape victim. Which begs the question; is it fair to iron brand someone a TERF when their views are reactions to a trauma? You could answer either way on this, but the second question is; is it reasonable that Rowling was forced to make this traumatic experience public? Getting back to Lindsay Ellis – who is a much less rich, and hence much more vulnerable victim of online bullying – she posted an extended monologue to take accountability for her comments in which she also publicly exposed her past as a rape victim in order to explain a poorly made rap video that was released to the public without her consent. The rap video, which deals with rape, was a part of her effort to process the trauma. It has since been adopted as ammunition to attack Ellis. How can there not be blowback for this kind of bullying? Where are the feminists on this?

It may be a stretch – or maybe just premature – to argue that social media has become an instrument for raping the victim a second time. Especially when you consider that the bullies themselves may be processing some kind of trauma of their own that is driving them to this kind of behavior. But it has become a platform for people to entertain themselves in the glow of self-righteousness. We live in an age when homosexuals in the Middle East are still being thrown off of rooftops, young girls in Africa are sold into literal slavery, ethnic cleansing is wiping out entire communities, and tyrants are oppressing whole continents. If you choose to spend your limited time on Earth to scrounge through old Twitter posts in order to “unmask” a minor online personality while doing nothing about the real villains of the world, you are doing it for entertainment. And there is no rational reason for this. People like to say that it was a bad joke, or that it was a bad tone of voice, a bad association. People say this because they want to believe that there is a way to avoid being bullied. People want to believe that if they behaved well enough, cancel culture will not hurt them. Well, I have news for you. I was formerly a little boy who lived with abusive parents, and I sincerely believed that the abuse will stop if I became a good enough boy. It never does. People hell bent on hating you for entertainment will always find a way to justify their hatred. And their object of hatred is always random. It’s like racism – one of the things cancel culture is purportedly trying to cancel.

The American Civil Liberties Union had, for generations, defended free speech by such deplorable groups as White Supremacist organizations on the principle that suppression of any kind of free expression would harm marginalized minorities the most. This stance has proven to be correct as Political Correctness took hold, and the liberal voices started eating each other while reactionary hate-pushers gained ground. Cancelling offending voices does not serve marginalized groups. It emboldens the hate mongers while encouraging a mounting-contest among liberals.

If you have read this far, you may agree or disagree with my take that cancel culture is self-defeating. There is a good chance that I am wrong. There is something enduring about putting perceived offenders in pillories and pelting them with rotten eggs for fun. No doubt such entertainments will continue to exist. But as a business model for social media, it may be nearing its expiration date.

People are not quite as stupid as they seem. They tend to notice, albeit belatedly, when someone is milking them. When you get down to the core essence of their business, Twitter is trauma mining. What doesn’t kill you gives you gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a very dark sense of humor. So go find people who are traumatized enough to periodically say things that reflect their trauma. Then collect the eyeballs of people oppressed enough that they would entertain themselves by taking down an imaginary tyrant. There is an endless supply of eyeballs doom-scrolling through the train wrecks. But there is a dwindling supply of sacrificial lambs. Users are beginning to understand that it is NOT what you say or how you say it or who you say it about. It is all about the fact that you said something at all. The rest is a lottery.

As more people have become wary of being cancelled, engagement on Twitter has levelled off. It will no doubt inevitably decline. Once people realize that cancel culture chooses its victims randomly, engagement will drop substantially. And that is the ultimate contradiction of being in the business of collecting eyeballs through polarization. In order to keep collecting more engagement, you must promote more conflict. And by promoting more conflict, you will have fewer legitimate causes for conflict. And as more of the engagement become arguments about nothing, fewer people will want to risk it because the repercussions are real and the targets become more random. And as accusations occur more randomly, engagement becomes a landmine. A platform that thrives on furiously active engagement is ultimately self-defeating.

Perhaps the executives of Twitter knew this when they quickly agreed to sell their company to Elon Musk. Oddly enough, the stock price of Twitter did not rise at the news of the takeover. Musk agreed to buy the company for 44 billion dollars, but the valuation of the company currently stands at about 30 billion dollars. It suggests that most investors are not taking Musk’s takeover bid seriously. At least, not seriously enough to bet their own money on it.

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