This is the second in the Culture Mechanics series. Here is a link to part one.
In my middle school, the nerds were the bullies. This wasn’t the case everywhere at the time - certainly not at the school I’d transferred from, and it was no longer the case for many of my classmates when they graduated. But for whatever reason, at that school, it was the sensitive, cerebral, artistic types who had caché; and the athletic and socially adept found themselves at a disadvantage, not quite knowing where they fit in.
I think it had something to do with the movies and television we’d grown up on. By the 80s and 90s, the high school jock bullying the nerdy introvert had become a ubiquitous trope in media. These movies created a common reference point; they made the bullies legible to the broader culture. And on the basis of that collective understanding, a negative type could emerge, and jocks were cast as bullies rather than the aspirational models they’d been prior. But, as often happens, the correction went too far - and the nerds took advantage.
In the distant past, it might have taken generations for enough common knowledge to develop for a reversal like this to happen. But it could happen in a matter of years with mass media.
Typing dynamics were already pretty extreme by the time of television and movies. But with the internet - and especially social media - they exploded.
“Twitter (and the internet in general) is a massive machine for ratifying discrete chunks of social reality and creating common knowledge. Digital word of mouth moves faster than irl word of mouth. I feel like we're in a moment of Type Accelerationism, where the speed at which new Types can be minted and ratified is increasing, and the max-specificity/complexity of a viable Type is increasing.”
Types form around some shared experience — something salient enough for a group of people to begin referring to and discussing among themselves. Enough rural townspeople encounter fast-talking urbanites, and the city slicker type starts to germinate.
In the past, once a type began to form, it spread by word of mouth; and others only really understood a type if they’d already had some firsthand experience with what it referred to. This meant types only really took hold in the most pronounced and salient cases, and their emergence was slow.
This process was sometimes accelerated by media - types featuring in stories, books, plays, and then in movies and TV. But this was all small potatoes compared to what the internet brought.
It differed from older media in a few key ways:
The internet is many-to-many. Anyone can post their take on something - a meme, an opinion - and the most compelling of them are selected and amplified.
It’s low-threshold. You don’t have to write a book or a pilot episode for your ideas to get out there - you just have to share a meme or a hot take and others can see it.
It’s competitive. Unlike broadcast media, the internet is peer-to-peer, and so much of what happens on it organizes around social competition - in particular the ways groups bolster and elevate their common identities and take down rivals.
It’s high dimension. You can share memes like the ones below and instantly communicate ideas that are otherwise very hard to articulate (have you ever tried to describe a meme to a friend?) and people can refer others to the exact same thing. It means people don’t need firsthand experience to the same degree to understand and spread types - if at all.
It’s non-local. Remember the city slickers? Types tend to be generated when a group of people who share some similarity encounter someone different and start talking about them. The internet is almost perfectly designed for this, enabling people to group by affinity and providing them ample fodder of people who differ.
And everything on it happens very fast.
We’ve created what is effectively a machine for generating, selecting, and spreading compelling types.
You can see many hundreds of these a day online, and they’re internalized on some level, whether you agree with them or not. It’s what social consensus does to us. This one has been rattling me lately:
We’re dropped into this growing structure of rules and associations, and have to find a way to navigate it and protect ourselves in real time. As types increase in number and complexity, the harder it gets, and the more people look to the crowd. But types thrive in conditions of conformity and high perceived consensus, and it creates a vicious cycle.
There’s very little now that you can do or be that doesn’t touch on some negative type, and it’s only getting worse.
The Belly of the Beast
We’ve never had so dramatic an ability to create and leverage common references. In the fight between the group and the individual, it’s given the group a decisive advantage. It’s harder and harder to find safe ground:
The combined effect of these laws is an ecosystem in which people are ever on the run from their peers; trying to form and maintain a ‘safe’ identity within a shifting matrix of complex associations that is always looming in the background threatening to swallow them.
But at the same time expectations have also been rising.
Our entertainment apparatuses have made it so that the most extreme examples of beauty, humor, grace, style, charm, intelligence are before us at every turn; in movies, on TV, and in our social media feeds.
And we’ve been given more power than ever before to curate our social personas and how we present to the world. This used to be the purview of celebrity culture and fictional media - characters and personas written with impossible charm and wit, strength and courage, elegance and sophistication. But now your peers can do it too.
It’s hard not to let these examples influence the way we perceive ourselves and others. And as we try to compete in this context - or merely keep up as the case tends to be - we push our expectations higher and higher, driving and distorting them as far as our creativity and credulity allow.
These dynamics help create a strange circumstance in which almost everyone can feel behind.
And so from one side expectations ratchet up; from the other, a blooming complex of associations and connotations makes it ever more difficult to find a safe way to meet them.
And we’re all caught in between.
These kinds of miserable dynamics used to be more limited to rarefied circles - the suffocating norms and expectations of British high society; or the cutthroat status games among the American cultural and financial elite. But technology has made it so that everyone can be brought in.
Now we’re all in the belly of the beast.
This TikTok is in the back of my mind every time I encounter a girl on a walk with my dog:
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I know I’m not that guy. But the sense of social consensus is very powerful, and every aspect of his behavior - what he says, his tone, facial expressions, demeanor - is burned in my subconscious as a new tripwire never to cross.
Humans are social creatures: we’re on some level helpless to track social expectations and what others think. The dynamics of connection and competition have created a raging ocean of cultural signifiers and associations, and we’re flooded with it every time we pick up our phones.
Our cognitive machinery wasn’t meant for the kind of social world we’ve created.
I think it could have something to do with why suicide rates are up 151% in girls aged 10-14 over the last decade. I think it’s also probably the right lens to understand our political dysfunction. And I think it’s a major part of why people are unhappy despite living in a material golden age.
But the fallout doesn’t stop there.
This, and your other thread on Twitter, are really interesting! Do you think this is leading to something? Is this "immunization" behavior heading towards a more resilient "culture"? Or do the social rules become stricter and stricter at a more and more rapid pace?
(For the record, I found myself editing for tone multiple times before posting to try to not be one of those soyface memes)
Great post, I'm totally in agreement with you, and we seem to have come upon very similar ideas. With respect to the nerds being the bullies, the best rendition of that I've seen is 21 Jump Street: Channing Tatum goes back to high school and everything is backwards, the cool kids sing reduce reuse recycle.
When I think about this phenomenon I think a lot on comment sections. Most of the Internet is hypercometitive environments for commentary to evolve, and 99+% of users just consume it. I think what happens to someone who consumes this enough, and especially who grows up consuming it, is their superego takes the form of a comment section. The Freudian superego being the best explanation pointing to the part of your brain that figures out what "society says" about things. A comment section super ego, like you describe, is characterized by a ton of extremely specific validations, for example constraining yourself to not give the demeanor of the dog walker guy.
I outlined my thoughts on this topic here: https://pendertif.com/who-am-i-a-sketch/