Communities converge on an understanding of how they are supposed to feel about something very rapidly on the internet. It seems to take no time at all for influential voices to emphatically determine what views are Good and Right and what views are Wrong. The Good takes are rapidly understood and the community as a whole uptakes this posture. The Bad takes and apostates are rolled out just as quickly to be shunned.

We have to make clear who is in, who is out. The views now share are required for participation.

No, this is not about cancel culture or some right wing left wing thing. It’s not about any one event or topic– it’s just about how faster communication gives our self-organizing impulses super powers.

There are a host of complex issues that are decided, at least from the perspective of various communities. These topics can range from Middle East politics and warfare to whether streaming music is ok. That’s not a joke or exaggeration– I’ve seen people write with equal fervor and I’ve seen whole sets of people group together online to take down the apostates on both of these issues.

This is not all bad. Shame is a powerful social and cultural tool to shape behavior. Norms are powerful. I think it’s great that most people can’t and won’t talk about members of the LGBTQ community the way we used to because you’ll be immediately shamed and dragged. I am perfectly happy at times to directly confront someone and ask if they’ve really thought about the consequences of what they’re saying or expressing.

But it does mean that there are many things that are not safe to share. I don’t think it’s always safe to play Devil’s Advocate or “try out” an argument or even an identity to see how it feels. Something that was easier in a smaller, anonymous or at least pseudonymous internet was seeing what it took to deeply make an argument before deciding for real what you believe.

It also means that sometimes when your peers and people you respect have all decided what the “right” view is, it’s very hard to comfortably express a less strident, more lukewarm, more timid, and possibly more complex or nuanced take, especially if you’re not ready, willing, and able to present a dissertation about your view point.

The way I’ve chosen to operate in this environment is to listen to the intensity of others. The best indicator for me that I should sit something out is when I cannot muster the same passion, conviction, or care the rest of my community finds. This almost always means one of two things:

  1. I will end up agreeing with them, but for various reasons, I need to listen more and more carefully to be convinced. My own mind and emotions take a lot more evidence to get to the same conclusion my peers made it to right away. 1
  2. Folks are jumping on a bandwagon and squashing nuances and loudly proclaiming the easy thing. Anything I add to the conversation will drain me of all kinds of energy, likely ending in the person I’m talking with claiming they held the same belief that I do the whole time.

In both of these cases, I don’t need to speak. I can just listen. And eventually, I can decide that if we’re not heading toward the first case, I can stop listening. I can just opt out. It’s not a conversation, it’s a signaling competition.

  1. I marvel at the moral clarity some people have in what seems like an instant. Especially when those people’s views are held long term and when I end up agreeing with them, sometimes over the course of years considering things. My first thoughts virtually never have such clarity, and I am quite likely to change my mind over time. ↩︎