October 6, 2014

Hubski: a thoughtful web?

[In retrospect, this is pretty distasteful.  In my view, Hubski is an echo chamber -- but assaulting it with a verbal meat cleaver really accomplishes nothing.  Still, one should not hide one's own mistakes.  -emc]

A thoughtful web.  It's an appealing tagline.  After my experiences with Reddit, I found it a very appealing tagline.  The word "thoughtful" has two meanings, both positive.  The first meaning is considerate, as in "it was thoughtful of you to remember my birthday."  Civil might be another synonym.  What decent human being could object to that?  The second meaning of "thoughtful" is contemplative.  Involving thought.  Dare one hope – amenable to reason?  What I hoped for, and what I still believed the founders of ths site intended, was a forum for civil discourse in which people might disagree with a minimum of rancor.  A "place" in cyberspace where one might escape the various grinding and howling noises that our society makes.  This is certainly the message projected by Hubski's introductory video.  Hubski the safe haven.  Unfortunately, such a vision is tragically naive.

If you create a forum, like Reddit, most of which is moderated by live human beings, you eventually get discussions that look more-or-less like the values and biases of the moderators.  If you create a forum, like Hubski which is moderated by an individual right to filter out whatever one finds unpleasant, you do get something different, but you do not get a thoughtful web – in either sense of the word.  In theory, Hubski encourages reason and civility because if a narrow-minded pig comes along people can exercise their right to mute, but in practice if enough narrow-minded pigs accumulate to grunt their message in harmony – what do they care what anyone else thinks?

The introductory video is not what advertises Hubski.  The raw, unfiltered list of most popular posts is.  If you've never been to Hubski before, that's the first thing that you see.  While it is true that if all you want to do is talk about science or music you certainly can, the face of Hubski is that running poll of what the greatest number of members think is cool.  That face is often anything but thoughtful.

I remember running across a title a few months ago in which a member summarily condemned my entire state – every last man, woman, child, and presumably all the pets and farm animals as well.  If one had taken all the instances of the word "fucking" out of his diatribe, it would have been shortened by half.  Actually, his post could have been easily summarized as follows:

"I decided to hate Ohio before I went there.  I went there and I hated it and everybody in it.  Hubski, come validate my hatred!"

And, I have to say, Hubski willingly obliged.  Hubskyites fluttered down on the poor wounded soul like a flock of cooing pigeons on a bucket of spilled popcorn.  They all commiserated with his awful experience – notwithstanding that, by his own admission, nothing specifically bad had actually happened to him.  One or two fair-minded individuals were generous enough to point out that there might be one or two good people in Ohio – or that they had known good people from Ohio who had shown the sense to leave.  A truly heartwarming sentiment which moved me to the core.  It is true that the histrionics of one excitable twenty-something are nothing to get excited about, but what matters here is not the post, but the response.  Many of the cooing pigeons were not excitable twenty-somethings, but grown-up members who ought to have some modicum of maturity, and, one would hope, should understand the importance of civility on the forum.  When members fail to censure uncivility, they help create a feedback loop.  If I had visited the site for the first time on that particular day, I would have closed my browser in disgust.  If someone with the same antipathies as the post’s author happened to see his tirade, no doubt they where encouraged to join in the hatefest.  Maybe this is the inevitable fate of all internet forms without exclusionary access policies, but the one thing it certainly isn’t is thoughtful.  It’s thoughtless.  Or, if you prefer the vernacular, it’s fucking thoughtless.

As an inveterate outsider, it is my habit to look at the behavior of institutions holistically.  I recognize that what is true of institutions isn't necessarily true of all of their constituent members.  I will freely affirm that if one has some narrow interest and filters out everything and everyone outside that interest, Hubski is probably a pretty congenial place.  There are nice people on Hubski, and smart ones, and many who are both.  You can certainly have a good conversation there from time to time, learn things, and make good friends.  It is not an evil institution.  But the claim that it’s "a thoughtful web" is nonsense.  Or, to be more thoughtful in both senses of the word, it is a normative aspiration rather than a descriptive assertion – and a weak aspiration at that.  You can be a pig on Hubski.  You can make wild and offensive claims you haven't thought about and haven't got a prayer of proving.  You can even be a bigot in the sense that any dictionary defines it.

Another time I happened to drop in was during the height of the Ferguson episode.  The articles posted, and what I read of the discussion (admittedly, I didn't read all of it) was not about the civil interchange of ideas.  It was a chant.  Clearly, this wasn't really about Michael Brown or Darrell Wilson.  It was about an idea, that many people seem to take for granted, that white police officers shoot black men without much hesitation, and perhaps even do it as a sort of sport.  I believe in freedom of speech, and I defend anybody's right to make such a claim.  But emotion does not make something true.

There are police shooting statistics out there, and they put the total number of fatal shootings (all races) by police at around 400 annually.  Considering we live in a nation more than of 300 million people, this would give Americans, on average, an approximately 1-in-750,000 chance to be shot to death by a cop this year.  That's about eight times the chance of being struck by lightning.  By contrast, there are typically almost 15,000 total intentional homicides in the US every year – so you are more than 36 times more likely to get killed by a non-cop than by a cop.  It is true, admittedly, that police shoot young black men in a greater proportion than they shoot other members of the public.  However, it is also true that young black men, statistically speaking, shoot one another in a greater proportion than they shoot other members of the public, often more-or-less for sport.  They are their own leading cause of death.  This fact, unfortunately, incites very little public outcry or even public interest.

The 400 fatal shootings figure has been widely criticized.  It is certainly possible that it's higher.  However, if the police were shooting black kids the way Blackwater mercenaries shot up Iraqi towns, there ought to be a huge number of more sympathetic incidents than Ferguson.  Michael Brown was video tapped strong-arming a convenience store clerk a few hours before his own untimely demise.  That may not be a capital offense, but neither is it the act of the innocent child supporters have portrayed.  In any case, this is clearly an issue with two sides.  Why did I not raise my arguments when I read the posts?  Because I have had sufficient experience with offering alternative perspectives to realize that few if any people really want to argue.  Argument just messes up the rhythm of their chant.

The last straw for me came a few days ago, with the beheading in Moore, Oklahoma.  I looked at Hubski’s unfiltered feed, sorted by time, and, page after page, found exactly the level of coverage of this horrific event that I expected to see – none.  To be fair to Hubski, the membership showed no less interest than CBS showed on its news site.  (CBS did not have room for the Oklahoma beheading – but they did have room for Richard Branson’s vacation plans.)  As an experiment, I found the most politically innocuous source for the story imaginable (USA Today) and posted it to see if anyone would bite.  Not surprisingly, no one did.  So, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or whatever they feel like calling themselves) issues a call to supporters to launch attacks in the West – and a few days later there is a beheading in Oklahoma by a man with militant Islamic material and rhetoric on his Facebook page – and nobody on Hubski thinks it’s interesting!?  It is true that this one act is hardly an existential threat to the United States in itself – but not even interesting?  How could this be?  One can only theorize, but I’ll tell you what my theory is:

Alton Nolen (DBA Jah’Keem Yisrael) was black, and therefore a victim – not a perpetrator.  He was an ex-con – in other words, and innocent man wronged by an unfair criminal justice system.  He was a Muslim – well, we mustn’t take the slightest risk of being thought of as Islamophobic – Allah forbid!  Mark Vaughan, who shot Mr. Nolen, was obviously a gun owner – i.e. a wingnut.  He was the COO of the company where the shooting occurred – which is to say, and evil capitalist oppressor of the 99%.  He was a reserve sheriff’s deputy – that’s a racist bloodthirsty pig in Hubskiland.  And last, but not least, he was a white man from a culturally southern state – this is to say, in the prevalent assessment of the American left, a troglodyte.  As for Colleen Hufford, the woman who had her head hacked and sawed off with knife – well, what’s another uneducated redneck more-or-less.  The story is of no interest because it runs against the liberal narrative at every point.  If I had wanted to peak the interest of a Hubski audience, I would have posted under the following title:

Racist white executive shoots black employee for trying to cure a coworker’s headache

Hubski is not a thoughtful web because we do not live in thoughtful times.  America is not a thoughtful society.  The internet is not a thoughtful medium.  It would be nice if there was a way to bring people with disparate opinions together and let them sort out their differences with civility and reason, but perhaps this idea is nothing more than the last of the liberal fantasies I possess.  An ideology in which the narrative is elastic enough to ignore beheadings in the smiling illusion of a global village is elastic enough to justify anything at all.  It already ignores the genocide of middle eastern Christians – something that appalls me as a human being – and I’m an atheist!  I myself am angry, but I will argue a point with anyone who is both rational and civil.  On that account, I find a dwindling pool of takers and find the site an increasingly  depressing place to be.

A Note for Hubskyites: You will find unfollow, mute, and filter buttons located conveniently on my page.  Feel free to use them – thoughtfully, of course.