#20 Rabbit Hole
Number 20. Wow, thank you! Although the topics present themselves naturally, writing these little notes takes away quite some of my weekend. And that’s worth it because of your replies. So, we’ve now co-written twenty posts. Well done.
As far as I know, Substack doesn’t show any statistics publicly. I like that; it keeps the focus on content instead of quality. This newsletter now has about 150 subscribers, and the average mail has some 300 opens. To me, that is wonderful. Unlike the 80,000 people that downloaded the DEF and stayed mostly anonymous, I feel like you are friends. Thanks.
I binged the Rabbit Hole last week, “an audio series about how the internet is changing, and how it’s changing us.” The next thing we did was remove YouTube from our kids’ iPads.
If you haven’t heard about it, Rabbit Hole is a short podcast series that explores how the internet went bad. In it, the well-connected New York Times internet reporter Kevin Roose interviews a cast of people that shaped the internet or were shaped by it. Like most New York Times podcasts, it is super well produced and somewhat uncomfortable.
The main character of the series is Caleb. Caleb’s journey from YouTube’s innocent beginnings to the far (alt) right and then to the alt-left was a wake-up call for me as a parent with kids growing up online. Caleb, a loner, first finds distraction and then a community on YouTube. Over time, the Frozen soundtrack morphs into self-help videos, then the “alt-lite” and ultimately horrifying stuff. Caleb’s development aligns with the development of YouTube’s algorithm and its strategic objectives. Only because of an incredible drive to explore alternative viewpoints does Caleb escape from the rabbit hole YouTube dug for him, which might just as well have turned him into a terrorist.
It reminded me of some of the interviews I read with Georges Salines and Azdyne Amimour after the release, not too long ago, of their conversation We Still Have Words. Salines and Amimour both lost a child in the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan. One, as a victim, the other, as a killer. In the interviews, Amimour often says of his son, the killer, that he should have seen him slip away into radical ideas. There were so many steps, so many opportunities to say ‘stop.’ Still his son went further down his rabbit hole until he became a murderer.
Rabbit Hole made me understand we are all susceptible to the same trends. There is a rabbit hole for each of us.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the New York Times if Roose didn’t interview YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki to hear YouTube’s point of view and her perspective is hopeful — and undoubtedly PR-polished. More interesting is the conversation Roose has with Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie. Like many old-media people, I turned my back on PewDiePie when he seemed to show his true, antisemitic colours, unaware that I may have been going down another rabbit hole. The conversation gave me a better insight into the problematic dynamics of the relationship between Felix and the movement he inspired.
Ultimately, Roose also speaks with what may be the most giant Rabbit Hole of this century (so far): QAnon. And while we’re on the topic of Podcasts and QAnon, I definitely recommend Reply All’s Country of Liars episode, which does or doesn’t tell you who Q is.
In Europe, I don’t think QAnon and the forces the shape it gets the attention they deserve in public discourse. It definitely doesn’t get talked about enough in the world of culture. Even though there have been QAnon inspired assaults on museums, I’m still getting a lot of blank looks when I mention the term in the sector. (This may also be because I have a tough time pronouncing QAnon smoothly, “QqqqqAhanon.”)
What should our response be to QAnon?
I think our innate response is to counter ideas such as Q’s with knowledge and facts. No, there is no basement under this pizza place. No, Soros does not fund every NGO in the world (if he did, I’d start a few more NGOs!).
But fact and knowledge will never win from Q. His storytelling, the participation and cocreation it inspires, the new creations it enables, the communities it builds… QAnon is a textbook example of how cultural organizations should have been doing their storytelling all along. Facts are powerless against a story like this.
So, what to do? In one of the clips played in Rabbit Hole, an alt-left YouTuber says that people need to radicalize anyway, so it’s best to radicalize them for the left. Our version of that could be that we radicalize people to ask questions and challenge dominant, fearful narratives. Question everything, and listen to all perspectives to come up with new realities. Or, as Douglas Rushkoff says in Team Human:
“Prohuman art and culture question the value of pat narratives. They produce open-ended stories, without clear victors or well-defined conflicts. Everyone is right; everyone is wrong. The works don’t answer questions; they raise them.”
I think today’s Rabbit Hole wouldn’t be complete without Sassy Justice. You’ve all seen this, no doubt, but I must say it begs a rewatch. It also stuck in my mind. Earlier this week, in the Netherlands, our Santa Claus or Sinterklaas arrived in the country. Every year, a special daily news bulletin follows his every move through the country and playfully engages kids in his myth. This year, because of Covid-19, they did something incredible.
Typically, kids will make drawings for Sinterklaas and hand these to him personally to better their odds at expensive Lego gifts. This year, social distancing makes this impossible. So the news bulletin came up with the idea that the kids could send their drawings to their local mayor, and these would hand them to Sinterklaas. And indeed, I uploaded my son’s picture to the website, and our mayor responded with a personalized video immediately.
This made me think: did they really get all 300+ mayors in the Netherlands to record a video message for what is effectively a children’s programme? Sassy Justice made me doubt this!
Of course, it turned out to be true. All mayors minus 11 responded to the request from the producers and collaborated. Lots of them went out of their way to participate.
But how could I have been sure? What to believe? What if Sinterklaas is a rabbit hole as much as QAnon is?
Thanks so much for reading today’s newsletter. I didn’t write about tons of things, including an upcoming event about What Art Can Do for the Climate, Stoepplantjes, the NVVN, and so much more. All that, next time!