February 26, 2012
The #Politics Tag: What I Need as an editor

I’ve had about a week as a #Politics editor for Tumblr, and I have few requests:

1. Libertarian posts that engage the complexities of libertarian ideology as translated into political practice.

Most of the libertarian posts that come up on my dashboard are little more than ideological screeds. They begin from “libertarianism is the answer to all issues of human freedom” and end with “everything else is a step on the path to totalitarianism.”

Aside from the fact that the argument is just silly—that things can go a way doesn’t mean they will or must—the main problem I have with these posts is that they seem cut out of time. They seem utterly unaware of or indifferent to the causes of the rise of the welfare state, the profound limitations on “free markets” when transparency does not and cannot exist, etc.  Inflation existed BEFORE the US and the rest of the world went off the gold standard after all, and there were labor wars in this country and around the industrialized world that included the assassination of a US President (McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist/labor activist). I would love to see some libertarian posts that addressed complexities such as these and then explained how, in a real world way, libertarian policies offer better alternatives to liberal or conservative ones.

2. Actual conservative posts, particularly ones that say something other than “Obama sucks.”

Perhaps it is my own lack of search ability in Tumblr, or perhaps it is the fact that blogging platforms seem disproportionately havens for younger, liberal/libertarian oriented people, but I have struggled to find posts expressing thoughtful, considered conservative alternatives to various policies and problems.

3. And to the Tumblr staff:

When I highlight a post, I am often interested in the  commentary associated with it that was added by a reblogger—particularly when the commentary offers needed corrections, new information, or just an alternative perspective on the issue at hand. All that goes away if I highlight the post in the #Politics tag. Which is annoying.

Is this so much to ask? Say something new, interesting, incisive and thoughtful and I will be happy to promote your piece—even if I don’t agree with it. If you don’t post the content, I can’t highlight it in the #Politics tag.

May 12, 2011
The Tumblr (and every other site like it) game

Have you ever wondered why you care when someone “likes” or “reblogs” your posts on Tumblr (or likes your comments on Facebook, or responds via Twitter, or what have you)? Have you wondered why you care when someone follows you … and why it hurts when you lose followers? (Questions, alas, I find myself asking … myself.)

The answer to this question comes down to pretty straightforward human ego manipulation. Tumblr, and Facebook, and Twitter and every other site like it has adapted the tools of gaming to the creation of  platforms on which one essentially earns “points” (likes, reblogs and followers in Tumblr’s case) that are structurally akin to winning points in Mafia Wars, Farmville, or Age of Empires. It’s a game in which you collect readers and followers and that consequently satisfies our collective desires for self-expression.

And make no mistakes about it: this game’s rules shape our behavior. First, it’s at least part of why we check our pages time and again. Sure, we see what others have brought up, but we like being part of the conversation, and the likes and reblogs and follows are the outward sign of that participation.

Second, just speaking from my own personal experience with Tumblr, I tend to get the most responses when I make quick, snarky comments that manifest a fairly unabashedly socially liberal, anti-tea party point of view, or when I post graphics that make related points. By contrast, long posts that address complex matters tend not to get as much attention, and those that suggest flaws and holes in progressive points of view tend to be utterly ignored—or to be associated with losses in followers.

The incentive structure here is clear: play to what might be termed my base, and I am likely to be rewarded with likes, reblogs and followers. Transgress that base, and lose points—and the ego satisfaction that comes with them.

Two things stand out about this. First, this process is very similar to the process by which strong partisans and elected officials find their political positions hardening over time. Properly designed reward structures reinforce favored actions; differing structures promote different outcomes. The end result can be the kind of disconnected two-way shouting matches that seem to characterize so much of American politics today,

Second, it isn’t all that much of a stretch to imagine that this game might be coopted to particular intents. Right now, the primary purpose of games like Farmville and Mafia Wars and even blog posts seems to be profit: pushing users to download apps, buy programs, or visit the websites of various sponsors. While such commercial activity is fraught with its own political meaning, it is not directly political in the sense of being a “side” in the discourse of daily politics. (Tea party concerns to the contrary, there is no real anti-capitalist movement in America.)

But imagine a game structured to “teach” certain political values. There’s already some evidence to suggest that the 20+ years of video gaming in our recent pasts have prepared a generation of cyber warriors to fly drones over Pakistan (or wherever) from bases in Virginia, so why not games with more explicit political intents?

We are only a few years into the social experiment that is the modern digital era. It’s only been six years since Facebook went out to the public. We’re learning and adapting at a staggering rate of speed.

It’s going to be both fascinating and frightening.