Getting candid at coffee day

I have a reputation for occasionally saying outrageous things, and things that I shouldn’t be saying. I frequently make people uncomfortable by saying what I say, including what I sometimes write on my blog. I’ve been long wondering, though, if it is more rational to say shocking stuff to people you know well, or to those you don’t.

I remember this party from ages back where I had just been introduced to this couple, and within ten minutes I’d started expounding the inner beauties of the Goalkeeper Theory (which states that it is okay to hit on someone already in a relationship). I remember the female half of that couple visibly shudder and cling on to her boyfriend within minutes of my exposition.

Some people might recommend higher discretion when you are introduced to someone new, since you don’t want to create a bad first impression. The other way of looking at it is that people you are meeting for the first time, at a cafe or a party or something, are also people you are unlikely to ever encounter once again in life. Consequently, the downside of saying something outrageous is limited. On the other hand, there is a chance that they might be genuinely impressed with your fundaes and you might end up in a stronger relationship (at whatever level) than if you never said the outrageous thing.

On the other hand, while you might be comfortable with people you know well, the danger with saying outrageous or uncomfortable things is that there is a lot at stake. You have already invested significantly in the relationship, which gives you the comfort to say what you want. But if the person genuinely gets offended, you’ve lost a friendship or relationship or more!

So from a risk point of view, if you are the types that likes to make “bold” conversation, and potentially outrage or upset the counterparty, do so when you are still building the relationship. After all, it makes sense to invest in high volatility instruments when the downside is limited!

PS: Don’t try this at a job interview.

Bloggers and anti-bloggers

I know this post “dates” me as someone who started blogging back in the peak era of blogging in the mid 2000s. But what the hell! 

I think you can consider yourself to have “made it” as a blogger when a post that you write attracts abuse. Sometimes this abuse could be in public, in the comments section of the blog. At other times, the abuse is in private, when someone meets you or calls you, and abuses you for writing what you wrote.

As long as you’ve been reasonable in your blogging (which the early years of this blog’s predecessor cannot exactly claim), abuse on your comments section is more of an indicator of the thin-skinnedness of the abuser, rather than you crossing lines on what you should write about.

At this point in time, it is pertinent to introduce the class of people who I call as “anti-bloggers”. Sometimes they might themselves have a blog, but that is not necessary, what is necessary is that they have a “holier than thou” attitude.

Anti-bloggers are people with especially thin skins who are always on the lookout for something to outrage about, and blogs, which allow people to express themselves freely on a public forum without editorial oversight, are a common whipping boy.

This outrage could come in several forms. The thicker-skinned version of this outrage happens from people who abuse you only if they think you’ve abused them on the blog (good bloggers take care to never mention names in a negative manner, so this is usually a case of “kumbLkai kaLLa heglmuTT nODkonDa” (the pumpkin thief looked at his shoulder; it’s a Kannada proverb meaning something like “every thief has a straw in his beard) ).

The thinner skinned version of anti-bloggers find it even easier to find things to outrage about. Look at the Bangalore post I’d written ten years back. There was no hint that I’d written about anyone at all, but the post received heaps of abuse, from people who manufactured some kind of entity that the post purportedly offended!

The most annoying anti-bloggers are those that abuse you when you simply pen down an observation that is there for all to see. I won’t take specific examples now, but sometimes the simple act of reporting a fact that is evident to everyone can offend people, for its existence on paper (a website, rather) gives it new-found legitimacy!

This last bit can also help explain the annoyance of some sections of the “mainstream media” with “social media” such as blogs/twitter. The worthies in the mainstream media had established certain unwritten rules by which certain facts/events wouldn’t be put down on paper.

The mention of these events in social media (which is unedited) suddenly gave these events/happenings sudden legitimacy, which steered the overall narrative away from where it existed during the mainstream media monopoly, annoying the mainstream media!

One penultimate point – anti-bloggers are the same people who talk about the glories of the days prior to social media (this piece in The Guardian is an especially strong specimen), when people could only read news that was filtered and possibly censored by newspaper editors.

And finally, ever since my credentials as a blogger were established about a decade back, some people have started explicitly mentioning to me when they are saying something “off the record”. And I’ve always respected these conditions!

Twitter and negativity

One of the reasons that sparked my departure from social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter two weeks back was an argument with my wife where she claimed that Twitter had made me too negative, and highly prone to trolling (even in “real life”). Accepting a challenge from her, I offered to go through my tweets over the last few months, and identify those that were negative. I also offered to perform a similar exercise with my blog.

I started off with the intention to go through tweets in the last one year and delete anything that was negative or “troll-y”. I allocated myself an hour to accomplish this, along with a similar exercise for my blog.

I must have spent fifty minutes going through my twitter feed, and didn’t manage to go back more than two months. I was surprised by my own sheer volume of tweeting. What was more surprising was the amazing lack of insight in most of those tweets – there were horrible PJs that I’d cracked just because I could, there were random replies to other people which didn’t add any kind of value, there was outrage about the lack of outrage and some plain banal life stuff (apart from some downright trolly stuff which I deleted).

It made for extremely painful reading, and I could hardly recognise myself from my own tweets. Apart from some personal markers, I would find it hard to recognise most of these tweets as my own if they were to be presented to me a few months later. It was a clear indication that it was time to exit twitter (though since I have a rather kickass username there I’m not deleting my account).

The ten minutes I spent that day going through this blog, however, was a sheer delight. I did end up deleting a couple of outragey posts (both of which were essentially collections of tweets which I’d collated for posterity), but most of my posts were mostly sheer delight! There was some kind of insight in each of my posts, and I’d lie if I were to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve written.

It’s not that I’ve not written shit on this blog (or its predecessor), having written posts as late as 2008 which I’m definitely not proud of. What I’ve noticed, however, is that I’ve evolved over time, and my writing style has been refined, and I think I continue to add significant value to my readers.

Twitter’s constant engagement feature, however, meant that it was hard to evolve there and hard to escape from the cycle of banal and negative tweets. My tweets from this February are unlikely to be qualitatively very different from those 5 years back, and that’s not a positive thing to say.

The thing with Twitter is that its short format encourages a “shoot first ask questions later” kind of thinking. You end up posting shit without thinking through it, and without having to construct a reasonable argument. This encourages outrage, and posting banal stuff. Spending one minute typing out a banal tweet is far lower cost than spending 20 minutes typing out a banal blog post – the latter is unlikely to be written unless there’s some kind of insight in it.

Outrage is one thing, but what’s really got to me with respect to twitter is its sheer ordinariness, and temporality (most tweets lose value a short period of time after they’re posted). It’s insane that it’s taken me so long (and three longish sabbaticals from twitter) to find out!

The problem with Twitter

Starting from the mid-2000s, the dominant method to consume content was to follow individual blogs through RSS Feed readers such as Bloglines or Google Reader. You followed specific blogs, most of which (unlike this one) had content on specific topics.

So when I wanted to learn up on economics, I started following Marginal Revolution and Econlog. When I wanted to follow the global financial crisis, I added Felix Salmon and a couple of other blogs (which I don’t remember now). All I needed to do to read on specific topics was to follow specific people.

And then Google Reader Shared Items happened. Now, you didn’t really need to follow specific blogs, for there was a social network where people would share interesting stuff that they read. Now you could outsource following blogs to friends who became curators. So there was this one friend who would share pretty much every interesting post on Mashable. Another shared every interesting post from this blog called The Frontal Cortex. I didn’t need to follow these blogs. My “curator friends” shared the best pieces with me (and I know people relied on me for Econlog etc.).

Then around the turn of the decade, Twitter replaced Google Reader Shared Items as the primary content discovery platform. A couple of years later, Google would decommission Reader. The thing with Twitter was that the movement from following specific ideas and sites to following “curators” was complete.

While twitter also functions as a “normal” social network, a major function is the sharing of ideas, and so everyone on twitter is essentially a curator, sharing with her followers what she wants them to read. There is also scope for adding comments here, and adding one’s opinion to the content. This adds a sort of richness to the content, and people can filter stuff accordingly, without consuming everything one’s friend has shared.

The downside, however, is that you are forced to consume the opinions and links shared by everyone you follow. There might be someone who I might be following for his curation of technology links, but it might happen that he might also tweet heavily on politics, which I’m hardly interested in. There is an option to turn off retweets (which I’ve used liberally) but even so, there is a lot of “unwanted content” you have to consume from people. And since it is “opinion first” (and link later), you are forced to consume people’s opinion even if you’re just browsing their timeline.

What we need in Twitter is a way to curate people’s opinions on topics. For example, I might be interested in Person A’s opinion on politics but not anything else. Person B might offer good opinions on economics but might be lousy on other things. Person C might be good for technology and sports. And so forth.

Of course, you can’t charge people with classifying their own tweets – that will add too much friction to the process. What you need is an intelligent process or app that can help classify people’s tweets and show you only what you want to know.

I can think of a couple of designs for the app – one could be where you could tell it not to show any more tweets from someone on a particular topic (or block a topic itself). Another is for you to upvote and downvote tweets, so that the app learns your preferences and shows you what you want.

Yet, I’m not confident that such an app will be built. The problem is that twitter has been notorious in terms of cutting off access to its API to apps built on it, or cutting permissions of what apps can see (Facebook is as guilty here). So it’s a massive challenge to get people to actually invest in building twitter apps.

Twitter as it exists currently doesn’t work for me, though. I repeatedly find the problem that there is way too much outrage on my timeline, and despite mercilessly cutting the number of people I follow, I find that it’s a slippery slope and otherwise interesting people continue to tweet about stuff that I don’t want to read about. And so my engagement is dipping.

I don’t need twitter itself to do anything about it. All they should do is to send out credible signals that they’ll not pull the rug under the feet of developers, so that APIs can be developed, which can make the platform a much more pleasant experience for users.

Twitter and Radically Networked Outrage

The concept of Radically Networked Outrage was originally conceived by my Takshashila colleague Pavan Srinath. Having conceived of it, he had promised to blog about it, but it’s been over a month and he’s yet to get down to it. Given this delay, I think I’m justified in stealing this blogpost.

One of the pet themes professed by people at Takshashila, especially Nitin Pai, is the concept of “radically networked societies”. There are too many posts to link to, so I’ll just link to this book chapter that Nitin has written, and to this TEDx talk:

So the whole concept is that societies nowadays are not hierarchical like in the past, but “radically networked”, in that the density of the graph of people in the world has increased significantly with technology. Not only has the density gone up – which means that people are connected to significantly more people than in the past – but technology has enabled people to communicate rapidly.

So you have twitter where you can broadcast your short thoughts. WhatsApp groups enable you to send, and propagate, messages to multiple people at once. This, combined with increased graph density, has resulted in ability for large numbers of people to coordinate and organise, and presents new kinds of governance challenges. For example, it was radically networked societies that resulted in the so-called Arab Spring (which, in hindsight, has mostly led to chaos). Radically networked societies also resulted in the Anna Hazare movement in 2011, which in turn led to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party, which has taken Delhi by storm.

When societies are so radically networked that they can cause revolutions which can result in the overthrow of governments, they can also such radical networking for lesser causes, such as outraging. When the odd thatha outrages about a certain happening or piece of news, it doesn’t have any impact, and ends up in at best a letter to the editor, and dies a quiet death. If a handful of unconnected thathas outrage about something, it will still not amount to much, and one of their letters to the editor will get published.

However, put together a large number of people densely connected to each other, any outrage in such network will be immediately seen and noticed, and has the potential to go viral. The thing about outrage is positive feedback – when you see someone outraging about a particular topic that you mildly outrage about, you feel encouraged to make your mild outrage public. As the number of people in your network outraging about something increases, the likelihood of you joining in the outrage increases.

So as you can imagine, once there a certain critical mass to outrage about a particular issue, it can go truly viral, until just about everyone is outraging about the topic.

And outrage can have inter-issue positive feedback also. Once you are used to seeing a certain amount of outrage on your twitter timeline, you feel encouraged to make public any marginal outrage about any other issue also. And a number of people getting marginally thus pushed to make their outrage public can result in a further increase in radically network outrage!

We live in a time when societies are radically networked, and outrage is the order of the day. And since outrage causes more outrage, this outrage is unlikely to reduce. It is impossible to say anything remotely controversial on social media nowadays – a pack of outragers will immediately hound you. There are already some victims of such radically networked outrage – like the PR professional Justine Sacco who lost her job after an outraged mob failed to see the humour in her tweet, or scientist James Watson who had to auction his Nobel Prize after outrage about his comments about race had led to speaking assignments dying out, or footballer Ched Evans who is unable to find a club to hire him after doing time for rape. The latest victim of radically networked outrage is Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, who resigned his position as Professor following radically networked outrage about certain remarks he made that were deemed sexist.

And there is no escaping such outrage. In an attempt to escape it, I pruned my Twitter following list a couple of days back, unfollowing people who are highly prone to participate in radically networked outrage. At the end of it, my following list had grown so thin that there was no value for me in Twitter any more. I would just check twitter in the hope of interesting tweets, but come across hardly any tweets.

So today I begin my third sabbatical from Twitter. The first one (January 2014) lasted a month, and the second (August to November 2014) lasted three. I don’t know how long this will last. I’ll be robbed of interesting discussions for sure, but can do without all the negativity prevalent all over my timeline. But I’m sure Radically Networked Outrage will have its way of getting to me again!

In October, during my last sabbatical, I had written about the same topic. And in December, I had written about the “mob courts” of social media.

Twitter, outrage and political correctness

So I continue to be off twitter. The only tweets you see from me are the automated tweets that go out (which i customise a bit) every time I write a blog post, which has been fairly often in the last one month or so.

I gave up on my efforts to curate a twitter feed and get the links to pocket. I simply use the Flipboard app on my iPad, which I log on to once a day to see if there are interesting links. For a few days it worked. I collected lots of nice links. I still collect some nice links.

But then the thing with flipboard is that along with the links you end up seeing the twitter commentary that accompanied the links. And I see a lot of outrage. People don’t seem to have patience for a civil discussion on twitter any more. Everyone takes sides, every little topic is dissected like crazy and it’s almost like people have this pathological need to outrage and twitter is their vehicle for that. If this means that this might decrease their outrage in the rest of the world it’s a good thing, but I’m not sure if that is actually happening – it might even be that the constant outrage on twitter is keeping people’s outrage knives sharp and they are outraging more outside too.

Sometimes I like to crack a joke. More often than not it is likely to be offensive and politically incorrect. There is a friend who says he uses twitter exclusively as an outlet for the jokes that build up within his head -to let off steam in some sort of way. But then the extreme outrage and political correctness that twitter imposes on you means that you can never crack a nice harmless politically incorrect joke – people will descend upon you like a pack of wolves, and you get called names and all such.

And so you hold back. And you become a little less of what you were. And you regress. And then you find that you simply can’t function the way you used to a long time back.

Last night I was going through some of my blog posts from 2008 – I go on these trips sometimes. There will be some trigger that will remind me of a particular blog post, and from there I’ll read 20 other adjacent ones. Looking back at the blog posts, they were profound. They were the products of a clean and unfettered mind, who liked to put things out and who didn’t really mind any adverse reactions.

But over the last six years that mind has been dulled, sullied, bullied, into writing possibly only politically correct stuff, which might be flat and hardly profound. So the last month and a half when I’ve been out of twitter has also been an exercise to reclaim myself from @karthiks. And become back closer to skthewimp.livejournal.com – for that is the mode in which I think I function best!

Anyway.. My current thinking is that my facebook and twitter sabbatical will last until the end of October. Going by my brief intrusions into twitter via flipboard, though, it seems like I might stay away for much longer. But you know where to find me!

An Illiberal Society

Every few months or so a bunch of (mostly) Bangalore-based liberals go up in massive outrage all over the interwebs. On each occasion, the trigger for this would have been a bunch of cops raiding some bar, and imposing a new set of rules. The last time this happened, it was about cops randomly checking black-skinned people for drug possession and pushing, leading to pubs banning blacks from entering, altogether. This time, cops have instructed that pubs not play “loud, western music” and banned live music from pubs.

Already, pubs and even restaurants in Bangalore have to close by 11 pm and there is no dancing allowed (again because “dance bars” are banned). A bunch of pub-goers hanging outside a few minutes after 11 is an open invitation for the cops to enter the pub and try collect some hafta. The problems are plenty, but the biggest problem is that there is no political solution in sight.

The problem here is that however vocal and loud the liberals may be, they still don’t make up enough numbers in terms of the city’s population to make a difference. The fact of the matter is that the large majority of the city’s population (even if one were to consider only the middle classes into account) is either not bothered about these pub rules, or actually supports the new rules that the police make from time to time.

Firstly, it is not possible in order to have different rules for different kinds of pubs. So whatever rules govern say Fuga need to also govern South End Bar at the end of my road. Secondly, a large number of pubs are in residential areas, and for good reason – you do not want to go too far when you need a drink. There is some difference in terms of licenses between wine shops and bars (the former can’t “serve” liquor) but most wine shops double up as “standing bars” anyway. Hence, it is likely that you’ll have a bunch of drunks patrolling the residential streets late every night.

Thirdly, and most importantly (though I’d like the “police reforms” specialists at Takshashila to weigh in), the police force in the city is massively understaffed and underpaid. It’s not possible for our cops to make sure that despite the presence of walking drunkards, the streets are going to be safe. It will take a massive political effort in order to change this. Hence, given that it is not really possible for the cops to police the streets effectively, they resort to signaling.

By forcing all bars to shut down at a certain time, they signal to the population that they get things under control every evening, and there wouldn’t be much nuisance. The rules regarding dancing are an attempt by the police to somehow extract money out of pubs, since dance bars are officially banned (I don’t know why), and they can use the same set of rules to harass the discotheques. Loud music is again to gain credence among neighbours (remember that most pubs are in residential areas) that they’re doing something about the “menace”. The ban on “loud western music” is inexplicable.

This police harassment of bars is not a standalone problem, it’s part of a bigger problem in terms of police reforms. As a stand alone problem, though, given the small proportion of people it affects, I don’t foresee a good solution. What needs to be done is to aggregate all stakeholders who are affected by this – regular pub/discgoers, pub owners (very important), liquor companies, people selling cigarettes and bondas late in the night, and collectively lobby for change in regulation. It’s not going to be an easy battle, considering that a large proportion of the city’s population is conservative, and will be up in arms against any change in rules. It won’t be an easy task either, since liberal but lazy parties like me (who prefer to get wasted at home) will also not lend support.