In my last post, I explored how “outrage” is a useful “phenotype” for growth of online ecosystems (like Twitter and Facebook) to become larger and more powerful. Before discussing the incentives in human thinking that accelerate this growth, I would like to sidestep a bit and briefly discuss evolution of argumentation and reasoning. Why do we argue and what is the true purpose of reasoning tecniques we use while arguing?

Traditionally, human reasoning has been primarily associated with discovering the Truth. We reason and argue with one another because we want to bring ourselves nearer to reality with regards to the point of contention. Amit and Amy are arguing whether it is unethical to legalise capital punishment. They are throwing arguments to convince each other that the belief they hold is correct. They believe that both of them are genuinely interested in changing their minds given good enough reasons to do so. But with the explosion of research in decision making since 1970’s, it became clear that this isn’t true. We are not the ever curious truth seeker that we thought we were.

Instead, humans reason and argue to convince people of our own cherished beliefs. Not because we give a damn about the truth. Evolutionarily speaking, convincing others with clever reasoning increases our status in society while simulatenously strengthening our ability to do mental gymnastics for future battles. The biases and fallacies that our thinking is so vulnerable to aren’t bugs in our reasoning capacities, they are features designed by natural selection (To understand this more thoroughly, check Hugo Mercier’s Argumentative Theory of Reasoning.) People usually appreciate this phenomenon when it is presented in the context of politics and law. Arguments as soldiers is happily accepted as the norm and right thing to do. But when it comes to contexts outside of those professions, we tend to forget the true purpose of arguing.

Which brings us back to the online virtual universe that our species is helplessly trying to find it’s way in. Biologists use the term phenotype to underscore an observable external feature or a behavior that an animal performs (a genotype instead consists of genes and material regulating those genes). Bird songs are behavioral phenotypes. Tigers’ stripes are physical phenotypes. Interestingly though, social media platforms have also given birth to some specific phenotypes performed by the users of these platforms. Take Twitter for example. Each user (animal) is constantly performing behaviors (phenotypes) like Tweeting, Retweeting, Liking, Following etc. Unlike the biological phenotypes given to us by natural selection, phenotypes in the social media are synthetic and given to us by inventors of these platforms. Unlike the biological phenotypes designed to help the survival of the animal, these phenotypes are designed to feed and expand the growth of a Twitter or a Facebook.

But aside from helping these companies grow, these phenotypes have a more significant effect directly on our brains. They tend to compress our complex thinking into simplified forms. Similar to the language’s lossy compression of our thoughts and feelings, compression by virtual synthetic phenotypes further forces us towards producing overly simplistic (many occassions binary) thoughts and feelings. A perfect recipe for turning a tribal specie even more tribal.

So what are the selection pressures or motivations that attract humans towards performing these online phenotypes? What do humans want when they are showing up on Twitter or FB? Two interconnected reasons come to mind:

  1. Validation
  2. Boredom

Validation - Seeking validation is hardcoded in us by Evolution. Validation provides us with a sense of selfworth. On social media, you can achieve validation using following ways:

  • Find the people whose opinions you agree with or whose work or interests interest you. Then follow them. “Like” or “Retweet” their thoughts. Create your identity using these virtual identities and then broadcast it to the rest of the world. With the right set of highly compressed thoughts at high frequency and some luck, you will soon be showered with all the validation you need!
  • Disagree with some thoughts or people you don’t like. But simple disagreement isn’t enough. You got to be aggressive to catch attention! Vehemently disagree using short and clever verbal punches that increase the conflict level and hence drama. More drama means more eyeballs on your account. More eyeballs on your account will again provide much needed sense of self worth and sense of purpose in a meaningless Universe.

Boredom - Most humans have bullshit jobs. Truly engaging jobs are hard to come by and lack of active enjoyment from our work makes us feel bored most of the time. Social media is the perfect place to get rid of this boredom. The excitement level is usually increased by engaging in more extreme behaviors because as I said above, it catches more eye balls (creates controversy) and will create a temptation in others to respond. This response could simply be a rebuke for a controversial post or a pat on the back for saying something cool. Two birds - removing boredom (via negative response) and getting validation (via pats on back) - with one tiny stone (tweet)!

How does outrage fits into all of this?

Outrage is the perfect economy for social media ecosystems because it increases engagement. Increased engagement = more revenue for Twitter/Facebook. So it’s in the interest of these companies to promote this outrage economy by keeping the level of conversations shallow and nasty. Moment they become sophisticated, all drama is lost and users lose interest.

And how does this resemble evolution of human reasoning? The superficial purpose of both human reasoning and online discussion platforms seems to be to bring the players using these tools closer to reality. But once you look closer, it is clear that these tools are operating under purely selfish incentives that push players of these tools away from a useful phenotype, which is verbal reasoning and arguing to come closer to the truth. Reality isn’t the point. It never was. Winning points over the opposing team (a.k.a tribalism) using aggressive, clever and short rebukes is the real point. The seeming purpose in progressing human conversation forward is simply an illusion synthesized by online ecosystems. An illusion that actively hampers our ability to see the potential damage that such ecosystems do to our brains and subsequently to human conversations. By compressing our thoughts into binary black and white modes, they degrade the quality of communication while simultaneously making it easier to dehumanize the “opposing” side. Shades of grey seem available only before one enters the superficially innocent and harmless Universe of social media but disappear as soon as one comes to understand the right moves to navigate succesfully in this thought shrinking and hate fostering Universe.