23 March 2024

Inside the Worm

Inside the Worm by Robert Swindells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A small town is celebrating the millennium of the martyrdom of their patron saint, St Ceridwen (is there a real St Ceridwen?), and so a weeklong festival is planned, culminating in a play on the life of the saint, who, in addition to dying as a martyr, had defeated a dragon that plagued the small village, not my killing it, but by banishing it to a fen.

The Year 8 pupils of the BottomTop Middle School are given the responsibility of producing the play, and Felicity "Fliss" Morgan is chosen to play the part of St Ceridwen, while her best friend Lisa Watmough is one of four children playing the dragon, whose costume they create out of whatever materials they can find.

Lisa is at first reluctant to take part, as she has a strange feeling that something bad will happen, but once she gets started she participates enthusiastically, and it's Fliss's turn to get worried as Lisa seems to change, and not in a nice way, and those who are acting the dragon's part seem to become too enthusiastic. The tension increases, until the day of the festival itself. 

I found this book particularly interesting because it is in more or less the same genre as children's books I have written -- intrusive fantasy, some have called it. So I was interested to see how the author handled dialogue and the relationships between the characters. It was comparable in that way to my published book The Enchanted Grove, and even more to one I'm still putting the finishing touches to, provisionally titled The Venn Conspiracy. I rather hope that one day soon the page for The Enchanted Grove on GoodReads will have books like Inside the Worm listed under "Readers also enjoyed...", but that wont happen until more people have reviewed it.

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21 March 2024

How social networks undermine community and promote extremism

I don't know who coined the term "social media", but in its narrower sense of commercial web sites whose main purpose is to link people with "friends" and "followers", they are becoming increasingly contradictory. 

As Tano Santos and Luigi Zingales point out in their article How Big Tech Undermines Democracy

...social-media platforms purposely seek to undo local communities to maximize profits. The reason is that social-media companies profit from our digital relationships, but not from our “physical” relationships, those that take place in parks, coffee shops, book clubs, and the like. As a result, social media platforms see the physical relationships between people as competing with the digital relations they offer.

The advantage of social media, what makes them "social", is that they have the potential to facilitate communication between people who are separated by physical distance, either through geography or through such things as the Covid19 quarantine. But this potential is often not realised because of the very commercial interests cited in the article. This is like the effect of alcoholic liquor on sex; as Shakespeare notes in Macbeth, in stimulates the desire but takes away the performance.

As for how commercial social network platforms promote extremism, Santos and Zingales explain it thus:

The local nature of physical relationships forces us to compromise. When the pool of potential friends is limited, we can’t be too picky; we must accept what we can find. Being stuck with the locals, our only option is to improve the quality of our relationships. In a digital sphere, where we can instantaneously connect with the entire world, why should we invest energy in making the current match work? By searching a bit longer, we can find a better match. The quality of any specific relationship becomes less important when there is a large pool of readily available alternatives. It is quantity over quality. As a result, digital platforms create shallower relationships among like-minded individuals that are easy to make and easy to drop.

The emphasis on quantity over quality is exacerbated by the gamification embedded in the platform’s design, carefully curated to maximize engagement and the platform’s profits. The number of followers and likes is prominently featured. Thus, users end up maximizing the number of relationships, not their quality. As many others have noted, in a boundless virtual community, the best way to get attention is to be extreme, to radicalize your position, and even to attack others. In a physical community where people constantly interact face-to-face, it is difficult to dehumanize adversaries. Not so in virtual communities. Online people are just avatars like the ones we are used to shooting in video games. Online, we don’t live with the consequences of our actions when we offend others because we do not observe the pain we inflict on them. We only live with the benefits: more retweets, likes, and followers. This is why otherwise calm and lovely people transform into aggressive beasts online.

Commercial social media are also curated to exacerbate the silo effect. Like the concrete grain silos used for holding corn for loading on to trains or ships, users of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter (now confusingly called X, so I'll continue to refer to it as Twitter), Instagram and TikTok are funnelled into silos insulated from those in other silos. 

One of the things that social media were initially good at was linking people to information. Twitter, for example, started off as a microblogging platform. One could not say much in a microblog, but it was very good for linking to longer articles that said more. A blog, after all, was a web log, a log and commentary on web sites visited that one thought might interest others. So many web sites made it easy to post links to them on social media platforms. If you think others will be interested in this, share it on your Twitter feed, or on Facebook or somewhere else. But what do the people who run those platforms do? They adjust their algorithms to ensure that such posts are shown to fewer people. They stimulate the desire, but take away the performance. They destroy the very thing that attracted people to their site in the first place. They don't want people clicking on links to other sites because they fear it will mean fewer eyeballs on ads. But the links are what keep people coming back to their site.

There are, however, some anomalous hangovers from the past, when the social media platforms were more user-oriented than they are now. Sometimes I retweet a link to an article I see on Twitter, and it asks "Do you want to read the article first?" That is a hangover from a time when they were trying to give the impression of being "socially responsible" and at least make it appear that they were trying to discourage users from retweeting clickbait articles that might be fake news. I quite often retweet articles I haven't read, however, because I don't have time to read them now, and want to read them later. 

One effect of this that I have noticed is that fewer and fewer people respond  to things I post on social media, so they aren't social at all. I have something over 1100 "followers" on Twitter, but if I post something only 10-30 people see it. The more important it is to me, the fewer the people who see it. And in most cases the people who do see it never respond. A post may occasionally get a "like" or two, but at least half these "likes" are from bots with fake names, no profile information, and no followers. If Twitter were a real social medium, then there would be social interaction, but there isn't. It is antisocial.

I'll put links to this article on Facebook and Twitter, and it will be interesting to see how many people see it at all, and, of those, how many interact with it in any way, by "liking", sharing, commenting etc. 

Again, Santos and Zingales explain this thus:

...digital [networks] are designed and regulated by the platform owner: They are centralized. The reason is that digital relationships are built and maintained in a space that is controlled by a platform, and this control confers the platform with the ownership of the relationship. We can’t take our X (formerly Twitter) followers with us to a different platform, nor can we access our followers without X’s permission, which can be withdrawn at any time without cause. In contrast, X can advertise to our followers and connect them with other followers. We don’t own our followers—X does.

Not only are most digital networks centralized, but they also have another motive to create and maintain the network: to monetize it. Their economic motives fuel their interest in undermining physical networks. All else being equal, customers are indifferent between a digital relationship and a physical one, but platforms aren’t. They profit from digital relationships but not physical ones. In their effort to subsidize digital relationships and undermine physical ones, these platforms are even willing to pay us to remain glued a little longer to the smartphone and not go to the bar with our friends.
Facebook is much the same. It is forever offering me new "people you may know", but there is very little interaction with people I already know. It doesn't show me what they post, and it doesn't show my stuff to them. Or perhaps it does, but they don't like it, and they don't like me, and if I knew what they really thought and they acted on what they really thought we would unfriend each other. So far from being a "social" medium, it promotes the feeling of:
Everybody hates me, nobody loves me
I'm going to go and eat worms
Big fat juicy ones, little itty bitty ones
See how the big ones squirm.
First you bite their heads off, then you suck the juice out
Then you throw the skins away
Nobody knows how I can thrive
On worms three times a day.

I recently had a look at some of my Facebook "friends" that I hadn't heard from for a long time. Some had died, and their last posts were usually from other people saying that they had died, but Facebook never showed me those, so I didn't even know they had died. But if they had posted some trivia just before they died, Facebook would probably have been more likely to have shown me that. But posts with news of their death weren't monetised enough. 

Other friends had probably just dropped out because they found that having their relationships and friendships manipulated by the platform socially unrewarding. It increased the desire but took away the performance, and eventually they found the lack of performance unrewarding and left.

Back to the danger to democracy...

Once again, Santos and Zingales indicate that

Without information, political participation dwindles, and vested interests have an easy time capturing local administrations because most people don’t vote or don’t vote in an informed way. A captured democracy functions poorly, reducing incentives to participate and the trust in the democratic process. If, as Tocqueville hypothesized, local communities are the gymnasium of democracy, then these trends do not affect just local administrations but also national ones.

State capture is not something peculiar to South Africa, though the Gupta affair was a good example of how vested interests can manipulate social media to undermine democracy

But it can also work the other way, as we have recently seen when the Western "mainstream" media were captured to channel Israeli government agitprop after 7 October 2023 (and probably before that as well), social media platforms were used to keep alternative viewpoints alive. Even though social media platforms are manipulated, it is possible to some extent to find workarounds, though that requires a great deal of time and energy.

And back in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were a lot of non-commercial social media platforms like BBS (Bulletin Board Service) networks, Usenet newsgroups and email mailing lists that were not captured by vested interests. BBS networks, in particular, were run as a kind of private-enterprise socialism, email mailing lists still exist. If any of my friends would like to communicate online without the commercial manipulation, contact me through the OffTopic forum here.

08 March 2024

Advice to would-be horror writers

The Abominations of Yondo

The Abominations of Yondo by Clark Ashton Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first bought this book, about 50 years ago, I disliked it intensely. If I were reviewing it then, I would have given it one star.

I bought it because I liked horror stories, or thought I did, and the blurb led me to believe that I had found some good ones. When I began reading them, however, I was put off by the author's style. He tried to build an atmosphere of horror by piling adjective on adjective which became so cloying as to be almost meaningless, so by the time one reached the end of the story there was no horror left.

My taste for horror was shaped by reading Dracula and a collection of short stories edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, Mystery, Horror. For more on that, see A Taste for Horror. Clark Ashton Smith did not appear in it, and his stories were disappointing by comparison.

Years later, when I became a professional editor, I read books on writing to help me in my work. I read warnings against this practice of piling on the epithets, and advice to use them sparingly. When I read that advice I thought of Clark Ashton Smith and thought I knew exactly what they meant.

Later, in the 1990s, a friend, who was researching new religious movements, told me about H.P. Lovecraft, who, he said wrote some passably good horror stories as well as a lot of third-rate dreck. His interest was sparked by the phenomenon of some readers thinking that a fictional book mentioned in some of Lovecraft's stories, the Necronomicon, actually existed, and developed a cult based on it. 

I got a book of Lovecraft's stories from the library and read it. I agreed with my friend's assessment, and when I discovered that Clark Ashton Smith was an associate of Lovecraft, I decided to try and read his stuff again, and found it not quite so rebarbative as I did the first time.

Nonetheless, I would urge any would-be fiction writers who have wondered about the advice to be sparing with adjectives and adverbs to read books like this with that advice in mind. Not all of Clark Ashton Smith's stories are overflowing with superfluous modifiers, which showed that he could write quite decent prose if he wanted to. But in re-reading this one I did note some over-the-top examples, like:

corroding planets
dark orb-like mountains
abysmal sand
hoary genii
decrepit demons
leprous lichens
unmentionable tortures
unknown horrors
immemorial brine
undetermined shadows
abominable legends
cacodemoniacal night
forbidden inferences
and eldritch anything at all

Many have the prefix un- or the suffix -less (nameless is another favourite).

Smith and Lovecraft gave rise to the Eldritch School of horror writers, and many have tried to imitate them since then, with unmentionable results. Perhaps it was this that inspired another prolific author of horror stories, Stephen King, to advise aspiring writers to go through their manuscripts and remove every forbidden adverb they found.

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