How the vibe shift to negativity is hurting progress, and what to do about it
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Hi friends 👋,
Happy Monday! Hope you stayed cool this weekend. It was a balmy 95 here in Brooklyn; perfect weekend to stay inside and write.
Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a vibe shift online: the conversation seems to be getting more negative, aggressive, and polarized. Today’s piece is an attempt to unpack why so many people are talking past each other, why it’s so unproductive, and what to do about it. It’s not as upbeat as a lot of Not Boring pieces, but I think addressing this issue is crucial to unlocking progress.
Let’s get to it.
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You won’t find many people who love the internet more than me. My whole career is based on the internet. I spend way too much time on Twitter. When people have criticized Twitter for being a dark place full of trolls and hate, I’ve defended it. “That’s not been my experience,” I’d retort, “Most of the interactions I have on Twitter are thoughtful and fun!” I wrote The Great Online Game and meant it.
I’m not feeling that love as much recently.
Maybe the bear market and the potential of recession is bringing out bad vibes. Maybe everyone’s a little bit hungover from a couple of years of excess and upside. Maybe it’s just that we’ve just spent too much time online together over the past couple of years and it’s starting to feel cramped.
The early COVID period online was like Episode 1 of any season of The Real World. Everyone shows up to the house all excited to meet new people and embark on a wild adventure together.
“Everyone here is so funny and smart and hot! Let’s do shots! We are going to have the BEST TIME EVER!!! <3”
COVID was and remains terrible [insert all of the bad things], but there was something catalyzing about the early days of the pandemic. In Conjuring Scenius, I wrote that, “When it is all said and done, I believe that historians will look back at the Coronavirus pandemic as the greatest catalyst for progress and creativity in human history.”
That was a crazy claim to make in May 2020, but there were three reasons I thought it might be true:
It served as the previously-absent, globally-catalyzing event for the internet generation.
People across the globe banded together, united by a common mission: to fight the spread of this disease.
Having been forced to interact almost exclusively online for an extended period, people are creating new tools, processes, and social norms that make collaborating online more like collaborating in-person.
I thought that those three factors might be enough to precipitate the first global scenius, a concept musician Brian Eno described as “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”
Think back to that time. There was fear and fighting, but most of it was focused on the pandemic and, in America, Trump. Outside of those two topics (and they’re very big ones, but concentrated) the vibes online were incredibly positive. People experimented with new ways to connect, share information, have fun, and create online. Technology, from Zoom to mRNA, was viewed as a positive force. People, unlocked, often unwillingly, from their old jobs, tried new things, and generally, people were supportive of whatever they pursued.
In a 2008 essay, Kevin Kelly laid out the four factors that have historically nurtured scenius:
Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
Network effects of success — When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
Local tolerance for the novelties — The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
All four were present on the early COVID internet, and to me, it felt like we could finally unlock that idea of scenius from its geographic boundaries and bring it to a global scale.
But if you’ve watched The Real World, you’ll know that the novelty and excitement of being thrown into unusual circumstances with a group of strangers fades quickly. Humans gonna human.
By like Episode 3, relationships and cliques and romances and rivalries start to form, and the housemates need to get jobs and work together, and the producers feed them booze, and they’re stuck with each other all… the… time. The housemates stop being polite, and start being REAL.
It feels like we’ve turned that corner on the internet, maybe a while back. I’m ready to declare my dream of a COVID-fueled Global Online Scenius dead.
Like Real World housemates, the online housemates have retreated into tribes and cliques. People are sick of each other. People are no longer willing to support, or at least tolerate, the wild ideas they were willing to support or tolerate when people had nothing better to do. Instead of concentrating attention and angst on COVID and Trump, attention and angst are once again fragmented. Everyone is talking past each other.
There’s been a vibe shift. It’s not as innocuous as who’s wearing and listening to what. It’s a shift from assuming the best in others to assuming the worst. I’m worried it has dangerous implications for our ability to make progress.
Some of it is outright fighting, name calling, and the like. There are some truly miserable people on the internet who wake up every day and make it their mission to dunk on people to boost their followings and sense of self-worth. But a lot of it just seems to be people picking tribes, identifying with certain worldviews and sticking with them no matter what. Jonathan Haidt was right.
You can find signs of the shift everywhere:
Green activists and nuclear proponents yelling past each other when they ultimately, ostensibly, want the same thing
NIMBYs versus YIMBYs
The Woke Mob versus anyone who accidentally says something in the wrong way or without the right caveats
Tech people versus non-tech people
Web3 versus Web2 (or crypto vs. anti-crypto)
Remote versus in-office
Left versus right
The list goes on and on. It seems as if the default stance is that anyone on “the other team” is definitely wrong, potentially stupid, probably malicious, and maybe even criminal. Without a common goal or common enemy, everyone is talking past each other.
I don’t want to make this a crypto piece, but it’s what’s in my feed, and the conversation around regulation in crypto over the weekend provides a clear example of what I’m talking about.
In January, Prof G captured the anti-crypto camp’s popular (but false) perception of the pro-crypto camp’s view on regulation. He wrote that the decentralization narrative “is a false god evangelized by high priests who pass collection plates the size of Mars and admonish regulation as heresy.”
I got sucked in and wrote a rebuttal, pointing out that anyone serious I’d spoken to in crypto desperately wanted sensible and clear regulation so they could do their jobs without having to worry about going to jail.
Recently, the All-In Podcast has started pushing a narrative that’s been pervasive on Crypto Twitter for a year that web3 VCs are taking advantage of the lack of regulation to dump tokens on retail. Cobie provides the best overview in this essay – essentially, shitty, short-term VCs do this, legitimate, long-term VCs don’t. But Jason and All-In gleefully paint everyone with the same brush and root for people to go to jail.
This weekend, FTX founder and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried tweeted “we’d love to be further regulated!”, expressing the common view among anyone serious in the space:
And the response wasn’t, “OK, cool, so we all agree? More regulation? Great!”
It was, “Of course they want more regulation! Those in power always want more regulation because it makes it harder for new entrants to compete with them!”
Others in the crypto extreme chimed in and said, “No, we don’t want regulation. Otherwise, we’ll just end up with banking 2.0,” ignoring the reality of the situation. And on and on it will go. It’s exhausting.
Again, I don’t want to make this a crypto piece. It’s just a very clear example of two sides talking past each other and digging in on their side instead of trying to find a common ground. You can find similar back-and-forths almost anywhere you look.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine brought to light some of the silliness in the environmental movement, which impacts politicians’ very real decisions, like railing against nuclear power. Faced with the very real threat of energy shortages, the EU parliament backed rules labeling gas and nuclear as “green” for investment purposes. Greta was not happy.
At the time of writing, 1,793 people have quote tweeted that tweet, most pointing out how Greta’s anti-nuclear stance was unrealistic, inconsistent, and led to things like the EU turning to coal as nuclear plants shut down. This battle, too, will go back and forth, exhaustingly.
The internet, and social media specifically, aren’t entirely to blame – tribalism and disagreement go back as far as humanity – but social media amplifies, polarizes, and distorts. Everyone with an internet connection, regardless of knowledge or motivation, can weigh in, retweet, dunk, and argue for argument’s sake. Many choose to play The Great Online Game on dumb mode, fanning flames just to feel something, and it’s pushing sides further apart and further from positive action.
Jonathan Haidt was right when he wrote of the social media game in Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid:
This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.
(I highly recommend reading his whole essay if you haven’t yet.)
I’m neither innocent nor immune here.
I kinda dunked on someone this weekend, and I justified it to myself because he’d dunked on me in the past. I don’t love that I did that; it’s not my natural stance. I love a good debate, but there’s a pretty clear line between a good faith conversation and trying to score points for your team. I’ve noticed that as I’ve come under fire, I’ve dug in my heels.
More worryingly, I can feel the vibe shift impacting my creativity and writing. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve been as good at writing Not Boring since I went viral for a dumb answer on crypto use cases.
It’s hard to parse whether it’s that the whole incident was personal and internet-scale – there was a fucking Atlantic article about it – or whether it just coincided with the general vibe shift, market crash, and boiling point.
Either way, it’s been harder to come up with ideas. Harder to find the excitement that I usually have when I seize on a topic and work to understand everything about it. Harder to feel great when I hit send, knowing that there are a bunch of people on the internet who will comb through it to find anything dumb (and there’s always something dumb!).
It’s not that I’m scared to write, or depressed, or living in a constant state of worry. I’m happy and optimistic 99% of the time. It just feels like there’s a governor on my creativity and excitement, a low-grade thing buzzing in the background that gets amplified any time I go on Twitter. Sometimes when I’m sitting here writing on a sunny summer Saturday, I wonder: what’s the point? People who agree with me will agree with me, and people who disagree aren’t going to change their mind.
In the grand scheme of things, my creativity and excitement levels are unimportant. I bring it up because, while it’s very apparent that all of this amplified tribalism leads to gridlock on a larger scale – in what politicians are able to propose and pass, in what gets built and how fast – experiencing it first-hand makes me concerned that there are probably a lot of people in more important positions who have that creativity and productivity governor on.
Haidt describes something similar happening to America’s institutions in the essay:
A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities.
… This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted.
He was referring specifically to institutions that lost their backbone – their willingness to stand up for their people in the face of social media heat and their acceptance of dissenting views internally – and became less effective, and dumber, in the process. David Deutsch’s Principle of Optimism states that “All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.” Pushing away knowledge to appease a mob is anti-optimistic.
Not Boring isn’t a newsletter about politics or America’s institutions. I’m writing this because the darts hit startups, too, and innovators more broadly.
It’s never been easy to be a founder; in fact, it’s famously difficult. It’s incredible that some people are able to succeed wildly in the face of so many obstacles, from negative press to unhappy customers to VC rejections and so much more. But what I’m talking about is different.
The impact of amplified tribalism is most obvious in the extremes. In his interview at the All-In Summit, Anduril founder Palmer Luckey called out Jason for attacking him on social media, and explained that he was only able to build a controversial but important company like Anduril in the face of those attacks because he was already rich and well-connected.
Luckey was able to persist through opposition from Silicon Valley and many of its insiders for years until the war in Ukraine made Anduril’s value obvious through a combination of fuck you money and rare grit, but he pointed out that the criticism he received would likely have stopped less well-positioned founders.
The impact is less obvious in the quotidian, but on the whole, it’s equally depressing. Whenever a founder tweets something, they’re either hit with indifference – a common and familiar outcome – or some idiot in their replies or quote tweets telling them how dumb the idea is, that it’s pointless because we already have “x”, that it will never work, and worse.
Garrett Scott, the founder of Not Boring Capital portfolio company Pipedream, tweeted about the wave of criticism that hit him and his company in the replies to this tweet from Just Raised podcast host Joe Sweeney:
Pipedream isn’t making something as controversial as weapons. It’s trying to build an underground network of tubes that powers “delivery so fast, it feels like teleporting.” It’s an audacious bet, and the company has and will continue to face all sorts of challenges, ranging from robotics to plain old municipal politics, but the fact that grown-ass adults (many of them anonymous) spent time shitting on it is nothing short of pathetic.
Garrett had a great attitude about the whole thing, but an onslaught like that would be deflating to an average founder, and it’s just unnecessary.
The problem is: it’s incredibly easy to get likes for pointing out how dumb an idea is, or how any VC who funded X startup at Y valuation is a total idiot. It’s harder to get likes for celebrating a company or a founder. That attitude has always been there, it’s just been buried in newspapers, articles, and Hacker News comments, where the virality is less powerful. Now it’s out in the open, and anyone in the world can get a dopamine reward for piling on.
And similar things happen, to a greater or lesser extent, any time anyone builds something non-obvious, publishes a research paper, or does … anything. Shows are only made about startups when something goes horribly wrong. The last three to come out were about Uber (Superpumped), WeWork (wecrashed), and Theranos (The Dropout).
Any one tweet, show, or pile-on isn’t a big deal – and I’d imagine if you asked most founders or researchers, they’d say it doesn’t bother or distract them, that it’s just part of the job, that it motivates them to build something even bigger – but taken together, I think the ease and popularity of dunking is a disease that slowly eats away at society’s ambition, creativity, and drive, one person at a time.
That said, I do think that critique, debate, investigation, and accountability are important. The worst thing I’ve read in a long time is the story that just came out on the Alzheimer’s researcher who fabricated images and set Alzheimer’s research on the wrong course for 16 years. The deception was only uncovered when a skeptical short seller hired a sleuth to dig in. As someone whose biggest fear is losing my memory and getting Alzheimer’s, I wish the skeptics had done their thing a long time ago. This is an extreme example, but there are many other situations where skepticism is useful in detecting fraud. More and better journalism on Luna, Celsius, 3AC, and Voyager would have prevented a lot of people from losing a lot of money.
It’s just that there’s a big difference between nobly pursuing truth and uncovering fraud, and reactively shitting on something or someone to grow your follower count. It’s a lot easier to do the latter. And all of the noise and negativity and skepticism drowns out the real bad stuff. Social media has turned millions of people into the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Amplified tribalism can be damaging in a seemingly nice way, too. Haidt points out that, “When an institution punishes internal dissent, it shoots darts into its own brain.”
At the extreme, tribalism likely prevented credible people in the crypto community who understood the unsustainability of the Luna math from speaking up, and prevented many others from digging in at all. When “the other side” is attacking your side, the goal is to defend, not seek truth. This comes through in less obviously harmful ways, too: pretending that a startup is worth pursuing when you know it’s not, for example, to be nice and support your side. The cost is the waste of a team’s productive years, misallocation of resources, and more noise that the good projects need to fight through. Puja telling me that my idea before this newsletter was dumb was one of the kindest things she could have done; it saved my time and helped me discover something better.
An Idea Lab “is an intellectual culture where high-rung thinking thrives and where it can be done well communally.” In an Idea Lab, the goal is to get to the truth, and debate, disagreement, and idea sharpening are welcome.
An Echo Chamber is what it sounds like. In an Echo Chamber, “Praising the object becomes a very cool thing to do, while saying anything bad about the object is considered an act of unredeemable blasphemy.”
In an Idea Lab, people separate ideas from people or teams. Ideas are good and bad on their own merits, and people are good or bad on their own merits. In an Echo Chamber, ideas and the people or teams who support them are inseparable. If someone disagrees with you, they’re an asshole; if they agree with you, they’re A-OK.
I think that early COVID was the closest we’ve come to an online Idea Lab at global scale. Of course there was disagreement and fake news and bad science and the like, but the general vibe was to try to get to the truth, because it meant life or death, or at least years spent in a tiny apartment versus back-to-normal. Beyond COVID, people were trying to get to the truth of what it meant to live, work, and learn online.
The recent bear market vibe shift has pushed us as far into Echo Chambers as I’ve experienced online, and, because online impacts offline in a very real way, as far into Echo Chambers generally as I’ve experienced in my lifetime. There doesn’t seem to be broad agreement on much of anything, and each issue’s tribes seem to be digging in their heels harder than ever.
All of it feels very counterproductive. I’m worried that everyone talking past each other decreases the likelihood of a better future in a very real way. Of course politics is gridlocked, and that slows down progress and the implementation of common sense solutions, but while we blame politicians, we’re doing the same thing ourselves.
I’m worried that when we eventually land on Mars, a vocal cohort will scream, “Mars! What a waste! There are bigger problems to solve back on Earth, where the real people are.” When we cure cancer, half of the population is going to yell, “Oh great! Now we’re going to have overpopulation / Now drug companies are going to make even more money!” These may be fair concerns, and should be addressed, but I hope we can get to a place where we’re not so busy fighting that we can’t enjoy the big accomplishments.
This state of affairs is a real challenge, and it’s particularly dangerous because it’s so subtle. It presents as a bunch of maniacs yelling at each other online, but I think it’s potentially the biggest threat to the kind of future I want to see. Amplified tribalism encourages ideas either so radical as to not gain broad support or so watered down that no one cares enough to oppose them.
Less ambitious projects will lead to more meaninglessness and more squabbling about dumb shit on the internet. On cue, Noah Smith tweeted this yesterday:
But, unsurprisingly, I think it’s beatable. I’m… optimistic.
In Optimism, I argued for the “very optimistic belief that things will inevitably go wrong, but that each new challenge is an opportunity for further progress.”
It’s hard to overstate what a dramatic change it was to, for the first time in human history, connect over half of the world’s population, put us all in the same digital spaces, and give us all darts to blow at each other.
Until the last couple of decades, it was pretty easy to ignore people who held beliefs you didn’t agree with. It was easy to build in relative obscurity until your idea was ready for prime time. That’s no longer the case. Now, every day, multiple times a day, people on the internet are forced to confront people they disagree with and get feedback from people they didn’t ask for feedback from. That’s a hard thing to adjust to, and it’s unlikely that the rules and institutions that worked until this point will be the ones that work going forward.
But there are two competing visions of the future: one in which we continue to get more polarized and retreat, unproductively, into Echo Chambers and fight even things that are objectively good; a second in which we create the world’s largest Idea Lab to progress faster than we could have before we were all thrown into the same digital spaces.
I’m still holding out hope that we’ll be able to create the second, an Online Scenius, one that taps into the power of millions of geographically dispersed people without giving into our worst instincts.
Haidt proposes three fixes: Harden Democratic Institutions, Reform Social Media, and Prepare the Next Generation.
We can go further. We need a vision of the present and the future we can all get excited about, and feel a part of, that supersedes meaningless online squabbles.
I’m not pretending to be smart enough to solve this problem that has dogged humanity from time immemorial. But there are clues in history. Often, common enemies, or common missions, or the combination of the two, spur progress. COVID was a common enemy, but it turns out that it was too specific, and the genuine fear too short-lived, to create sustained, broad-based unity. Somehow, even fighting COVID became tribal.
Maybe we won’t have a choice. Conflict between China and the US, and between freedom and authoritarianism more broadly, might reach a point at which Americans have no choice but to band together. Bipartisan support of the CHIPS Act and onshoring manufacturing highlights the potential for unity on the issue. Maybe hostile aliens will land on Earth and make any of our current fights seem meaningless and unimportant.
But I’d rather not root, or wait, for conflict. I’d prefer a common mission and a common vision for. Chances are, that vision is not going to come from the top. As it stands, a President could propose the objectively best vision possible, and a realistic plan to achieve it, and half of the country would dismiss it. No, more likely, it will come bottoms-up, with contribution from business, government, academia, and the people.
In an essay in The Atlantic last year, How the U.S. Made Progress on Climate Change Without Ever Passing a Bill, Robinson Meyer describes the “Green Vortex” to explain why, despite the lack of a national climate bill, America is decarbonizing anyway.
In the group’s telling, the past decade might not be defined by “a failure to have any sort of comprehensive climate policy,” as Jesse Jenkins, an engineering professor at Princeton, told me, but by a “piecemeal, bottom-up investment and subsidy-led approach to driving emissions change.”
I think that, despite the lack of a national plan to get people to stop talking past each other, and absent an inspiring vision of the future from the top, we’ll make progress in a similar way here.
The idea that drives the green vortex is: Practice makes improvement. The more that we do something, whether baking a cake or manufacturing electric vehicles, the better we get at it. (Economists call this “learning by doing.”)
The most inspiring and practical vision I’ve come across is the Abundance Agenda proposed by Derek Thompson and supported by people like Noah Smith and Ezra Klein. More housing. More energy. More healthy and delicious food. More accessible education and healthcare. More big infrastructure and transportation projects. Less partisanship.
This agenda would try to take the best from several ideologies. It would harness the left’s emphasis on human welfare, but it would encourage the progressive movement to “take innovation as seriously as it takes affordability,” as Ezra Klein wrote. It would tap into libertarians’ obsession with regulation to identify places where bad rules are getting in the way of the common good. It would channel the right’s fixation with national greatness to grow the things that actually make a nation great—such as clean and safe spaces, excellent government services, fantastic living conditions, and broadly shared wealth.
It’s hard to argue with that plan. It’s so American. Who doesn’t want abundance?
I’d make one modification: while we’re working on creating physical abundance, we should also work to channel our newfound digital abundance productively. At this point, it’s probably impossible to stop the bad online; we need to drown it in good. I have in mind something like a modern Renaissance: an explosion of art, culture, knowledge, philosophy grounded in the classics but leveraging, and addressing, the reality of our big digital melting pot.
There’s been another tribal battle taking root recently: physical versus digital. Bits versus atoms. “Why are people trading monkey jpegs in the Metaverse when they could be solving nuclear fusion?” I don’t think it has to be either/or. That’s why I write across the spectrum, and why Not Boring Capital invests in hard startups at the frontiers of atoms and bits.
I’m animated by a future in which everyone has a higher standard of living, where no one cares if some people make a lot of money on jpegs or cancer drugs, because everyone has what they need to live comfortably, and enough time and opportunity to climb Maslow’s pyramid well beyond the basics.
Call it the Abundance Renaissance. It might take a century or more; it might never fully happen; but it’s worth working to try. If nothing else, it might give young people the feeling that they might actually contribute to saving the world through their work, and something better to do than shitpoasting away their frustrations online.
In a couple of weeks, we’re due with our second kid. I’m going to take the month of August off to spend time with Puja, Dev, and the new baby. I probably won’t get much rest, but I’ll recharge. Since I won’t be writing every week, I want to go really deep on a few topics, and the Abundance Renaissance is top of the list. Send any articles, books, podcasts, and ideas that you have my way!
In the meantime, we can start learning by doing. As one small step: next time you’re about to post something negative online, take a beat and think of whether there’s something better you could be doing with your time and attention. Take some time to try to understand the other team’s point of view, and beat up some of your own assumptions. Call out bad behavior and fraud in your own ranks. Write down what you’re for instead of what you’re against. Or just get offline for a little bit and go touch grass.
Thanks to Dan and Puja for editing!
Have a great week, and see you back here later this week.
Thanks for reading,