The Internet Rewards Crazy (Rerun)

(This is a reposting of a post from five years ago. I think it holds up pretty well. The Internet seems to be changing human society in significant ways which are not yet entirely clear. Perhaps the nature of what is happening will become a topic of systematic research.)


Crazy, overconfident; the opposite of the judicious, scientific, skeptical temperament.

Extreme opinions.



The opposite of thoughtful.

Changing your mind frequently, discarding what you were excited about last month and buying into something new today. Normal? Perhaps not. But typical of, for example, successful commercial bloggers who write about gadgets, electronics, photo equipment, etc.

Mass-market crazy — the opposite of Wretchard’s idea about people with rare perversions who find each other online. The crazy of promoters, attention whores and drama queens of both sexes, people who argue forcefully for provocative ideas and startling conclusions based on biased data sets. People with agendas that are not always obvious. People who cynically start quarrels to get attention.

Also real crazy, people with issues, people you would avoid in the physical world. The guy from the mail room who knows the specs of every WW2 German tank and has interesting conspiracy theories. On the Internet, if he writes confidently, he can be an authority on military history, at least for a while. People who are just plain disagreeable, who repeatedly make and alienate friends online. People who move from one enthusiasm to another, forgetting their last obsession as they focus on the next one. A few of these characters really do have unique, well developed ideas that deserve wide attention. For them, and for anyone who benefits from their work, the Internet is a boon. But most of these people are cranks. How can the reader know who is what?

In some cases crazies do well online in the short run because they believe their own bullshit and the Internet strips away many of the tells. It can take some time for reasonable people to realize what kind of person runs the website they have been reading, and then to start to reexamine what they’ve learned there. In the long run sites run by crazy people tend to accumulate crazy audiences. Crazy commenters tend to drive out the sane. We all know sites of this type. The worst of them encourage rather than buffer extreme behavior. And the same is true of the sites run by the hucksters and bombastic monomaniacs.

There is no formal remedy for any of this. It’s just how the Internet is. It’s driven in part by the online cost structure: information that used to come free in the form of accents and voice inflections and body language and local reputation is often no longer easily available. Crazy, devious and manipulative people exploit the void (not intentionally in all cases, it’s just that online we can’t filter them out as readily). And it’s driven in part by human nature. People tend to be attracted to strong opinions, confidently stated. Thus, as countermeasure, we need continually to remind ourselves about our cognitive biases. We need to be intellectually cautious. As we learned in the old world to be wary of salesmen, telephone solicitors and anyone who seemed to have all the answers, in the Internet world we learn to watch out for similar kinds of people, perhaps in different guises. There is nothing new under the sun, but once in a while we are forced to remap our old expectations and learned responses to a new environment.

13 thoughts on “The Internet Rewards Crazy (Rerun)”

  1. Internet discussion forums constitute a giant distributed master-level class in figuring out whether people are crazy, given only the restricted indications available in an ASCII communication channel.

    The unexpected benefit is that those who do well in this class also acquire the ability to tell whether vetted and gatekept journalists, authors, professors, and intellectuals are crazy, given only the restricted indications [etc.].

    In other words, we’re getting better at evaluating people on their ideas, instead of basing our evaluation on cues about status such as whether a publishing house decided to publish them, where they earned their degrees, or whether they’re allowed on television.

    It’s an interesting set of tradeoffs.

  2. Joseph Roth, writing about the impact of then-new communications technologies in the 1920s:

    “There are no more secrets in the world. The whispered confessions of a despondent sinner are available to all the curious ears of a community, which thanks to the wireless telephone has become a pack…No one listened any longer to the song of the nightingale and the chirp of conscience. No one followed the voice of reason and each allowed himself to be drowned out by the cry of instinct.”

    Roth didn’t much like photography, either:

    “People who had completely ordinary eyes, all of a sudden obtain a look. The indifferent become thoughtful, the harmless full of humor, the simpleminded become goal oriented, the common strollers look like pilots, secretaries like demons, directors like Caesars.”

    See my post Duz Web Mak Us Dumr?

  3. Recently ran into this quote from Ronald Reagan:

    “Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders. … The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.”

    Indeed, it recently seemed that the microchip (in conjunction with optical networking and the intangible protocols that define the Internet) had broken the information oligopoly of the old media and created a new liberating force. But recently we have seen the Internet in the form of social networking used as a vicious enabler of witch-hunting….new examples are evident every day, see thoughts on this phenomenon in my post Freedom, the Village, and the Internet.

  4. That’s one effect of the Internet. Another is the shortening of attention spans. The investment required to change sources has become small, which enables people to switch channels or texts or shows instantly when even slightly bored. The commitment to the current activity diminishes.

    And the fast response often provides near-instant gratification.

  5. RIch…also, the obsession with looking at one’s screen (or talking/listening via it) at the expense of what is actually happening in the physical space around a person.

    When the telegraph was first invented, a reported marveled that “this extraordinary discovery leaves no ELSEWHERE…it is all here.”

    If wired communication destroyed (or at least reduced) the sense of Elsewhere, then wireless communication does the same to the sense of Here and Now.

  6. One thing that separates the internet, especially in the age of social media, from previous communication technological innovations, is the ability to do massive and instantaneous A/B testing on the users/consumers of the technology. Facebook, Google, all the MSM, etc., can tell in real-time what headlines & content provoke what responses in their users, and modify them instantly in order to maximize whatever metric they’re interested in, which does not necessarily have any relationship to any sort of benefit to society. Nothing like that was ever possible before. It’s qualitatively different from gathering focus groups, conducting surveys, etc., and enables much more manipulation of human propensities for certain addictive and destructive behaviors.

  7. Good point about the A/B testing. It’s not limited to FB/Google/MSM, etc…anyone providing content can do it pretty inexpensively…no magic is required. If you have a business FB page, you can just do 2 versions of the same ad and boost them with relatively small $ budgets…then, after finding out which works best, boost the selected version with a lot more $$. Same principle applies to political content.

  8. One of the games I play is training Youtube. I have 70 odd subscriptions and Google takes that and the videos I take from the larger stream, and decides what it thinks I want to watch.

    Today after looking at a quad I may buy, primarily for my grandaughter, I was wondering just how to set the D8 protocol on my Taranis RC controller. Up it comes on my stream, all by it’s self.

    Good boy Google, now … sit! Roll over!

    Still needs some work ;)

  9. “One of the games I play”
    It is very strange that you think you’re the one in charge of that “game” you describe…

  10. “It is very strange that you think you’re the one in charge of that “game” you describe…”

    You don’t understand how this works. At one time I could get your site near the top of Googles list by basically tagging things well.

    Now the algorithms are much more sophisticated. and the ones that decide what Google shows you are quite different than the ones that decide site placement in the search engine.

    I am what is sometimes referred to as a ‘Googler’. I have Google mail, I use Google+ and my Youtube feed is also just Google. Google knows a lot about me. I use the fact that Youtube in particular is constantly trying to serve up what I want, to affect that stream by careful choices and telling it from time to time, no that’s not what I want. The effect of all this is that it gets better at giving me what I’m looking for. The example I thought amusing, really did serve up what I wanted, at just the right time.

  11. Um, no, I understand perfectly. The fact that google knows everything about you, and shows you links that they calculate you may like, and you think it’s what you want and that you’re the one with the power in this interaction, is amusing.

  12. “Um, no, I understand perfectly.”

    I don’t think so. I said it’s a game I play with Google, but it’s really just tweaking the alogarithms that it uses. This provides me with even better service than I would get if I just clicked on crap, without thinking or caring about Google’s reaction.

    It’s just a game I play and is hardly world shaking, but I thought it was appropriate after your post that indicates some knowledge of how this all works. I may have been wrong.

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