The Economy of Extremism

A friend of mine told me recently about a student at a local school who’d been expelled. Nowadays, of course, probably most people think about masks and such, but no, this student had beaten another student very badly. 

The beating itself is not remarkable. Bullies have been around since the Round Table and likely will be around forever. What was remarkable was the way the administration had caught the boy—a recording of the event, posted to social media by a friend of the bullies.

The story prompted discussion of the new trend of “licking”, where a student films themselves stealing something—even as stupid and pointless as a bathroom stall door—to post on Tiktok or Youtube. (Prior to “licking”, there was another Youtube trend of actual licking—videos of Youtubers opening cartons of ice cream in the store and surreptitiously licking it before putting it back.)

(I should note, that as I don’t want to add to the very problem I’m discussing, all these links are to articles about the videos, and not the videos themselves)

I don’t want to give these people more clicks, so instead, here’s a movie of a baby saying “hi” to everyone in the store.

It was naïve of me, certainly, to express shock and disbelief at not only the moral bankruptcy of such antics, but the sheer stupidity of them.  Why film yourself committing a crime, and then post it?

A student explained it to me.  “If they get enough attention, and they get enough clicks or subscribers, then they can make some money off it.”

It was the sort of thing that I had known in abstract, but just was alarming to hear about in action.  I had given a lesson on it, even.  Back in 2017, when I was undergoing my first disastrous year teaching in Texas, I hit on a particularly relevant lesson plan—on a controversy involving Logan Paul that had exploded a few days prior. To those unfamiliar with the case, Logan Paul, an insanely popular Youtuber famous for his extreme antics and personality, was filming himself on a trip with friends through Japan’s infamous “Suicide Forest.” The Youtuber stumbled on a recently dead body, which initially shocked and terrified the group, before they again descended into jokes and mockery of the deceased man.

There was immediate scandal, with Logan Paul receiving waves of criticism and death threats (which seemingly are just the go-to response these days). The video was taken down and Paul issued a tearful apology, announcing he was going to be taking a short break from Youtube.

Amidst all this, though, was something that no one—least of all Youtubers—missed. Logan Paul’s subscribers went up. His videos got more views. Today, Logan Paul is back making videos, and making more money off it than ever–he recently fought Floyd Merryweather in a publicity stunt.

The article that I had my students read (or tried to have them read, the lesson was a failure) argued that Logan Paul was the inevitable result of the online system–not even necessarily just Youtube–which rewarded increasingly extreme and unhealthy behavior. In an economy based solely on the attention a person receives, everyone is incentivized to be an attention-getter—and the quickest way to that is extreme behavior.  TribalInstincts, a Youtuber I follow who posts VR game playthroughs (or used to) put it this way after a video where he tested to see if VR could stop the pain of the world’s hottest hot sauce: “I’m making bad life decisions due to Youtube” He is no longer making videos, which is sad for me, but likely healthier for him.

Many examples exist.  Tide Pod eating.  The “Fire Challenge.” You can even apply this concept to Facebook selfies and Instagram—there are a depressing amount of people who were killed while seeking out “extreme” selfies to impress their followers. It’s important to note that, in these cases, a comparatively small amount of people were involved, to the point where perhaps we should consider them less “trends” and more “antics,” but the incentive is worrying.

There’s nothing new about this. Attention-seekers have always followed dangerous and stupid courses of action. One thinks about activists or authors who went out into the wild and ended up dying of exposure. A lot of celebrity work these days revolves around “extreme” preparation for a role by doing method acting, sleeping inside bears, starving themselves, sending fellow actors dead animals. In medieval and renaissance times, one popular method of garnering attention was to challenge someone to a duel. In Roman times, monks slept on increasingly high pillars in increasingly worse conditions—it is hard to imagine this was not in part to attract attention. Even “virtue signaling” can be seen in the increasingly draconian Victorian moral standards of the 1800’s.

It’s also true that Youtube and other social media sites do a lot of good, too. Maybe even more.  The “Fire Challenge” noted above was actually inspired by the much more popular–and much more wholesome–Ice Bucket Challenge back in 2014, which raised an unprecedented 115 million dollars for ALS research. It’s now easy to find visual instructions for auto repair or even emergency medical procedures. There are millions of videos of far-off places and underprivileged peoples—its own way of seeking attention, but certainly more positive and affirming, and a major driver of charity and social action.  Facebook has allowed me to stay connected with the lives and thoughts of friends from college and high school—people I’m not ordinarily good at staying in touch with.

Again, let’s give attention to the good things. Even George and Laura Bush (who are in no need of publicity) got in on the action.

As is often said of many developments, it’s not that technology changes who people are, it just enables or amplifies who they are.  Potentially, one could say that some technology amplifies more destructive traits than others, leading to overall moral drift, so the distinction is perhaps a fine one. Certainly some have argued that the general terribleness of internet communities self-perpetuate themselves by creating an atmosphere of general awfulness. But I think there is a base moral and philosophical problem giving this extremism a uniquely terrible form. Namely, that there’s a large selection of the population that believes in nothing—and more than that, actively hates those who believe in anything.

A particularly disturbing article I read in 2016, “Apocalypse Whatever,” described the rise of the Church of Kek, a purely online community devoted to a god of chaos in World of Warcraft—devoted only ironically, employing “praise Kek” in response to various random events. In concept, it’s not dissimilar from Pastafarianism, sarcastically devoting itself to an obviously fabricated deity like the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  A more specialized version of this is the Church of Satan, which claims to actually not be devoted to Satanic worship, but simply exists to mock, lampoon, and troll Christians. Intentionally or not, the devotees are, in fact, adopting a stance that lines up perfectly with a Miltonic vision of Satan, who works for no particular goal, just against God’s goals.  Yet the church of Kek is in some ways worse, in that it doesn’t even care which religion, or even which belief system, it is mocking. Its followers revel in mocking, destroying, and “trolling” causes—any causes, whether pro-life causes or anti-racism causes or even anti-genocide causes, as the self-proclaimed “Kekistan” banner clearly shows.

There’s nothing coincidental about this choice.

Some have argued that there is something fundamentally “troll”-ish about Nazism itself, that even the original Nazis didn’s so much believe in Nazism as use it as an excuse for their hate. Certainly much of the onset of modern racism and Neo-Nazism can be traced to this general commitment to mocking and trolling people of any belief system, of posting and chatting only to evoke anger—and attention.  You see it in many of the doxed Nazis in Charlottesville, who once identified and exposed, protested that they were only marching “ironically.” You see it in popular Youtubers like PewDiePie, who dodge continuous accusations of racism by claiming they are merely joking. You see it in people like the Buffalo-headed “shaman” from Jan 6th, an intentionally ludicrous vlogger being intentionally inflammatory through a mixture of xenophobia and open blasphemy–he prays to Jesus, wears Native American dress, and has Norse religious tattoos.  You see it even in commentators like Alex Jones, who argued in a court case that his show is merely playing a persona and is not, in fact, committed to the many offensive beliefs like Sandy Hook denial that he spreads around.  Alex Jones is not a member of the Church of Kek—he’s likely not even familiar with the expression.  But it’s in the same spirit–very fitting, in a way, for a religion devoted to a god of chaos, devoted not even to its own god but simply to the abolishment of all order.

The Joker has always been a great villain, but there is definitely something disturbing in him genuinely becoming popular

It’s the end result of Nihlism. Early nihlists could claim they were standing for truth and reality, for new ideas in the face of old assertions. But once the novelty of Nihlism faded, even that wasn’t left. Early Nihlists could claim that morality had no meaning, but they kept to old forms of morality out of habit, to “get along.” Later Nihlists have fallen out of the habit. Disney movies have long claimed that the only real truths are to “be true to yourself” and that “love is all you need,” without once considering that certain people and certain things ought not to be loved. A psychopath should not be true to himself. Love for your fellow Neo-Nazis may be being true to your friends, but it is not a healthy or a moral stance.

And when you get a community of people whose only value is destroying other values, motivated to draw as much attention as possible, the result is an economy that constantly one-ups itself in tearing itself down. A culture quite literally committing suicide–in some ways violently and savagely. Contrary to public opinion, most shooters are not driven to their actions by bullying, nor can most be considered mentally ill. There is, in fact, no one clear motive behind all shootings, but certainly some are motivated by attention-seeking. A number of more recent shooters had a long history of “trolling” forums simply to make people mad–and gain attention by it. The mosque shooter who left a manifesto certainly did so to gain as much attention as possible from his own death–which is shown most clearly in how he also live-streamed the shooting. There is still no clear motive behind the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, carried out by a 64-year-old man with a seemingly happy and stable life and no signs of mental illness, but investigators theorized that his intent was to go out in a blaze of infamy.

The trends I am describing cannot be entirely, or even mostly, laid at Youtube’s feet–Nazism predates Youtube, as does the act of mass murdering. Youtube itself is only one part of a vast social media economy, after all, and the more recent acts are not featured on it at all, but on its “hip” offspring, TikTok. The root cause lies deeper. Youtube and its cousins are merely useful outlets—and financial incentives—for a destructive mindset and a larger culture that no longer believes in anything.

This has been a depressing blog. Here’s Fred Rogers.

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