Is Social Media Training Us to Please a Machine?

A remarkably literary critique of the internet appeared recently in Damage magazine — a project of the nonprofit Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry funded by the American Psychoanalytic Foundation. “There are ways in which the internet really does seem to work like a possessing demon…” argues writer Sam Kriss.

“We tend to think that the internet is a communications network we use to speak to one another — but in a sense, we’re not doing anything of the sort. Instead, we are the ones being spoken through.”

Teens on TikTok all talk in the exact same tone, identical singsong smugness. Millennials on Twitter use the same shrinking vocabulary. My guy! Having a normal one! Even when you actually meet them in the sunlit world, they’ll say valid or based, or say y’all despite being British….

Everything you say online is subject to an instant system of rewards. Every platform comes with metrics; you can precisely quantify how well-received your thoughts are by how many likes or shares or retweets they receive. For almost everyone, the game is difficult to resist: they end up trying to say the things that the machine will like. For all the panic over online censorship, this stuff is far more destructive. You have no free speech — not because someone might ban your account, but because there’s a vast incentive structure in place that constantly channels your speech in certain directions. And unlike overt censorship, it’s not a policy that could ever be changed, but a pure function of the connectivity of the internet itself. This might be why so much writing that comes out of the internet is so unbearably dull, cycling between outrage and mockery, begging for clicks, speaking the machine back into its own bowels….

The internet is not a communications system. Instead of delivering messages between people, it simulates the experience of being among people, in a way that books or shopping lists or even the telephone do not. And there are things that a simulation will always fail to capture. In the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, your ethical responsibility to other people emerges out of their face, the experience of looking directly into the face of another living subject. “The face is what prohibits us from killing….” But Facebook is a world without faces. Only images of faces; selfies, avatars: dead things. Or the moving image in a FaceTime chat: a haunted puppet. There is always something in the way. You are not talking to a person: the machine is talking, through you, to itself.

As more and more of your social life takes place online, you’re training yourself to believe that other people are not really people, and you have no duty towards them whatsoever. These effects don’t vanish once you look away from the screen…. many of the big conflicts within institutions in the last few years seem to be rooted in the expectation that the world should work like the internet. If you don’t like a person, you should be able to block them: simply push a button, and have them disappear forever.

The article revisits a 2011 meta-analysis that found massive declines in young people’s capacity for empathy, which the authors directly associated with the spread of social media. But then Kriss argues that “We are becoming less and less capable of actual intersubjective communication; more unhappy; more alone. Every year, surveys find that people have fewer and fewer friends; among millennials, 22% say they have none at all.

“For the first time in history, we can simply do without each other entirely. The machine supplies an approximation of everything you need for a bare biological existence: strangers come to deliver your food; AI chatbots deliver cognitive-behavioral therapy; social media simulates people to love and people to hate; and hidden inside the microcircuitry, the demons swarm…”

So while recent books look for historical antecedents, “I still think that the internet is a serious break from what we had before,” Kriss argues. “And as nice as Wikipedia is, as nice as it is to be able to walk around foreign cities on Google Maps or read early modern grimoires without a library card, I still think the internet is a poison.”

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Older People Using TikTok To Defy Ageist Stereotypes, Research Finds

Older TikTok users are using the online platform, regarded as the virtual playground of teenagers, to defy ageist stereotypes of elderly people as technophobic and frail. The Guardian reports: Research has found increasing numbers of accounts belonging to users aged 60 and older with millions of followers. Using the platform to showcase their energy and vibrancy, these TikTok elders are rewriting expectations around how older people should behave both on and off social media. “These TikTok elders have become successful content creators in a powerful counter-cultural phenomenon in which older persons actually contest the stereotypes of old age by embracing or even celebrating their aged status,” said Dr Reuben Ng, the author of the paper Not Too Old for TikTok: How Older Adults are Reframing Ageing, and an assistant professor at Yale University. Interestingly, said Ng, most TikTok elders are women who “fiercely resist common stereotypes of older women as passive, mild-mannered and weak, instead opting to present themselves as fierce or even foul-mouthed,” he said. […]

The paper looked at 1,382 videos posted by TikTok users who were aged 60 or older and had between 100,000 and 5.3 million followers. In total, their videos, all of which explicitly discussed their age, had been viewed more than 3.5 billion times. Ng found that 71% of these videos — including those from accounts such as grandadjoe1933, who has 5.3 million followers, and dolly_broadway, who has 2.4 million followers — were used to defy age stereotypes. A recurring motif was the “glamma”, a portmanteau combining “glamorous” and “grandma”, with videos including those of a 70-year-old woman joyfully parading around the streets in a midriff-bearing top.

Almost one in five of the videos analyzed made light of age-related vulnerabilities, and one in 10 called out ageism among both younger people and their own contemporaries. Other videos positioned older users as superior to younger people. “I may be 86 but I can still drink more than you lightweights” says one clip. “I may be 86 but I can still twerk better than you,” says another, showing an octogenarian leaping up from a fall down the stairs with a twerk.

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‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ Is Sending the TikTok Generation Spiraling Into Debt

SFGATE reports on the alarming rise of “Buy Now, Pay Later” services that are being heavily marketed by influencers and brands on TikTok and Instagram. “Gen Z, in particular, has fallen in love with the short-term loans, spending 925% more now through point-of-sale services than in January 2020,” notes the report.

“But coupling nearly instantaneous loans with an influencer-addled social media culture that prioritizes exorbitant spending and normalizes debt could be further jeopardizing the financial futures of young people through just four easy payments.” Here’s an excerpt from the report: Financial experts who spoke with SFGATE expressed significant concerns about the way companies are targeting Gen Z consumers. “They are marketing very heavily to an audience that is younger, that might not just have as much experience on how to use credit and what credit implications are or what it means to have multiple loans at one time,” Marisabel Torres, the California policy director of the Center for Responsible Lending, told SFGATE.

Few of the services do significant credit checks, which would help determine whether people will be able to repay the loans. And plenty of people are spending more than they can afford: 43% of Gen Z users have missed at least one payment, according to a survey by the polling site Piplsay. Of Gen Z consumers who used a point-of-sale loan for something they needed, 30% missed at least two payments, according to a survey by Credit Karma.

The companies are fully aware that their services encourage people to spend more. In fact, several of them market it as a benefit to stores that want to partner with them. “We do see larger cart sizes, larger purchases, relative to what they would put onto their debit cards and credit cards,” Libor Michalek, the president of technology at Affirm, told SFGATE. Still, high-level staffers at Affirm and Afterpay — both based in San Francisco — positioned their services as more responsible, less predatory alternatives to credit cards and personal loans in interviews with SFGATE. They also emphasized the accessibility of these services, especially for younger consumers looking to bolster their credit and consumers working to restore their credit scores, despite the fact that many of the services don’t report on-time payments to credit agencies. The report concludes by saying regulation is (probably) on its way. California Attorney General Rob Bonta, for example, signaled his support earlier this year for increasing regulations around point-of-sale loans. We’re likely to see other states look into it in the coming months and years as well.

“While these services may be a responsible alternative to credit card debt for a good chunk of consumers, it seems increasingly likely that, without regulations, this kind of debt will burden the most financially vulnerable, just as credit cards, payday loans and layaway have in the past,” reports SFGATE.

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Sale of Bored Apes’ Metaverse Land Made Gas Fees Skyrocket Past $3,000

There’s a new metaverse project from the creators of the “Bored Apes Yacht Club” NFTs. Last night they held a “virtual land” sale, reports Bloomberg, raising nearly a third of a billion dollars.
At about the same time, Mashable noticed something else happening:

If you were trying to complete a transaction on the Ethereum network last night, you might have been taken aback by the ridiculously high gas fees you saw.

For example, one user purchased a $25 NFT on Saturday evening. Their total price? $3,325. That’s $3,300 just in fees.
Every transaction on their blockchain incurs a fee (which rises based on the number of concurrent transactions), the article points out. “Ethereum transactions can fail if a user doesn’t pay enough in gas fees. When this happens, not only does the transaction not go through, but the user is still charged the gas fee.”
“Ethereum proved unusable for hours due to its inability to distribute the load…” reports CNET. “Someone tweeted a picture of them trying to send $100 in crypto from one wallet to another, showing it required $1,700 in gas fees….

“Over $175 million was spent on gas alone.”

Mashable adds:

An overwhelmed Ethereum Network….caused fees to skyrocket to astronomically high amounts…. One cryptocurrency advocate noticed that from just the Bored Ape’s NFT sale, approximately $100 million were wasted during the first hour of the “land” sale in gas fees alone.
As mentioned earlier, transactions can often fail when the Ethereum network is facing unusually high traffic. And last night, many people paid thousands in gas fees for transactions that didn’t even go through.
Yuga Labs says it will refund users those fees, but it’s unclear just how the company plans to do that. Also, Yuga Labs will ostensibly only cover the fees from failed transactions directly involving the company. If you’re a user who was attempting an unrelated transaction, you can say goodbye to those thousands in lost fees….
However, there was at least one winner from the Saturday night sale: Yuga Labs. The owner of the Bored Ape Yacht Club brand raked in $285 million from the NFT sale.

Transaction costs just to mint the Otherdeed NFTs after the launch “reached $123 million,” reports Bloomberg, “with each Otherdeed requiring about $6,000, or two Ether, in transaction fees to mint, according to data from Etherscan — or more than the price of the deed itself.”
Yuga Labs apologised on Twitter for “turning off the light on Ethereum”, and suggested the possibility of establishing an ApeCoin blockchain.

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The 11,000-Member Discord Channel For People Pretending to Be VR Police Officers

On the VRChat platform, there’s a fake law-enforcement agency called The Loli Police Department, reports Input magazine.

Though it began as a joke, after four years its Discord channel now has 11,000 members, and “The tightly run community allows members to experience a fantasy version of police life and prides itself on being a source of chaotic good in the strange world of virtual reality.”

Members move through the ranks — from cadet on up — based on their activity level, which is tracked via the group’s Discord. Everything is carefully orchestrated to mimic IRL police…. Karet, a 29-year-old game developer and LPD captain from Texas, says that the hard work of volunteers allows users to roleplay police activities in a realistic environment. “We have some of our own worlds — like the hospital for our medical division, where we can pretend someone is getting treatment, or the jail where we put criminals,” says Karet, who designed the LPD station and jail.

One of Karet’s favorite things to do is mess with users at random. “Lots of people in VRChat like to sit in front of mirrors,” he says. “I will go up to the mirror and do a ‘mirror inspection.’ Then I say it’s an illegal mirror and start looking for someone to blame and arrest. They just don’t know how to handle that,” he laughs. There are other ways to get people into trouble, too. “I can pull out a bag of weed and make it look like it came out of someone’s pocket,” Karet says. “They always say it’s not theirs.”

Being a VRChat police officer comes with its share of challenges. Members are aware that their form of roleplay — which frames spot checks and fake drug busts as harmless fun — doesn’t sit well with some members of the community….

Despite the power dynamics at play, LPD members are not moderators of the VR world and ultimately can’t make much in the way of real change. “One of our new officers came to me upset because they stepped in when they saw harassment, but then they got the brunt of the attack from the harasser,” says Karet. “I commended him, but it’s not what we do. We’re just trying to have fun. So usually when we encounter something like that, we just leave the world.” Thankfully, Karet says, the LPD can help their community somewhat. “We encourage LPD officers to help out new users. It’s easy to spot them, so we often go and give them a hand, show them how things work,” he says. The LPD used to run events for this purpose, but they were recently brought to a halt. “The events are on hiatus because it became a bit cult-y. Everyone was trying to recruit people into the LPD.”

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Slate’s 25th Anniversary Marked with Warning on Echo Chambers, Memories of ‘Motivated Reasoning’ on Microsoft

It’s the 25th anniversary of Slate.com, and writer William Saletan reflects on the last quarter century. “Print magazines that scorned internet journalism collapsed or faded (it’s hard to believe now, but in the ’90s, people thought your article wasn’t real if it wasn’t on paper), while new websites popped up to challenge us. In the struggle for survival, many outlets withered and died. But Slate adapted and grew…”

But he also shares what worries him now about the online world we’re living in:

I don’t see people learning from, or even recognizing, their mistakes. I see them caricaturing and gloating over the mistakes of others. In the old days, there was a lot of hope that the information age would make us smarter. It didn’t. Instead, high-speed communication, combined with algorithms that discern our biases and feed us what we want, helped us sort ourselves into echo chambers. On Twitter, Facebook, Slack, and other platforms, we’ve formed like-minded battalions that quickly spot the other side’s sins and falsehoods but are largely blind to our own.

I don’t mean to suggest that tribalism is new or that it’s always political. In the late ’90s, when Microsoft was on trial for antitrust violations, Slate’s top editors — all of whom drew Microsoft paychecks and had Microsoft stock options — were almost comically unanimous in their motivated reasoning. Their politics ranged from progressive to neoliberal to libertarian, but their behavior was essentially identical: They summoned all of their intellectual power, which was prodigious, and used it to poke holes in the antitrust case — in effect, to defend Microsoft.
Saletan argues that while the internet makes it easy to venture out from a “bubble” of viewpoints, too many idealists “insulated themselves from engagement with fundamentally opposing views….”

“So that’s what I’ve learned in my time here: seek out other perspectives, study your failures, and try to become wiser every day.”

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The Head of Instagram Agrees To Testify as Congress Probes the App’s Effects on Young People

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, has agreed for the first time to testify before Congress, as bipartisan anger mounts over harms to young people from the app. From a report: Mr. Mosseri is expected to appear before a Senate panel during the week of Dec. 6 as part of a series of hearings on protecting children online, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, who will lead the hearing. Mr. Mosseri’s appearance follows hearings this year with Antigone Davis, the global head of safety for Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, and with Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistle-blower. Ms. Haugen’s revelations about the social networking company, particularly those about Facebook and Instagram’s research into its effects on some teenagers and young girls, have spurred criticism, inquiries from politicians and investigations from regulators.

In September, Ms. Davis told Congress that the company disputed the premise that Instagram was harmful for teenagers and noted that the leaked research did not have causal data. But after Ms. Haugen’s testimony last month, Mr. Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, wrote a letter to Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, suggesting that his company had “provided false or inaccurate testimony to me regarding attempts to internally conceal its research.” Mr. Blumenthal asked that Mr. Zuckerberg or Mr. Mosseri testify in front of the consumer protection subcommittee of the Senate’s Commerce Committee to set the record straight.

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