Looks matter and always will because they convey valuable information, and a note about the media

In “The Revolution Will Not Be Screen-Printed on a Thong” Maureen O’Connor laments that people judge each other based on looks (“Why can’t we just not obsess about bodies?”), and then kind of answers her own question:

I ask that in earnest — it’s possible that we actually can’t stop, that this compulsive corporeal scrutiny is some sort of biological imperative, or species-wide neurosis left over from millennia of treating women as chattel.

We judge each based on looks because, as Geoffrey Miller describes in Spent and others have described elsewhere, looks convey a lot of useful information about age, fertility, and health. Beyond that, women are competitive with each other in this domain because they know (correctly) that men judge them based on looks (among other things).

In addition, as Tim Harford discusses in The Logic of Life, speed dating and other research shows that women reject about 90% of those in any given speed-dating event, and men reject about 80% of women. Both men and women usually report that they want similar things—men want youth and beauty; women want height and humor. But researchers devised clever experiments in which dating pools of either men or women have changed systematically—for example, by having entirely very tall men or very short men. Yet the rate at which men and women accept or decline dates remains the same.

That implies “compulsive corporeal scrutiny” is based partially on the knowledge that any particular person will be judged based on the other people around.

I don’t bring this up merely to correct a point in an article; it’s also to observe that a lot of the stuff one reads online is based on limited knowledge. As I get older I increasingly get the impression that a lot of journalists would be better served, at least intellectually speaking, to spend more time reading books and less time… doing other things?

One thing I like about journalists or journalist-blogger hybrids like Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias is their wide, deep reading, and their willingness to connect wide, deep reading with the subjects they write about. One might disagree with them for ideological or other reasons, but they do at least know what they’re talking about and usually try to learn when they don’t. Too much of the media—whether in The Seattle Times or The Wall Street Journal or New York Magazine—is just making noise.*

Given the choice between most media and books, choose books. The challenge, of course, is finding them.

EDIT: Maybe Ezra Klein’s new mystery venture will solve some of the complaints above; he mentions “the deficiencies in how we present information” and promises “context.” I hope so, and certainly I’m not the first person to notice the many problems with the way much of the media works.

* Granted, I may be contributing to this in my own small way by contributing a link and possibly hits to a noise-making article that should be better than it is.

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.

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