Luke Bailey over at The Content Mines has been pushing this idea of “structural dissonance”, described or defined by them as “that feeling you get seeing images of the invasion of Ukraine in the same content feed as memes, viral animals, lifestyle influencers, or video game playthroughs”. They claim it “defines the internet”.
In this week’s podcast, Ryan Broderick’s summation was that it’s “the inherent weirdness of viewing […] the horrors of real life through the trivializing structures of the internet”, and Bailey tries to explain just what it is he’s finding so problematic and new about the internet that it required new terminology.
If you compare it to art, for example, you can go and see Guernica or the Mona Lisa, and those two things have completely—they have similar forms, but equally very different forms: Guernica’s like ten meters long and the Mona Lisa is like two-foot high, it’s very small. It’s pathetic. […] So those two things have completely different forms. The problem on the internet is that doesn’t happen in the same way. You are listening to this podcast in the same way you’d listen to BBC News Radio, or Joe Rogan, or if you really wanted I’m sure the Azov Battalion in Ukraine have a podcast, it seems like the sort of thing they have. And this all has the same form. And similarly if you look at Facebook, your fun, magician content where they don’t do something for five minutes and then they eventually do it and it’s disappointing, that is going to have the same functional form as a news report from Ukraine, or a story about Universal Credit in the north of England, or a story about the opioid crisis in the United States. And all of these things ultimately have the same form, so it’s all crushed into these boxes, in a way that hasn’t really happened before.
That bit at the end there, that’s where I feel like Bailey comes off the rails. It’s certainly where he loses me.
Once upon time, on the same rabbit-eared television set in my childhood living room, over the course of a few hours we theoretically could have watched an episode of Star Trek or Space: 1999, an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus or The Benny Hill Show, and a report on domestic violence or the latest political scandal from 60 Minutes or 20/20.
All of these things ultimately had the same form, so it was all crushed into this little box.
None of what Broderick is identifying is structurally new on the level of the communications infrastructure, even though broadcast television in the 1970s is not the same as a distributed packet-switching network in the 2020s. What he’s identifying here isn’t a new phenomenon even if we limit our focus to the internet. It’s an aspect of—or, really, a kind of corollary to—context collapse, itself an idea that first arose in the 1980s around television and radio.
The new part that really powers the dissonance Bailey is trying to pin down is the organizing principle of social media, specifically: the feed.
Growing up, I wasn’t watching three minutes of Star Trek, interrupted by thirty seconds of an apologizing politician, followed by one minute of Benny Hill, and then another two minutes of Star Trek. Each different thing had its own time and breathed its own air, and even if we went right from one thing to another, each one thing required an attentional focus that’s almost entirely disputed by the feed.
At issue here is not any level at all of the internet’s structure. The problem isn’t structural, it’s organizational.
So, two things are happening in Bailey’s attempt to talk this through: he’s misidentifying as new and unique and problem that isn’t new and unique—wildly different kinds of content coming through the same communications channel; and he’s failing to identify the actual problem—the jarring juxtapositions of the feed.
Not for nothing, but your average metropolitan newspaper is the same as my childhood experience of television. (Bailey observes as much, but somehow it doesn’t make him realize that the problem he’s after has nothing to do with “the internet”.) Generally speaking there’s a news section, a sports section, a financial section, and the comics. Imagine if newspapers instead gave you a few column inches of war reporting, followed by today’s Nancy strip, followed by a few sports scores, then the Jumble, followed by a bit more war reporting. The newspaper would be almost entirely unusable. It would not, however, be a structural problem with newspapers, but an organizational one with how that particular newspaper is laid out.
Whoever wrote this week’s Real Life newsletter hit upon one way in which both television and newspapers did and do manage to partake a bit of our modern-day plague that is the feed, noting that “flipping through a Sunday newspaper to see images of Pakistani refugees interspersed with ads for whiskey and luxury bath products” presents a kind of “flattening of different moral contexts, of the commercial function of media and the humanitarian function of empathizing with suffering”.
That said, Real Life also more directly questions the Bailey’s premise that there’s something fundamentally or inherently awry in platforms or services more accustomed to one type of content also playing host to dramatically different kinds of content.
Implicit in the surprise and shock at seeing war aestheticized on social media is the idea that suffering should be documented only through a strict photo-journalistic lens, in images that take on a metonymic quality, evoking the larger official narrative or capturing some universal sentiment lurking behind the specifics. But the conversational images, the rhetorically staged video, of social media also capture additional aspects of the lived experience of war, which includes the full range of emotions: boredom, confusion, anxiety, absurdity, and disavowal, as well as terror, resilience, and grief.
This doesn’t, to my mind, somehow negate that the everything in one pot with no rhyme or reason organizing principle of the feed nonetheless presents some cognitive challenges (and not just for autistic and anxious people like me for whom feeds have been known actually to hurt). Where the “structural dissonance” posit and I diverge, I guess, is not just that in reality social media has no true structure whatsoever (which is part of the actual problem) but that Bailey seems to talk about this admixture of, say, lifestyle posts and war posts as if it transgresses in some moral capacity, as if it’s simply somehow unnatural for social media to be used to communicate “the horrors of real life”.
To be clear, I think you can both credit Real Life‘s “flattening of different moral contexts” and discredit the implied idea that the user behavior itself somehow is immoral. The moral questions actually arise from the same place: with the feed.
Again, and I really need to stress this point, I do not think the phrase “the trivializing structures of the internet” makes any sort of sense whatsoever. At issue here very much specifically is social media, and we ought to say what we mean and mean what we say when we are talking about these sorts of things. The social internet drawn more broadly does not automatically fall into this sort of trap. Boards and forums might have index pages that potentially could juxtapose wildly different kinds of topics (although, typically, this isn’t how they are organized) but once you’re into a thread of discussion, it’s both social and focused.
It’s not a problem of any real sort that people use the internet both to post memes, dances, and challenges and to post racism call-outs, pleas for trans acceptance, or what it’s like to be living in the middle of a war. There’s nothing about the so-called “structure” of the internet that makes this a problem. There’s nothing about the “structure” of the social internet, writ large, that makes this a problem.
What makes this into a problem is the feed, made all the more complicated by its algorithmic and commercial character.
(I’m not even going to get sidetracked into their discussion of how 9/11 played out on Something Awful. There’s no dissonance involved in an SA poster reacting to the attacks in New York while having a forum signature of a bleached anus, because no one on SA was going to be taken aback by that. Well, no, I’ll get exactly this amount of sidetracked: this is what I mean by this weird sort of unstated moralizing that seems to thread through their discussion. Broderick especially seems flabbergasted that people were live-posting through 9/11 in the online spaces they frequented and where they knew people, although he also expresses some recognition that the behavior was very human. It’s really important to understand, though, that a bunch of people who know each other from frequenting an unserious website suddenly discussing a serious news event on that website is extremely different in kind from everyone in the world, most of whom don’t know each other at all, discussing a serious news event all mixed together with memes and cat photos on a social media platform. Broderick repeats this nonsense later when he complains about Reddit being the site he visits to see whether or not someone is the asshole and where he reads a subreddit about “guys who are going to fight in Ukraine”. You simply cannot conflate the very different organizing principles of Twitter and Reddit.)
Anyway, the most frustrating thing about the conversation is that Bailey and Broderick (the latter especially) keep stumbling into the fact that it’s very specifically the feed that’s the problem but then veering off into referring to “the internet”, failing to recognize that the issue isn’t structural, it’s organizational and contextual. There’s nothing inherently wrong with people discussing wildly divergent subjects that don’t necessarily go well together, but there sure seems to be something wrong with it happening without bothering to establish an organizational model designed to make sense of it.
Feeds, or at least your typical social media feeds on massive platforms with mainstream adoption, are not designed to foster any kind of cognitive sense-making. They are designed—specifically, explicitly—to generate engagement against which to sell advertising. Again, this isn’t structural but organizational.
That’s important, because if we say “structural” and we say “the internet” it sounds like there’s not much to be done about it, because it’s very, very difficult to change structures. Properly identifying the issue as an organizational one exhibited by particular (plat)forms means that there are ways to tackle the problem, because it’s much easier to change organizational forms.
In the back third of the podcast, Bailey tries to home in on what he’s after. It doesn’t go well.
The structural dissonance has grown so big that [people] no longer understand the things they are saying as ideology and they understand it purely as content, and therefore they are trying to set it into a form that they understand—which is typically a live stream, it’s different sometimes; maybe it’s a live-tweet thread, maybe it’s a Facebook live, maybe it’s a TikTok live—but everyone is setting this stuff into a form that they understand, while not necessarily appreciating that the content is not the same? It flattens everything. And what this ultimately leads to is a situation like Ukraine where everything is flattened into entertainment, and war is flattened into entertainment.
This pretty much is exactly what I mean about the weird sort of moralizing seemingly underlying this “structural dissonance” critique. Notice how the blame here is placed on the user for sharing their world—and, worse, for not understanding their own actions—not on the organizing model of the feed for causing cognitive (ahem) dissonance. It’s not the fault of any person for sharing their world using the tools they’ve been provided. Any “flattening” entirely is the fault of the form and those who promulgate it, not that of the user who faces very little real, functional choice.
It’s important also to distinguish, as Bailey and Broderick don’t, really, between the fact that people post things that when juxtaposed in a feed hit as dissonant, and the very, very different fact that some people simply are not terrific people who have and post bad takes. There’s a distinction that we miss at our peril between actual Ukrainians trapped in a war and “posting through it”, and some Australian ex-soldier who switched-up his travel vlogging to go tourist post from the war zone. There’s the contradictory messiness of someone’s lived experience, and then there’s influencer carpetbagging. They are not the same thing, and it’s dangerously unfair to (ahem) flatten them into a single, malformed argument. (At almost the last possible moment in the podcast, Bailey does make a single, passing remark to this effect.)
I’ll be honest, the further into this podcast I got, the more disturbing I found it. Bailey seems especially unnerved, for example, by the fact that the aforementioned subreddit for people going to fight in Ukraine might also be for people just talking about the people going to fight in Ukraine, as if there’s something inherently and innately problematic in these different groups of people being in conversation with one another. I find that attitude to be unnerving. It’s as if the flattening he’s really concerned with is people talking to one another.
The “structural dissonance” critique, at least as framed by The Content Mines, very much lands for me as an ugly sort of victim-blaming. Internet users, on the whole and in the main, are at the mercy of an organizing principle over which they have little to no control, and they shouldn’t be held responsible—certainly not morally so—for making use of the tools that exist. There’s a late attempt by Bailey to recognize this distinction, but after over an hour’s discussion which often seemed not to recognize it, it feels a bit too little, too late.
Blame the platforms, and blame the feed. Don’t shame people into thinking that it’s their fault for sharing and discussing their views of the world.