the Margins guide to understanding online conflict
Learning from the Internet of Beefs
Ranjan here. Talking about the battlefield that is social media, and an article about The Internet of Beefs.
Last week, in my review of Ezra Klein's Why We're Polarized, I explored how the divide between the "uninterested" vs. the "interested" was a critical part of our current polarization. I also looked at the nationalization of politics and media as a root cause. But I only glossed over the polarization catalyst most near and dear to my heart: Social Media.
I'm going to attempt to tackle the battlefield dynamics that underlie social media. I'll center this entire piece around one epic article: The Internet of Beefs by Venkatesh Rao.
Please, spend some time reading the entire piece. It gets quite grim at points, but it laid out, more clearly than anything I've read before, the hierarchical dynamics that drive social platform behavior. It paints a tale of an almost perfectly decentralized, self-running conflict machine, that provides just the right incentives to make all sorts of participants do all sorts of things. All to keep the beefs flowing.
I've previously written that, on social media, The Conflict is the Point, but I never really broke down the "why". Why do we spend time doing arguing? After reading the piece, I keep analyzing every Twitter interaction through the lens of the Internet of Beefs.
MOOKS & THE KNIGHTS
Okay, so let’s try to understand that “lens”. First thing. You have "mooks".
Note - I've heard the term mook as a slur for Italians, but I think it's very dated. The author uses it in the literal "stupid or incompetent person" definition, so I’ll stick with it (but I still kind of feel weird writing it over and over).
The Mooks are the low-level people. Swiping and scrolling around, just looking for an opportunity to engage. From The Internet of Beefs:
Conflict on the IoB is not governed by any sort of grand strategy, or even particularly governed by ideological doctrines. It is an unflattened Hobbesian honor-society conflict with a feudal structure, at the heart of which is an involuntarily anonymous, fungible, angry figure desperate to be seen as significant: the mook.
Many people may never notice a Mook, but they are, in fact, the key foundation for social media:
Most mook-on-mook contests are witnessed, for the most part, only by a few friends and algorithms, and merit no overt notice in either Vox or Quillette. Beyond a local uptick in cortisol levels, individual episodes of mook-on-mook violence are of no consequence.
In aggregate though, they matter. A lot. They are the raison d’être of the IoB.
What makes a Mook tick? It's to impress the Knights with whom they align:
There is no higher honor for a mook than to be noticed by the knights they fight for. As a result, the fealty of the mook is the currency of the manorial economy of the IoB. Mookcoins are mined by knights through acts of senpai-notice-me. Call it proof-of-favor. And on mookcoins runs the economy of the IoB.
The Knights are the big-time folks that have made it. They have followers. Their social platform status might be part of their career. You likely know their names.
The way they stay on top is by beefing with other Knights:
The semantic structure of the Internet of Beefs is shaped by high-profile beefs between charismatic celebrity knights loosely affiliated with various citadel-like strongholds peopled by opt-in armies of mooks. The vast majority of the energy of the conflict lies in interchangeable mooks facing off against each other, loosely along lines indicated by the knights they follow, in innumerable battles that play out every minute across the IoB.
By gaining victory in their high-profile Knight-on-Knight beefs, they increase their mook count:
The more mooks a knight of the IoB can maintain in a stable state of combat-readiness, the bigger a player they are on the IoB. If you are blessed with a better, beefier class of mook in your army, capable of sustaining and dishing out more damage points, they will even win over mooks from adjacent theaters of conflict for you, and perhaps even bait a few frustrated non-combatants…
And to be a knight, of course, is to have a recognized name, and a storied reputation as a beef-only thinker to be reckoned with; one capable of owning opposed knights (and “absolutely eviscerating” them in strategically edited YouTube clips).
Do the Knights even care about the banners they fly? Rao would argue no. They’re more concerned with beefing in a way to best catalyze action among the mooks:
Conflict on the IoB is shaped not by the strategic intentions of its nominal leaders (who largely have none, beyond keeping the conflict profitably alive and growing), but by emotional energy flows in the field of mooks. The best knights on the IoB, such as Trump, operate by an entirely reactive philosophy: “there go my mooks; I must find out where they are going, so I can get out in front and lead them.
What drives the Knights? Often “The Holy Grift” (I loved that line - it instantly makes me think of ………..)
What separates the knight from the mook, of course, is not a nerdy literacy in a particular beef-only discourse, but a capacity for a profitable originality within it. The mark of a knight of the vast round table of the Internet of Beefs is the relentless pursuit of the Holy Grift. A mercantile mission for the end of history.
This last part is a bit of an oversimplification. I imagine the motivations for Knights are wide-ranging, but Knights are most likely fighting for some self-beneficial purpose.
MARGINS FRAMEWORK FOR UNDERSTANDING CONFLICT™
Okay, that was a lot, but it’s fun to view Twitter interactions in this mooks and knights lens. We can then combine this with the identify-your-identities technique, which I introduced last week, where you force yourself to understand which specific identity of yours was triggered by an online interaction.
Together, we can start to have an official framework (MBAs and consultants, rejoice!) to better understand the outrage driving your feed.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the official Margins Guide to Understanding Online Conflict (MGUOC)™.
Let's do this in real-time. I opened Twitter as I’m drafting this Thurs night EST. I'll try to find an interaction involving some high-level knights engaging.
Here we go:
@benjaminwittes, a Knight flying the reasoned-centrist-wonk banner has Retweeted @BillKristol. I know this is a beef worthy of this post because the Twitter Web UI has the RTs and Likes ringing up like a slot machine:
@BillKristol, a Knight from the Old Kingdom, who has not yet laid down his sword, has tweeted the type of thing that probably would’ve horrified a young Bill Kristol.
This clearly activates my "anti-Trump", "there-are-no-more-independent-Republicans-in-power", and “I-want-to-hear-reasonable-voices-from-the-other-side” identities. Kristol, as a "rogue" ex-GOP’er, serves all these identities well.
The very first reply is from a user who appears quite active. Maybe straddling the border between mook and knight. This user went with the knee-jerk, mic-droppy, slam tweet:
and the 2nd reply is a bit heavier. We have a misspelled band name and attempt at a joke.
I always wonder if, when people tweet responses like this, they have this GIF playing in their head:
Based on follower counts (1800 and 10k), these warriors certainly feel like they could be knights. But if you look at following:follower ratios (both have around a 1.0), perhaps it unmasks them as mooks?
We scroll a bit further down:
A meaty tweet by another knight-in-waiting. And this person has a podcast! And they have a shortlink to their podcast page.
Note: I hope this process doesn’t come off as too mean-spirited. I am completely guilty of responding to people’s tweets with Margins’ post links. The funny part is, it triggers a notification in the Margins Slack, and my co-host Can always give me shit for it.
Okay, let's do one more tweet for now. You'll probably start to get a sense of my political and academic inclinations, but this one is from @DanDrezner. A knight flying the Wonky, Witty Professors banner.
He quote-tweeted a tweet about Devin Nunes being corrupt. This certainly activated my "Devin-Nunes-is-the-worst" identity and "they're-all-grifters" identities.
And I was clearly not alone, because Jennifer Rubin, another Knight, flying the "reformed Republican" banner (similar to Bill Kristol), shared my sentiment:
But wait, the proud mook @threelittlekittens6 has informed us the story was from 2018.
and the user elaborated that they are not denigrating any of the knights in the feed, and are, in fact, fighting for the same banner:
The information is, in fact, is two years old. The original tweeter, a NYT political columnist (a knight named @Edsall), for some reason tweeted it a few minutes ago. I genuinely wonder whether he was confused, or if there's something more.
One final one for now. This tweet entered my feed-space:
I had long ago followed the powerful knight @shaunking, but at some point unfollowed. He is the platonic ideal of a platform knight. Huge following. Huge influence. Always ready for, and doing, battle.
This story. Ugh. This absolutely triggers my “please-dont-needlessly-enflame-liberal-division-for-juice” identity. But lo and behold, a few replies down, a mook named @GetridofTrumpx has brought forth the words of a powerful knight, for whom, I too have often mooked for, @joshtpm:
It’s also worth noting how the tweet entered my feed. It was via this tweet:
I follow the knight @HilaryR, who proudly flies the Democratic Party Establishment Wing banner. It’s a bit amusing that she quote-tweeted her own reply. Someone like Hilary Rosen feels like more of a real-world knight (a legend in political communications circles), but @shaunking probably felt engaging her in online battle was not worthy of his time, so she took this approach.
Note: That last tweet was selected as I’m finishing up the editing on Saturday afternoon. It certainly looks like we’re gonna have another Hillary vs. Bernie news cycle. Also, the three tweets I picked make me feel so lamely centrist-establishment.
I’ll reiterate, I don’t mean to be overly critical of any of the users above, because I am guilty of all of the behaviors above. In fact, I will probably reply to the Knights I battle for with a link to this post to promote it. This stuff is fun! I’ve certainly benefited personally (new friends!) and professionally (new clients!). But I had never previously broken down specific interactions in this kind of way, and things feel like they’re making more sense.
Let’s end on the somber note, from the Internet of Beefs, there is no escape from this hellscape:
To participate is to lose.
But building and maintaining increasingly costly defenses in the form of progressively thickening skin and strengthening force fields of passive aggressive resistance is also unsustainable.
And to retreat into what I call waldenponding or to the CozyWeb is to cede public spaces entirely to the mook-manorial economy and accelerate the crash.
It is a no-exit, hellish condition...
Happy Superbowl Weekend!