Concern trolling, competition, and “Facebook Made Me Do It”

In “Facebook Made Me Do It,” Jenna Wortham says that she was innocently browsing Instagram and saw

a photo of my friend in a hotel room, wearing lime green thong underwear and very little else. It was scandalous, arguably over the top for a photo posted in public where, in theory, anyone who wanted would be able to see it. But people loved it. It had dozens of likes as well as some encouraging comments.

Of course it had dozens of likes and some encouraging comments: as should be obvious, a lot of men like seeing nude and semi-nude women. So do a lot of women; I read the quoted section to my fiancée and she said, “they like it because it’s hot.”

No shit.

So why does Wortham use language that lightly chastises the anonymous thong-wearer-and-poster? What do “arguably over the top” and “scandalous” mean here? Perhaps in 1890 it was scandalous to see women in their underwear. Today one sees women effectively in their underwear on beaches, catalogs, billboards, the Internet, and, not uncommonly, the Internet.

Since it’s not actually a scandal to see a woman in a thong and “arguably over the top” doesn’t really say anything, I think there are separated, unstated reasons related to competition and to a term coined by the Internet: “concern trolling.”

Concern trolling happens when

A person who lurks, then posts, on a site or blog, expressing concern for policies, comments, attitudes of others on the site. It is viewed as insincere, manipulative, condescending.

In this case, it happens on the Internet, and Wortham is expressing faux concern about a friend, when she’s really saying that a) she doesn’t like that the friend can take a shortcut to Instagram fame and attention through posting hot lingerie shots and b) she doesn’t like the friend as a sexual competitor. A friend who does or says something more sexually adventurous than the observer or writer is “over the top” because she’s a competitor; a friend who is less adventurous is uptight. Those kinds of words and phrases only make sense relative to the person using them, and they’re both used to derogate rivals, just in different ways.

Wortham doesn’t want to say as much, however, for an innocuous reason—she only has so many words available, as she writes in the New York Times instead of a blog, and for a less salubrious reason: she wants readers to believe that she’s writing from the voice of God, or the arbiter of culture, or something like that, and has widely shared views on community standards that the friend in the hotel room should uphold. If she explains that the views she’s espousing are really her own, and that they reflect sexual and attention competition in the form of concern trolling.

There’s a term of art that describes Wortham’s problem: “Don’t hate the player—hate the game.” Wortham is, in a highbrow and subtle way, hating the player.

The concern trolling continues later in the article, when Wortham quotes a professor saying, “The fact that the world is going to see you increases the risks you are willing to take.” But there’s no evidence cited for this claim, and, moreover, in the context of the article it’s possible to substitute “fun you’re going to have” for “risks you are willing to take.” Given a choice between inviting Wortham or her friend who posts herself to Instagram in a green thong to a party, and I know who I’m going to invite.

Take meaning where you find it: HBO’s Girls versus life in startups

My Instapaper queue had its usual dozen or so articles in it, and I noticed a trend or attitude that roughly divided them in two and offered useful juxtapositions on contemporary life: the first bunch involved the HBO show Girls (see here, here, here, and here) and the next ones involve startups (sample: “Inside Instagram: How Slowing Its Roll Put the Little Startup in the Fast Lane, Roberto Caro, and cancer (“Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? (Revisited): Personalized medicine versus evolution). The former articles say things like: “For a certain kind of lucky person, freed of the most immediate financial burdens and rich in a family’s emotional investment, college might have felt like independence or responsibility. But it turns out to be so cosseted and circumscribed that graduating feels a little like leaving the womb.” The latter describe how mind-boggling complex biology really is and say things like, “If [Instagram] can just keep doing what it’s been doing, but bigger, faster, better. If it can do all that, it just may get there. Either way, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The Girls articles are mostly about how the characters lack direction or meaning. The latter are about the extraordinary opportunities that exist for doing new, interesting things in the world, especially if you can find a topic beyond yourself that you find fascinating. The Girls articles (not necessarily the show itself, which I haven’t seen much of) are what happens when you don’t do anything real. You don’t have real problems. Your identity is all about consumption and beliefs instead of production, knowledge, and being able to do things other people can’t. Ennui and anomie threaten to overwhelm. The primal needs of food and shelter are unlikely to become life-threatening.

Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research show, by contrast, what happens when do things that are real. Nothing stops the characters in Girls from writing software that people want to use, writing magisterial tomes that plumb the depths of the human experience, or trying to figure out how fundamental biology works. Nothing, that is, except themselves. The world is vast, human desires appear to be infinite, or nearly infinite, and the world’s problems are by no means solved. The girls on Girls should try solving them. And the writers who discuss Girls should be thinking about these kinds of fundamental issues of meaning that one can see peppered across American life.

The commentary around Girls shows a certain kind of problem in American, and general affluent Western, life. It’s still a problem that the writers of these articles aren’t really acknowledging, and it’s a problem that Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research shows us how to solve—if we want to listen.

Take meaning where you find it: HBO's Girls versus life in startups

My Instapaper queue had its usual dozen or so articles in it, and I noticed a trend or attitude that roughly divided them in two and offered useful juxtapositions on contemporary life: the first bunch involved the HBO show Girls (see here, here, here, and here for examples) and the next ones involve startups (sample: “Inside Instagram: How Slowing Its Roll Put the Little Startup in the Fast Lane, Roberto Caro, and cancer (“Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? (Revisited): Personalized medicine versus evolution). The former articles say things like: “For a certain kind of lucky person, freed of the most immediate financial burdens and rich in a family’s emotional investment, college might have felt like independence or responsibility. But it turns out to be so cosseted and circumscribed that graduating feels a little like leaving the womb.” The latter describe how mind-boggling complex biology really is and say things like, “If [Instagram] can just keep doing what it’s been doing, but bigger, faster, better. If it can do all that, it just may get there. Either way, it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The former group are mostly about how the characters portrayed in the show lack direction and meaning. The latter are about the extraordinary opportunities that exist for doing new, interesting things in the world, especially if you can find a topic beyond yourself that you find fascinating. The Girls articles (not necessarily the show itself, which I haven’t seen) are what happens when you don’t do anything real. You don’t have real problems. Your identity is all about consumption and beliefs instead of production, knowledge, and being able to do things other people can’t. Ennui and anomie threaten to overwhelm. The primal needs of food and shelter are unlikely to become life-threatening.

Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research show, by contrast, what happens when do things that are real. Nothing stops the characters in Girls from writing software that people want to use, writing magisterial tomes that plumb the depths of the human experience, or trying to figure out how fundamental biology works. Nothing, that is, except themselves. The world is vast, human desires appear to be infinite, or nearly infinite, and the world’s problems are by no means solved. The girls on Girls should try solving them. And the writers who discuss Girls should be thinking about these kinds of fundamental issues of meaning that one can see peppered across American life.

Anyway: I want to emphasize that I haven’t seen Girls, and it might be very good. But the commentary around the show shows a certain kind of problem in American, and, more generally, affluent Western, life in general. It’s still a problem that the writers of these articles aren’t really acknowledging, and it’s a problem that Instagram, Robert Caro, and cancer research shows us how to solve—if we want to listen.

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