Critique of Judgment

Presumably we have all seen The Social Network, or at least heard of the primal scene of Facebook that it stages. One night, a bored Mark Zuckerberg uses his ability to type really fast to set up a website to judge the hotness of the women of Harvard. It proves so popular that it threatens to bring down Harvard’s entire computer network. Here was the kernel of Facebook, with a foretaste of its worldwide success.

While it has evolved into something far more complex than its “hot or not” roots, Facebook is still a technology for passing judgment. The zero-level gesture of engagement with Facebook is to click “like,” a positive judgment that was recently diversified to allow one to express a range of judgments corresponding to the range of emotions we learn to name in kindergarten. People have found many other uses for it as well — it is, after all, a flexible discursive medium — but the core functionality remains that of passing judgment. It is the easiest thing to do on Facebook, almost effortless.

Making Facebook do anything else can be hard. For instance, some people try to make it into a technology for sharing interesting links. But in point of fact, that effort devolves into the activity of passing judgment on those links — sharing them without reading, for instance, to express approval of the anticipated message (or to incite disapproval among one’s fellows). Some people try to make it a forum for open-ended discussion, but there, too, the inertia of judgment is strong. A real discussion requires some degree of critical distance, a willingness to entertain unfamiliar and even opposed views for the sake of argument — but inscribed in the comment box itself is a little picture of you. Indeed, as you scroll down the page, you see your own picture over and over again, making every comment box a space for you to assert yourself and your opinions and your precious, precious judgments. And if other people’s judgments show up in that space, that provides you with the opportunity to pass judgment on them.

Twitter lacks that genealogical root in a literal “hot or not” contest, but it too is a technology for judgment. Users seek followers, retweets, and (as a kind of consolation prize, since they do not present themselves so forcefully) likes — and that very quest for approval renders them vulnerable to negative judgment. What began as a popularity contest devolves into a continual reality-show exercise of voting people off the island by systematically harrassing them to render it impossible for them to use the platform any longer. Indeed, Twitter is a much more efficient technology for passing negative judgments, insofar as it breaks everything down into easily digested 140-character chunks that can be divorced from their context and literalized into objects of outrage — an especial danger for a medium that prizes irony. And meanwhile, what is the characteristic genre of the Twitter rant but a way of laying down the law, of throwing truth bombs (because truth hurts, of course) — in short, what is the Twitter rant but a sermon?

Whatever else the internet is, the hegemony of social media has turned it into a machine for passing judgment — an apparatus for seeking attention and courting the near-certainty of negative judgment. In the future, everyone will be hated by thousands of strangers for 15 minutes.

Why are we so addicted to passing judgment? I think we enjoy the feeling of strength and rightness, coupled with the license for cruelty. It’s an intoxicating mix, especially in an era where people experience less and less control and agency in their own lives. As previously noted, a genuine dialogue requires critical distance to one’s own views and a willingness to entertain those of others — the exact opposite of the brew of certitude and spite that the internet breeds in us. But it’s not just a question of our having picked up bad habits from social media, which begs the question of why we would turn away from (or in many cases, preemptively reject) dialogue in the first place. The truth is that dialogue is risky, because your efforts may not be rewarded with new insight. Indeed, you may be played for a fool by a bad-faith interlocutor who is purposefully trying to waste your time or even elicit condemnable statements from you.

By contrast, judgment has an immediate, guaranteed payoff. You get your pellet of jouissance every time you hit the lever. This is where people go wrong in scolding — casting judgment once again! — the laziness of internet users nowadays. It’s not that people are too lazy to read carefully, though surely they are, at least sometimes. Nor is it that people are too impatient to engage in genuine dialogue, though again, they often are. I would even go so far as to say that the problem is not simply, or at least not directly, that people are uneducated and willfully educated. All of these factors are real, but they are symptoms rather than causes.

The problem is that U.S. culture has become an intellectual food desert, and the profit-driven, ad-driven, click-driven internet is the local fast food place. Yes, we should make more of an effort to go to the farmer’s market. Yes, we should take the time to cook at home. But the fast food restaurant is right there, and it’s a known form of satisfaction that we can have right now. The fact that people turn to the easy satisfaction of passing judgment is a problem, but the bigger problem is that that’s increasingly the only feasible option presented to them.

In other words, the problem with people in food deserts “choosing” fast food isn’t their lack of willpower — it’s the fact that the food desert exists in the first place. Similarly, the problem with the internet isn’t that people are “choosing” the satisfaction of snap judgments, but the fact that capitalist exploitation is increasingly hollowing out institutions of education and information.

I’m not sure exactly what we can do to solve that problem, but I am pretty confident the answer isn’t to whip up some online outrage.

11 thoughts on “Critique of Judgment

  1. Perhaps it has more to do with the transition in prevalence from static print media (books and newspapers) to digital media. According to Marshall McLuhan, the former provides the requisite basis for the detached, Enlightenment-style rationalism we hold to be ideal. Digital media, because you can interact with it in an immediate social context, continues the descent into tribalism that began with radio and television. I think he used the phrase (writing in the 50s and 60s) “the re-tribalization of western man.”

  2. I think it’s clear that with Twitter we’re dealing with something other than true literacy. Yes, people need to be able to decipher written words to engage with it, but the isolated tweet is more like an image than a text — insfoar as a text (and true literacy) implies a wider context and tradition. Being able to decipher letters is different from being literate in the latter sense.

  3. Is it possible to build a social media platform that is structurally biased against snap judgments, and prejudiced in favor of fostering actual conversation and thinking together?

  4. Yes, but that just pushes meta—”check out my hot take on Kotsko’s latest post that won’t allow comments for another forty-eight hours!!!” Looks like you have a little social psychology experiment for yourself there (I’m sure there’s NEH or NIH money for the taking): do people who cook at home / clean their own house / shop at the cheese monger’s / bicycle reply to post more slowly and are they less likely to use like / favourite / heart / thumb’s up?

  5. And, to add, we already had that link sharing platform: Google Reader, which did a wonderful job facilitating communities, such as the first wave of grad school bloggers back in 2004 (or whatever it was). Turns out such a service is vastly unprofitable. But then, so is Twitter.

  6. I am going to try to make this aphorism from Myles Connolly’s Mr. Blue my daily devotion:
    “The successful conversationalist is not the [one] who does not think stupid things, but the [one] who does not say the stupid things he thinks.”

    And what your post helps me to realize is that of all the many stupid thoughts I have, the ones in which I judge people stupid, especially those I barely know, is the stupidest of all.

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