#171: Misery Business

Max Read just started a newsletter that seems like it’s going to be good. Max has written some of my favorite recent tech criticism, such as this mid-pandemic Bookforum essay about the unhinged nature of the mid-2020 internet, in which he wrote the following: “Instagram, cut off from a steady supply of vacations and parties and other covetable experiences, had grown unsettlingly boring, its inhabitants increasingly unkempt and wild-eyed, each one like the sole surviving astronaut from a doomed space-colonization mission, broadcasting deranged missives about yoga and cooking projects into an uncaring void. Twitter, on the other hand, felt more like a doomed space-colonization mission where everyone had survived but we had to decide who to eat.” Read proceeds to discuss what he calls the “Twitter death drive,” in which people with little to gain and everything to lose by tweeting (during a pandemic or not) simply cannot stop themselves from doing so. Liberal commentators frequently attribute this incessant posting to manipulative and addictive software design, while the right blames social hierarchies and the narcissistic jockeying for status that they incite. Both explanations, however, are probably too deterministic, Read argues. Social media platforms don’t force anyone to post—not at all, really—but we seem obsessed with the idea that we are constantly being coerced into using them, instead of considering that we may be the source of the problem. “Rather than asking what is wrong with these systems,” Read writes, “we might ask, ‘What is wrong with us?’”

Read’s essay is a review of Richard Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine, which probes the psychological underpinnings of excessive social media usage, providing a rejoinder to all the ex-FAANG employees who have enjoyed second acts as high-profile critics of the companies at which they previously cashed in. Facebook probably even welcomes this form of criticism—blaming our addiction on malevolent algorithms, casino design principles, and dopamine feedback loops prevents us from accurately diagnosing the problem as something potentially within the scope of our own control (cigarettes are addictive too but decades of PSA campaigns have reframed smoking as an individual choice, not an unavoidable fate handed down by Big Tobacco). Twitter is arguably even worse, its damage more subtle: People who ought to know better (and believe they do know better) behave just as badly as Facebook users but feel like they’re using the social network that’s “actually good,” calling it the “hell site” all the while. Read revisits Seymour’s book in an early issue of his newsletter, quoting his observation that Facebook “produces, industrially, a social life bent around the imperatives of states and markets” (Twitter does this too). I find Facebook an increasingly tedious topic of discussion—it’s almost as if the company’s primary product now is discourse about Facebook, largely among people who don’t even use it—but Read makes a truly insightful point that seems so obvious it’s amazing we don’t hear it more: Facebook’s worst quality is that it just makes us feel bad.

The fact that Facebook and its subsidiaries like Instagram—and yes, Twitter too—make us feel less happy when we use them has always seemed to me like the most powerful argument against them, but one that’s not articulated as much as it should be. Read argues that this revelation was the significance of the recent Frances Haugen leaks, which unearthed evidence that Instagram makes teenage girls sad. Again, this outcome is obvious, but it always seems to take a backseat to other avenues of critique: misinformation, political polarization, social unrest, the prominence of Donald Trump, decimation of once-healthy industries, and monopolistic behavior. Few of those problems affect the majority of users directly, and many are not entirely even Facebook’s fault; how the site makes people feel, however, affects everyone. Read writes, “Where Facebook is most bad, in a way we all intuitively understand and experience, is in the psychic damage it causes.” This critique generalizes well beyond Facebook, social media, or even technology: We are surprisingly bad at evaluating things according to how they make us feel. Maybe it’s too abstract or subjective. Pride and shame are also both at work—everyone wants to at least pretend to be the person who is tough (or depraved) enough to weather the digital barrage. Complaining that a website makes people feel bad is at least a tacit admission that it makes you feel bad. Better to launder that sentiment through a screed about Russian bots and fake news. But if something fails the test of personal feeling, who needs additional evidence or objective charges? In his Bookforum essay, Read suggests that we seek oblivion in Twitter discourse. He asks, “What if the reason we tweet is because we wish we were dead?” Even if we realize that’s true, we’ll probably just keep trying to post through it.

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