64: Internet History, Tumblr and the Marketplace of Ideas with Katherine Dee

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Hosted by
Will Jarvis

In this episode, we talk with Katherine Dee aka Default Friend about how the marketplace of ideas is seeded by internet communities.. Specifically, the example of Tumblr feeding attitudes towards social justice on college campuses. We also talk about social atomization and the future of the internet. Katherine blogs here.

Will Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse in the past towards a better, more definite vision of the future. I’m your host, William Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

Catherine, how are you doing today?

Default Friend 0:44
I’m great. Thanks for having me on.

Will Jarvis 0:46
Absolutely, absolutely. Do you mind giving a quick bio in some of the big ideas you’re interested

Default Friend 0:51
in? Yeah, so I’m a writer and culture commentator, I guess I also host a podcast called after the orgy with my friend in Manaus, who’s a lawyer. And, yeah, I mostly write about the cultural shifts between 2008 in 2015. So all the all the ways things were changing with, like, with a lens, really on the internet, and how the internet sort of impacting us in a different way than it had before.

Will Jarvis 1:29
Gotcha. I really, I love that angle, I think it’s super important. How did you first notice that, you know, this shift was important. And that, you know, people weren’t, like, addressing it very much the people weren’t talking about it, or kind of writing on the subject.

Default Friend 1:46
Yeah. So I kind of noticed it, when it was happening, because I’ve always been very online, I haven’t necessarily been, like, embedded in, you know, every single subculture or niche, but like I have, I have, like, been, you know, I’m a true digital natives, like, I’ve been using the internet, since I was like five or six, you know, at most, like the oldest, there wasn’t like seven. So I have like a memory of things shifting. But the one thing that really got me writing about this is, you know, I noticed, like this cottage industry of people trying to explain wokeness or merge, you know, it usually comes from the center, or, or conservative circles. And it’s people who basically, like, have the argument that, like, really, I would say, like my parents, and my parents, parents, you know, generation would have, which is like, we sent you to that college, and you came back corrupted. And having gone to like, you know, I went to I, I actually had two college experiences I, I started off at like a big, you know, kind of like low tier state school where like, they accepted like, 99% of people. And then I went to film school, after a year or two of that. So it kind of saw both happen. And it felt more like it wasn’t professors indoctrinating the students, but rather, it was students who were picking up these like mimetic ideas online, and then asking for changes in classrooms. So it felt like, you know, there’s all these these all these people trying to work out what happened and like, why language has changed, and why expectations around things like gender have changed. And that they pinpoint it pinpoint universities and I was like that concept. There’s no way that does not feel right. And it’s sometimes a confusing, you know, claim to stake for like, a couple of reasons. One, people often assume that I am, maybe like passing judgment on certain things that I’m not like, My mission is to say, this is how I think this information spread. Versus like whether or not I think it’s right, or moral or whatever, like I don’t, you know, my own opinion, are totally irrelevant to the work I do. I’m more interested in like, how did this move so fast. And then the other thing is, when I say like, information spread online, I can point it really to Tumblr as the vehicle of transmission. I’m not saying that Tumblr invented these ideas. I think it’s like, quite obviously, a lot of the ideas that are now you know, in common parlance, did come from academia, but they didn’t spread through academia. And it’s like a hair difference. And that that small difference is sometimes like confusing for people to understand what exactly it is. I’m arguing.

Will Jarvis 4:44
Okay, that’s, that’s super, super interesting. And that definitely does match my experience. I went to college, I started in, let’s see 2012 at UNC Chapel Hill. And that is a really interesting point that it’s actually student driven. You And then there’s like a feedback loop between the professors and the students. And this keeps kind of accelerating. So you think Tumblr is kind of the the beginning of of how kind of the new campus leftism emerged?

Default Friend 5:16
Yeah, definitely, you know, and that’s not to say that there was never leftist groups who already had these ideas. But they were, they were small. And they didn’t just randomly get popular, right? Like, that’s like, that’s sort of like the mystery everyone seems to be trying to solve. You know, I interview a lot of people like in like, hundreds of people, and it might even be eclipsing that at this point. I’m talking to people every single day, hearing about their online experiences, and like most people first interfaced with I, you know, a lot of these ideas online. And I’ll say this, and some pushback I’ll get is like, Well, what about Occupy Wall Street? You know, what about these leftist groups that were like, very visible in the 90s? And it’s like, Sure, of course, like, again, like, you know, tumblr didn’t invent this stuff. That’s absurd. But like, why did they stay nice? until, you know, around 2008? You know, why was that the moment? was it? Was it the, you know, economic crisis? Or was it that these ideas, suddenly, were able to get into the hands of, instead of simply 18 and 19 year olds, but, you know, 15 and 16 year olds, who do a much better job at driving trends than any other demographic in America?

Will Jarvis 6:44
Gotcha. So it sounds like you kind of need these eyes where ideas were percolating, but you need some kind of distribution mechanism to get them to people. And Tumblr was kind of that avenue. That worked really well. Yeah. Gotcha,

Default Friend 6:56

Will Jarvis 6:57
Is there anything mechanically about Tumblr that made it? I guess, particularly? I mean, I’m trying to remember even what was around social network wise in 2008. And it’s difficult for me to grok but I guess, yeah, was there anything special about tomboy that made it made it the place? Do you think?

Default Friend 7:14
Yeah, yeah, well, first of all, like, blur is very difficult to filter. So or, you know, especially it was at first, and there was a lot of cross pollination. So what people would do is like, they would hide things under the cut. So like, you could go to hide something under the cut means like, you could put like a page break. So you could put some intro text, and then, but you know, something that you don’t want, easily visible, hidden, so it won’t show up on the feed. And then, so people who didn’t want to see the content there, you could put a content warning, or a trigger warning. So and that was really, the main way you could filter things is by having the creator hide it, if they felt like it would be contentious or offensive, or triggering. But otherwise, like you could follow tags much later on. But there is, you know, whoever you followed, that was in whatever they read blogs, which is similar to re tweeting as people are not familiar with Tumblr, but maybe are familiar with Twitter, it would just show up on your feed. And then a lot of new genres started popping up because of this. And the really famous one is super hoolock. Which is a, you know, it’s it’s a crossover, a fan driven crossover of three really popular television shows at the time, particularly very popular on Tumblr, witch doctor who’s supernatural, and Sherlock and that, you know, people have actually studied this academically and done like, like huge research projects where they’ve, like, interviewed, you know, 1000s of people, like, How did this happen? And it happened to because of the cross pollination due to the UI on on Tumblr, and if you kind of see it happen on Twitter to actually published an article today, like, kind of probing at the question like why is it that we assume in cells are all right when, when really like, that doesn’t make sense, right? Like, right, just because you’re an involuntary celibate doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily anywhere on the right wing spectrum, like you could be a, you know, involuntary, celibate, Marxist, but you never really hear that narrative. And it’s for two reasons. It’s one like the very porous boundaries that happen when you have poor filtering mechanisms. You know, like on Twitter, you can only really filter something through like muting and blocking but those are, you know, not as effective as they could be. And then to the second really important part of this is how it’s reported. by the media. Got it? Yeah.

Will Jarvis 10:06
And how so? Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

Default Friend 10:09
Oh, no, I was just gonna, I was gonna say like, so this, the second piece of the story is around the same time, you know, everything became digital, and they started slashing budgets, a big publication, really all publication. And, you know, people still want it to be writers, it still had a lot of cultural cachet. And, because because there was less money to fund reporting, you know, a couple of things happened like one, you see the rise of the journalist as a personality in a way that it didn’t exist before, like, Sure, there was famous journalists who became cultural icons in their own right, but it was, it was much more rare, you know, like, here, there was like a path and you did it through social media, and it almost overtook the actual writing. And then the other thing that happens is like these people become content Mills, and they’re beginning to generate a lot of content, it needs to generate a certain amount of clicks, some it some publications, they would pay you more if you got a certain amount of comments. And it was really traffic driven. So you’re not getting paid, and you need to, you know, create clickbait. And you only have a finite amount of time to research. So people will go on social media, specifically Tumblr, and Reddit, and scrapes for stories. And what’s really interesting is this actually, this was actually documented that this was happening, and that this was creating a narrative, they were imposing narrative layers on communities that had not existed, but through the amplification cycle. So let’s say like BuzzFeed posts something, and then it gets picked up by, let’s say, The Washington Post, and then it moves a next layer up, which is like CNN, or MSNBC. And then it draws more attention to a community that might have been like really small, and it creates a new community that is divorced from the original community that had this narrative layer imposed on it. It’s kind of like a game of telephone, telephone. And there’s tons of examples of this. The one that was documented in a really interesting way was foamies, which are people who are kind of like fans of the Aurora, Colorado shooter, I believe it happened in 2012. And basically what happened was a new cycle invented that there was these teen girls who were like, really into the sky. But really, it was a joke that was construed as a truth, but because it was reported on it became real. And then there’s just like, you know, dozens of examples of this happening. Another really interesting one that I actually wrote about in college was this, this fandom, or you know, the purported fandom around the Boston Marathon bombers. That was another thing that was willed into existence by journalists.

Will Jarvis 13:04
Wow, that, that that is super, super interesting. I’ve never actually thought about that. it like that. I knew a journalist especially, you know, post 2008 were really driven towards like the, you know, I always think of like Gawker as the quintessential example and in reading about the whole Cogan thing, and Peter Thiel getting outed as, as you know, well, these people, they’re actually in this like content mill, it’s actually super brutal, they’re trying to produce content as fast as they can, and get clicks to, to just barely scrape by. It’s super competitive. And I never thought that, okay, like, they’re actually they have to get ideas from somewhere where they source where are they sourcing the ideas, they’re sourcing them from Tumblr, and you can actually, it feeds up the chain and the discourse to The Washington Post and the New York Times and actually mainstream publications that that’s, that’s really fascinating, but it makes a lot of sense.

Default Friend 13:55
Yeah, and, you know, it’s, it’s where you kind of get like the dissonance between like, Oh, this isn’t real, and then suddenly, it is real, or like, Oh, this is misrepresented. And then, but then, like, suddenly, it’s actually looking like maybe it wasn’t, I was talking today, and I won’t go into too much detail about this guy. This is a place where I don’t really know the history super well. But another like, really famous example of this is the alt right, which I you know, I was talking to someone who has done like some similar research that I do into Tumblr about newer right wing movements. And basically their point was like, like, it’s both both claims are true that there is no alt right, that it’s an invention, and that it’s, you know, it became real. And you’re so we’re constantly living and like these two, two worlds, where it’s like, what really happened, how it’s being reported on, you know, the people who are identifying with the reporting and it’s like, Really, it’s very, it’s really confusing in a way, because it’s, you know, everyone wants to think they’re using their version of the truth is real. And everyone’s version of the truth is, is real in a sense.

Will Jarvis 15:12
Wow. Yeah, man, that’s super, super fascinating. And it seems like there’s this, this pressure on ideas where there’s just like, this fairly efficient market of ideas, and you’ve got this evolutionary pressure for things that generate more attention. And so it’s like that feedback cycle. So, you know, journalists, actually, they come upon something that does generate attention, like fans of the Aurora, Colorado shooting, you know, I can definitely understand why people would, you know, at least click on that, right, you know, like, What the heck’s going on here? And then that that means that into existence in some way. That’s very fascinating, is there’s do you get the sense that there’s something special about the internet, and how it drives like just our our mimetic fascination that can kind of supercharge how we discover who to copy in some sense.

Default Friend 16:01
Yeah, I mean, I think like, what is so obvious about the internet, but I don’t think has, like fully been articulated? Or like these two things, like one the internet’s like, really global? Like, there is no like, especially like, the Anglophone internet is like one sort of ocean, right? Like, there’s no, yeah, there’s no like UK or Australia, or the United States, it’s all kind of like the same geographic space. And then also, like, we’re constantly, like, immersed in it, like at all times. And it’s like, I think there’s some sort of awareness of this, but I don’t think the ramifications of this, like constant immersion has really been, like, appreciated. You know, I was talking I was talking to another friend about how like, it’s not simply that we’re always sort of idling checking our phones, but like, you know, how often is it that you go outside and you’re not you know, dead time between like, your apartment door to the, to the subway, or your car, whatever isn’t occupied with like Spotify. Right? So what do you know what happens in your week are like, there’s, there’s so many different examples of this. So you might not like literally always be on social media, but you are literally always immersed in that world, or at least, you know, a non trivial percentage of the population is. And it’s kind of like when you learn a new language, like, the best way to learn a foreign language is to be constantly immersed in it, you might not ever reach, like perfect fluency. But you will, you know, at some point, regardless of how old you are, you do you know, you can navigate the world. And it does kind of change the way you see the world. And I think the internet’s the same way, like, it’s just theirs is never turned off, you’re never really free from it.

Will Jarvis 17:58
That is, that’s such a good, that’s such a good point I and I noticed this this weekend, I was in rural eastern North Carolina, where I’m from, I was at a kind of community event at a gym, and no one was on their phones, the entire four to six hour period. And it was just such a, there’s a much lower level of neuroticism that I feel living in a big Metro pool all the time where people are bombarded like, people are just like, so much less online, then a lot of people are here, it was just it was a very bizarre experience. Do you think, you know, I guess there’s positive things with the internet, you know, we have access to all this, you know, great information, you know, better content than we’ve ever had access to. But there’s all these negative effects, which we really haven’t, it seems like we factored in all net, do you think it’s kind of a positive thing.

Default Friend 18:52
Um, you know, like, get to know I constantly waffle on this, like, I, I did have, like, a short period of time where like, I kind of, it wasn’t conscious, but I like took a break from the internet. And like, I look back on it, and I was much. I mean, that said the same thing about this was like, it was a brief, it was a brief moment in my life where like, I knew my neighbors, I was like, really embedded in the community. And like, even if I was online, a lot, like it was kind of in a different way. Like it was more sort of my concerns were more like tied up in my immediate environment. And I think for a lot of people that’s kind of lost and, you know, I’m on the fence about whether or not like, you know, like localism being digitized is a net positive or net negative and like, what I mean by that is like, you know, they could think of like a church group or something like for every church group in America, there’s probably like a corresponding Facebook group. And like, you know, a lot of the conversations or even like some of the drama Probably happens in that Facebook group as opposed to in real life. Is that better? Or like, does that make it more accessible? less accessible? I don’t know. I mean, I think I think the thing is like, if it’s used as a tool, that’s one thing, but if it’s like abstracting you from wherever you physically are, then it’s more of a problem.

Will Jarvis 20:23
Gotcha, gotcha. That makes, that makes a ton of sense. Are there any, you know, in doing all this research? Are there any personal habits you’ve picked up? You know, like, Are there are there any, you know, do you limit like time on certain applications? Or do you think it’s just like, just do kind of what you want to do?

Default Friend 20:41
I’ve gotten increasingly worse. It’s like that, like I, you know, I, I now have like, even more like keen awareness of how fast these things move. And I feel compelled to always keep up. Because like, they’re not very well documented. And like, everything, even unimportant things feel important, you know, in aggregate, and now I’m just online so much. And like, I sometimes I feel like, like I’m overdosing on it. And I often when I’m like, Yeah, like, Can I take a break? Should I take a break? Like? And I mean, the answer is, of course, yes, I need to limit my time online, and, you know, go outside a little bit more. But it’s hard. It’s hard not to, especially when you, you know, when you’re researching this stuff, and you don’t really want to miss anything, and it seems to be like an infinite amount of stuff to sink your teeth into.

Will Jarvis 21:32
Absolutely. It’s just, it’s ongoing, it’s ongoing. I’m curious, you’ve written a lot about relationships. Do you think as the internet changed the way we approach relationships and in fundamental ways?

Default Friend 21:48
Yeah, I mean, yeah, it definitely has a name for it. And there’s so many ways to like, I, I won’t go into like the whole, like, Tinder conversation, because I feel like it’s been done to death. And other people can say it much better than I can, but like to two ways that I think are really significant and maybe, like less explored, are one like, You’re, like, kind of always talking to people like even passively, and I don’t think that’s healthy. Like, even if you really like care for a lover person, I think like, you need that boundary of like, this is my time with you. And like, this is my time to myself, and this is my time and in person or someone else. They’ve also so weird knock on effects, like depending on like, where that sort of like ambient always talking to someone is taking place, like if it’s in the talking stages of a romantic relationship or a friend. And then the other thing is, like, this phenomenon of, like, micro rejection, which is like, we’ve kind of eroded all of the boundaries, or like signals of, you know, that someone is a close friend. And like, now, it’s, you know, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but for like, a lot of people. And it’s like, certainly, like a supported or, like, encouraged behavior, where it’s like, you might share a secret with someone and like, usually, if someone sharing a secret, or like some kind of intimate information, it should be a signifier that, you know, cross, you’ve crossed some kind of threshold. In the relationship, this person’s now a close friend, sharing the secret of meaningful. And now, I mean, it’s, sometimes that’s true, but often it’s not. And so, when you get back to the idea of like, micro rejection, when someone who last week told you about a childhood trauma then goes to you, and you never hear from them again, if you get whiplash, because they, you know, in any other situation, like maybe it, you know, maybe like they would have just, like, evaporated from your life. And it’s like a very normal thing that doesn’t really matter how you know, people come and go, but because they’ve sort of shared this, this heavy info, or you’ve maybe you have been ambiently talking to them all day. It’s very confusing because like, on one hand, you recognize like, maybe this person wasn’t a close friend, but he had all this interaction, but it was only over text. So it’s like, I think it confuses people and we don’t really have a language to talk about it because I think on some level we recognize a friendship cannot alone be made up of text. Or we have an awareness that being vulnerable no longer has the emotional weight that it used to. But they still something to like constantly cycling through people in this way.

Will Jarvis 24:39
That’s a That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. But it does seem. Yeah, that Yeah, I really liked that point. It’s difficult to demarcate these things now. Especially when, you know, the lines are so blurred between everything.

Default Friend 24:57
And I think it’s I mean, it’s especially tough. For like younger people to who like might, I think like, there’s a certain age bracket, I think it might be the age bracket that we’re both in, we’re like, it’s very possible that, like, our friends are really friends or friends and like, it’s, it’s a very normal traditional route, but I think for like, you know, Gen Z, it’s like, you know, it’s a little bit blurrier. It’s a little bit more amorphous.

Will Jarvis 25:25
Right? That that’s a very, it’s a very interesting point. Because it kind of like you, you know, I did have a childhood where there was no internet. And then, you know, the internet came along, that was kind of like a, that was a very new thing. And people were getting used to it, the internet was a very weird thing, which I feel like now it’s become a lot more normalized, in some sense. Like, you know, everyone uses it all the time. But it was it was kind of what it was a new thing. It felt different.

Default Friend 25:53
Yeah, I mean, I think like, I, you know, moving on to like, the platforms, like, you know, social media changed the internet in a big way.

Will Jarvis 26:06
Definitely, definitely, I think you’re absolutely right, especially, you know, algorithms kind of ruling our life and showing us what we, we should see and things like that. It’s quite, quite interesting. What, what’s your feeling on why, you know, so the internet, it, I always think of this example, you know, growing up in a small rural town, if I was, was gay, it would not, it would be very difficult for me to find a peer group. But with the internet, I could find people that were like me and kind of exit, so to speak, while I was, you know, growing up, and I could, in some sense, have a community. It’s odd to me that people I get the sense that people are really, they feel really atomized and isolated. Despite that they can find like a super unique peer group on the internet that they couldn’t find in person, because there just aren’t that many people. What’s your sense of why that is? And do you think people are more isolated than they used to be? Or is that just some kind of like, bias? I have?

Default Friend 27:07
I mean, yes, or no, I think what’s confusing is it’s like not true for everyone. But it is true for a lot of people. And it’s also like, it’s one of these things that is true. But also like, is also like trendy talking point. Right? So it’s like, it’s hard to know like, what’s the gravity of this problem? I think for I mean, I don’t think it’s the internet’s fault. I think there’s a lot of things going on with like atomization I mean, what one really important thing is like like I’ll compare my life with my younger sisters I you know, have two little sisters and they they stayed in our hometown and you know, because they they have careers where they could they could pursue work where we grew up which I I couldn’t personally so I had to move and they’re very grounded in a familiar community in many different you know, across many different verticals. So they have their school friends they have their college friends, they have friends from a religious community they have friends from our cultural community which you know sometimes overlaps the religion from our neighborhood we you know, we’ve lived on we lived on the same street basically our whole lives and there’s like a real sense of place so like they never like they’re not alone in the same way I’m alone I you know, I’ve lived in my head I think I think I’ve lived in like at least six different cities since I left my hometown so I think and I think like that’s a very common trajectory for people and it’s not just like oh like the coastal upper middle class person moving away for college. But also a lot of people you know have to just move to whatever city they can find work and I think it’s like exceptionally rare to be in like my sister’s case rare like they both have careers that they could pursue and like you know, a small town in Florida that like isn’t you know, does it necessarily have like any kind of you know, like a booming like finding professional seats

Will Jarvis 29:16
gosh, that makes a lot of sense it makes a lot of sense and and just not even having that real opportunity to go back because you know, if there’s there’s no way to pay the bills This is a very practical kind of consideration. That’s super interesting. Well, Catherine, you know, what’s next for you? Like what do you want to look into next and, and what do you find exciting today and really compelling?

Default Friend 29:40
I, you know, I really enjoyed learning about like Internet history and interviewing people. I love sort of connecting these dots and, and seeing like, you know, why haven’t we recorded this? Why have or if we have, you know, where have we gotten it wrong? Where are we got it? Right? There’s also like an important question to answer. And like in meeting, you know, and meeting all these people who are willing to talk to me and like, share their experiences with me. I’m continuing to work on like, very long form, writing about like Tumblr specifically. And then after that, when i when i exhaust that, God, who knows, who knows what’s next?

Will Jarvis 30:24
That’s great. I really like that. Well, Catherine, thank you so much for coming on. Where can people find your work? Where should we send them?

Default Friend 30:33
They can find me at default underscore friend on Twitter and there I post all of my writing, like, hundreds of times a day.

Will Jarvis 30:42
Awesome. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it.

Default Friend 30:46
Thanks for having me.

Will Jarvis 30:55
Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives.

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