We Get the Conversations We Deserve

Justin Kownacki
Aug 15, 2018 · 6 min read

In the early days of Facebook and Twitter, there was a great debate.

The subject was “walled gardens,” and the debate went like this: why should someone build a walled garden like a blog or a personal website, which can only be accessed by people who know where it is and how to find it, when you could instead build your digital presence in an “open garden” like a social media platform, where everyone could find you and your influence can grow?

The open garden concept won.

A decade later, we’re asking a different question: who’s responsible for weeding our open gardens, and do we even have a right to weed them in the first place?

Last week, Apple, Facebook, and YouTube banned Alex Jones and his InfoWars brand from their platforms. Each company claimed that Jones’s intentionally provocative statements and potentially dangerous conspiracy theories — which he’s been peddling for years, yet is only being publicly acknowledged for now — were in violation of their terms of service. Only Twitter declined to mute Jones, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey adamantly insisting that allowing Jones to say anything he wants, even if it’s an outright and offensive lie, is ultimately in the public’s best interest.

Less than a week later, Twitter gave Alex Jones a 7-day ban for violating its terms of service with a subsequent tweet. Evidently, if you give a weed enough time to thrive in your open garden, it will eventually grow tall enough to demand a response from even the most equivocal gardener.

My real point here isn’t about Jones. It’s not even about the larger industry that Jones belongs to, of influencers on all sides who understand how to manipulate our tech platforms for their own personal or material gain better than the leaders of our tech platforms seem to understand the psychology of how communication works in the first place.

My point is that we get the communication platforms — and, by extension, the conversations — we deserve. And what we deserve is largely determined by who and what we reward with our time, attention, and amplification.

The problem is that the systems and algorithms that decide which information we see are programmed by the behaviors of fallible people: namely, us. And like a poor rural voter hoping that a tax-dodging billionaire will save us from ourselves, we tend to publicly say we want one thing while our recurring behavior often works against our own self-interest.

Here’s why that happens, and how we can fix it.

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According to a popular self-help claim, your personality is based on the sum total of the five people you spend the most time with. If that’s true, then it’s no wonder our world seems like it’s in constant crisis mode: the person most of us spend more time with than anyone else these days is Donald Trump.

Do you know more about Donald Trump than you do about your next-door neighbor? Or your cousin? Or your spouse?

If so, that’s [technically] not your fault… and yet, it [functionally] is.

Trump got elected because we couldn’t look away. Even those of us who didn’t vote for him felt obliged to talk about him nonstop: “Did you SEE…?” “Have you HEARD…?” CNN treated him like a clickbait cash cow, and their behavior trained other networks and viewers to do the same. When one subject dominates the headlines, that subject becomes the de facto most important topic or person in the public eye, and their gravitas grows with every new sunspot of outrage or support. At a certain point of no return, that topic becomes a black hole, sucking in all attention until there’s no room for anything else to be discussed. All other topics seem insignificant, and even mentioning them seems foolish and irresponsible, like trying to paint a watercolor during a hurricane.

The simplest solution is simultaneously the craziest: just stop talking about that planet-eating topic, and talk about something useful instead.

“But HOW?” we ask. “It’s SO important, and it affects SO many people, that NOT talking about it seems even MORE harmful!”

It’s not.

You know what IS harmful to each of us personally, and detrimental to society at large? Asphyxiating what nourishes us for the sake of keeping toxins alive. If a towering weed soaks up all your sunlight while you’re trying to figure out how to stop it from taking over your garden, guess what happens to your garden anyway.

But again, this isn’t just about Trump. It’s about the way we perpetually amplify the very thing that’s making us sick, because our communication systems reward us for polluting ourselves.

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You see a headline that boggles your mind, and your next step is automatic.

“How could anyone BELIEVE this???” you rage-tweet, making sure to include a link to the very article that incensed you.

You do this because you want validation from your followers. You want to see, via their likes and RTs and “OMG LOL WTF!!!” @ replies, that you aren’t alone. That other people, quite similar to you, also think that what you see as being insane is also, to them, equally insane. Or depressing. Or infuriating.

But here’s everything else that happens when you do that:

  • You get validation from people who already agreed with you anyway
  • You invite criticism from people who disagree with you — which will then eat up your time by debating one anoother’s beliefs to a blood pressure-raising ideological standoff
  • You expose your own audience to the original article… and some of them will actually agree with it and re-amplify itself themselves BECAUSE they agree with it, not with you
  • You invite your ideological co-believers to re-share your article with their own brand of sarcasm or outrage — which, again, amplifies the original article’s reach, over and over again

This is how viruses work.

While all of this is happening, what are you and your audience NOT doing? You’re not sharing messages and media that amplify the positive aspects of your beliefs. You’re not spending your time cultivating new relationships, investigating new areas of interest, experimenting with new ideas that might emergize you, and creating more of what you’d like to see in the world.

Your crave for the dopamine rush of getting 20 rage-likes is trumping your own self-interest in having meaningful and nourishing conversations.

This happens, over and over again, because Twitter and Facebook reward us for this behavior. And we want to please the machine. We know that if we share information that DOESN’T get a lot of engagement, the algorithm punishes us. It determines that we share low-value content, so it reduces the organic reach of our future posts. So if we ever want to be heard when we DO have something to say, we have to make sure we’re saying things worth amplifying on a regular basis. And nothing gets amplified like outrage.

Weeds know how to thrive.

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Ask yourself this:

Would you rather post a Facebook update that got 3 interesting comments in one day, or a Facebook update that got 30 likes in 30 minutes?

Even if you said A, you know that you’d have a hard time passing up B, because B feels so good. B also looks good to the algorithm, which means the algorithm will make you look good to others. It’ll make sure you’re at the top of your friends’ feeds. It’ll make you look like a thought leader. It’ll allow you to have more space within its “open” garden.

In other words, it’ll reward you for being a weed.

To change our conversations, we need to change what we want from them.

This doesn’t mean that we have to change our values. But it does mean we have to change our valuations.

It means we need to stop amplifying toxicity by calling attention to it, when we could be calling attention to beauty and joy and accomplished dreams instead.

It means we need to spend more time creating things worth talking about, rather than talking about what’s conveniently at hand.

It means we need to retrain ourselves to prefer the spark of deep connection to the flicker of passing interest embodied in an easy like, and retrain ourselves to then create and share the media that makes such deep connection possible.

It means we have to stop saying the sky is falling just to get people to look.

And most importantly, it means we need to rip the weeds out of our gardens, silently, and replace them with the trees we want to grow, before our gardens are overrun by people who insist that weeds are just as good as trees.

Justin Kownacki

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I teach people how to tell better stories. http://justinkownacki.com @justinkownacki