This is a blog post about how social networks can structurally inspire negativity by making positivity a feature. But before we get to that, I want to tell you two stories. One is about loose change, the other is about Larry David, the creator of TV shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Let’s start with Larry.
You boo me? You hiss?
The only things Americans love more than sports are celebrities, which makes featuring famous faces on the big screen a mainstay at live sporting events. A few years ago, a cameraperson was panning across the crowd at a Yankees game and spotted Larry David. The camera zoomed in, Larry did his usual disinclined grimace for the Jumbotron, and the crowd cheered. Wild, thunderous applause from almost 60,000 people. Larry David is so beloved in New York that we don’t mind that he abandoned the city for LA like the Dodgers.
Well, almost universally beloved. The story goes: a heckler was sitting a few rows behind David and during the applause they screamed all kinds of bone-headed disparagements at him. (It’s a Yankees game, after all—there’s always something to be upset about.)
After the cheering died down, the only thing David could talk about was the one person shouting things at him, completely ignoring the tens of thousands of people cheering. Now, I can’t confirm this story, but I am inclined to believe it, because it fits the Larry David way: something’s always wrong.
A nickel is larger than a dime, but, until I was seven years old, I never fully accepted that a nickel is worth less than a dime. “It must be some kind of elaborate joke,” I’d think to myself. Kids on the block swindled me out of all kinds of things (money, baseball cards, candy) because of my refusal to understand that bigger isn’t always more.
I eventually caught up, but I still think nickels should be smaller than dimes. Probably half as big, right?
Small and vague positivity vs. big and specific negativity
The features of software with massive reach always have unintended consequences. For instance, social media, by making positivity easy and quantifiable, has ensured that negativity looms large. It’s become a place where we count the good things and experience the bad things.
Suppose a person comes across something quite nice on Instagram or Twitter. They could write a pleasant comment, but they are probably going to Like the post instead (or heart, thumbs up, whatever term the platform uses). This creates a slight hitch in the brain of any reader: positivity gets compressed into a little block of Likes meta data that is about 100 pixels wide, no matter if it is one like or one thousand. Visually diminished positivity creates a challenge for the intellect to really understand the response. One must detach size from scale on social media, similar to how we detach size from value with a nickel and dime. A thousand likes doesn’t look much bigger than one, and this becomes important when considering the form of negativity on social media.
There is no feature for displeasure on social media, so if a person wants to express that, they must write. Complaints get wrapped in language, and language is always specific. This creates a situation similar to the Larry David stadium effect, where one heckler with incisive comments can block out the generalized applause of many more people. Specificity overrides vagueness. The nickel-and-dime size relationship amplifies the situation: one negative reply literally takes up more visual space than tens of thousands of undifferentiated likes.
The arrangement is even worse on Twitter. Liking stays attached to the original tweet and makes most positive interactions static. Negative reactions must be written as tweets, creating more material for the machine. These negative tweets can spread through retweets and further replies. This means negativity grows in number and presence, because most positivity on the service is silent and immobilized.
A like can’t go anywhere, but a compliment can go a long way. Passive positivity isn’t enough; active positivity is needed to counterbalance whatever sort of collective conversations and attention we point at social media. Otherwise, we are left with the skewed, inaccurate, and dangerous nature of what’s been built: an environment where most positivity is small, vague, and immobile, and negativity is large, precise, and spreadable.
We could also chuck the whole thing out the window, but that’s a different blog post, I suppose.