On Legibility and Scapegoats-as-a-Service
'the purpose of a system is what it does', social media accelerates identity, our degenerate victimage, where is the exit?
There is a common refrain used by system theorists, or other students of complexity, “The purpose of a system is what it does”.
According to the cybernetician, the purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for a bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intentions, prejudices about expectations, moral judgments, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.
Excerpt from “What is cybernetics?” by Stafford Beer
Even if we take the cybernetician’s perspective, we are likely to emphasize certain outputs of a system over others. It is much easier and, when trying to promote a certain idea, more persuasive to do this rather than to try to articulate all of the outputs of a large, complex system.
For example, let us attempt to consider the complex system that is Twitter.
What does it do?
Facilitates the spread of [mis/dis]information between users
Allows for the formation of friendships and acquaintanceships with strangers
Connects single people who share similar values and want to date, get married, etc (I personally know of multiple long-term relationships and marriages that began via Twitter)
Generates laughs by spreading memes and bits
Polarizes people by continually affirming their priors (beliefs they already hold to be true)
Enables content creators and businesses to find new and existing customers and users
Encourages users to share personal information and make their self-identities legible (in order to maximize engagement and advertising revenues)
Facilitates conflict between an in-group and their out-group, as both parties can interact and react
… and much more that I’m not even privy to
In my last piece, The Romantic Lie is Dead, I briefly covered a few of the ideas of René Girard. If you have not read that piece, you should. I am going to focus on the bolded points above and provide a Girardian analysis of contemporary social media dynamics.
Twitter is a system designed to encourage personal legibility. By legibility, I mean that it makes your beliefs and self-identities easy for someone else to estimate. Twitter wants to connect you with content which will maximize your usage of the platform and it wants to provide you with relevant ads, to keep their real customers (ad-buyers—corporations, small businesses, political action committees, etc) happy. Encouraging you to provide their systems with information about your beliefs, identities, and temperament helps to serve both of these goals.
We have seen an acceleration of online legibility and focus on identity, which has bled into ‘the real world’ over the past few years.
Ways in which you may make yourself legible:
add a political or tribal label, hashtag, or associated emoji, to your bio or display name, ie. 🌊 for Democrat, 🇺🇸 for Republican (or otherwise Nationalist), 🏴 for anarchists, ☭ for communists, #MAGA, #ACAB, #LGBTQIA+,…
continuously share content from people who are in-group, ie. AOC for Progressive Democrats, Don Jr. for Trumpist Republicans, Glenn Greenwald for disaffected liberals,…
affirm your identity by mimicking your tribe and sharing your own tweet which reinforces the memes of your in-group, ie. a tweet about how we shouldn’t have planned to leave Afghanistan at all, but should double-down on nation-building (if you’re a Neoconservative)
Individuals want to make themselves legible on Twitter for a few reasons:
it enables you to compete for status within the in-group
it enables you to avoid the potential downsides of being [mis]identified as out-group
the platform will provide you with additional positive feedback in the form of retweets, likes, replies, and followers as the algorithm wields your content and personal information for Twitter’s profit-maximization (and whatever else the system does…)
Victimage is still present among us, of course, but in degenerate forms that do not produce the type of mythical reconciliation and ritual practice exemplified by primitive cults. This lack of efficiency often means that there are more rather than fewer victims. As in the case of drugs, consumers of sacrifice tend to increase the doses when the effect becomes more difficult to achieve.
Excerpt from Mimesis and Violence by René Girard
Twitter is a battlefield for simulated conflict between warring tribes who continually thirst for and identify sacrifices. In the Girardian analysis, humans used to be able to find relief from their discontentment by sacrificing a scapegoat, an out-group member who was believed to possess great power. The scapegoat who can be sacrificed to end the plague is a scapegoat who is capable of conjuring pestilence.
However, this scapegoat mechanism no longer functions. According to Girard, the proliferation of the Christian revelation has disrupted this mechanism. We now default believe in the innocence of the scapegoat. The scapegoat mechanism only was effective because people believed in the guilt of the scapegoat. We do not actually believe that our sacrifices, the out-group that we mob on Twitter or elsewhere, are the true causes of our woes and discontent.
The reality is closer to the analysis and resulting fears of Martin Gurri in Revolt of the Public. The public is increasingly nihilistic and believes only in negation. The public demands the destruction of the status quo, even if we do not truly believe in the viability of our alleged alternative. While we do not believe that our sacrificial scapegoats are truly guilty, we mimic each other’s behaviors and sacrifice them all the same. And Twitter and other social media platforms make this much easier.
You do not want to be sacrificed. There is a meme on Twitter that says, “Every day there is one person who loses the game on this website and the goal is to never be that person.” This proliferation of this meme is a recognition of this deformed scapegoating process.
Through our mimesis (mimicry) of our in-group, we accelerate the process by which these sacrifices occur. If someone fails to effectively signal that they are in-group, they now have the potential to become the scapegoat. If they are legible due to the signifiers of their profile, we know that it’s safe and will provide positive status to join in the sacrifice. Or if the attempted scapegoat is instead in-group for us, we may come to their aid to affirm our own in-group status.
I argue that social media accelerates this process because our relative understanding of other’s beliefs, at least at a low-resolution, has been amplified by these systems. Before you ‘became friends’ on Facebook, you were not privy to the politics of most people who you interacted with. The social dynamics have changed because people are politicized through this process. If it was 2005 and you and I met up for our 10th year college reunion, we likely wouldn’t have talked about politics at all and you certainly wouldn’t have entered that event with prejudice about my beliefs.
Likewise, we see that the ability to sacrifice the out-group is a key part of Twitter’s appeal through the relative failure of its ‘Free Speech’ competitors. Even if Parler had been well-designed (and it wasn’t), it was doomed to failure. They had a selection-bias towards disaffected right-wingers and open-minded voyeurs. Without any out-group members to sacrifice, this form of social media is not even fun. Platforms like Twitter know that this conflict and demand for sacrifices drives engagement and promotes legibility.
Is this good? Is this bad? I think it depends on what the alternatives are. If the next best alternative to simulated internet sacrifices is para-military organizations battling in our streets, or a mob of angry people attempting a ritualistic murder, then this degenerate victimage has its own useful social function.
My new understanding of these dynamics makes me less interested in participating in anything that seems to be a simulated sacrifice. The pull to mimic the in-group and post something is difficult to resist, perhaps not everyone (myself included) is even capable of doing so. I’m also left considering how not-mimicking the tribe inherently can make you out-group.
My Recommended Reads and Links:
Christopher Lasch was a history professor at the University of Rochester. I do not recall hearing about him, except perhaps once, throughout my five years of studies there. On one hand, it makes complete sense that he is not paraded around as a notable faculty member. On the other, reading him would likely be a nice counter-narrative for everyone involved with the institution.
I have not finished reading The Revolt of the Elites but the first chapter speed runs the entirety of our ‘culture war’. If you read that chapter, you’ll at the least have to accept that none of the ‘battles’ we’re having are novel.
My presentation at the René Girard Proseminar
If you’ve enjoyed either of my last two Substacks, you might want to listen to this. It will likely become a longer-form piece of writing in the coming weeks. I’d love to hear any feedback or questions.
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