Charlie Warzel: “The Internet flattens audiences, it flattens time, and it flattens a lot of nuance”

From a post on by Charlie Warzel headlined “The Internet Is Flat”:

There’s a line that Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian used to repeat back in the halcyon days of 2012. It went something like: “The world isn’t flat — but the world wide web is.”

Ohanian meant that the internet was an engine of opportunity — that it democratized industries and put people on a more even footing. You could start a business or a publication with a few clicks, and then immediately put it in front of millions of eyeballs! This, of course, was an overly utopian view (the internet does democratize opportunity — but also entrenches many power structures). Reality, as always, is far more complicated than a catch phrase.

I’ve been thinking about a different internet flattening, namely the way that social platforms collapse time and space and context into one big pancake of conflict….It’s called context collapse, which is when a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another — usually an uncharitable one — which then reads said information in the worst possible faith.

This collapse is not just about movement between audiences. Kashmir Hill recently wrote a smart piece for the Times about the way that our digital pasts are weaponized against us, citing the extremely public and boneheaded decision by the AP to fire Emily Wilder for her tweets (and, likely, her past activism). Hill’s piece is grounded in the notion that, even just a decade ago, it seemed ridiculous to think that we’d all hold digital ephemera against each other. We’d grow up, get used to the spaces we were in, and we’d extend some grace. When everyone has a vast digital past, there’s some mutually assured destruction at play, right? But that’s not how any of this has played out.

“Part of the problem is how time itself has been warped by the internet,” Hill writes. “Everything moves faster than before. Accountability from an individual’s employer or affiliated institutions is expected immediately upon the unearthing of years-old content. Who you were a year ago, or five years ago, or decades ago, is flattened into who you are now. Time has collapsed and everything is in the present because it takes microseconds to pull it up online. There is little appreciation for context or personal evolution.”

The temporal phenomenon Hill describes usually works in one direction. There are very examples of trudging through a person’s archives to reconsider them in a positive sense….I also think most people are fundamentally less interested in the bad-to-good narrative than the good-to-bad narrative.

Combing through a person’s past to change our opinion of the present is, of course, a pillar of the whole important, yet interminable cancel culture discussion. Which is really about the extremely thorny relationship between the passage of time, personal evolution or lack thereof, and group enforced accountability. None of us seem to even have the precise language to talk about all of this, much less agree upon outcomes….

The social internet promised us deep human connections — the sort that requires nuance and patience for messiness — but instead, it’s just turned us all into brands. Brands are monolithic. They are purposefully devoid of nuance. A brand is supposed to evoke a blunt emotion (Luxurious! Dangerous! Dependable! Built to last!) and are meant to remain consistent through space and time. Once you are ‘Built Ford Tough,’ it’s expected you remain Ford Tough for quite a while. There are cars to move off the lot.

Online, especially with public facing people, the impulse to quickly categorize individuals into brand affiliations is very strong. In some cases, the impulse for the categorized individual to respond by leaning into the brand is equally strong. I see this all the time with contrarian-minded people on Twitter who, once cast as the villain, decide to devote most of their energy toward being the heel even if that behavior isn’t a particularly accurate reflection of their IRL personality.

The internet facilitates these powerful, complex parasocial relationships but, at the same time flattens everything that makes the messy, human elements of relationships possible. It flattens audiences, it flattens time and it flattens a lot of nuance.

Where does that leave us? In a tricky spot. Many of the current conversations about power and accountability are conversations we desperately need to have. Now, I’m not all that hopeful that many of the stakeholders are willing to have them — many would rather just flatten the complexities themselves into a vague ‘cancel culture.’ But, even in an ideal world of good faith participation, we don’t really have productive spaces to have such discussions. The world isn’t flat but the world wide web is — and three-dimensional human beings can’t thrive in a one-dimensional space.

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