If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
— “Freewill,” Rush
The attacks on norms have been persistent this century, as various people with angles to play seek to widen Overton’s window to their advantage.
The lassitude with which these attacks have been greeted has been a grim harbinger, as people entrusted with roles in government, governance, society, institutions, and professions have again and again demonstrated an inability to rise to the task, to do the job of defending the norms that define their roles and responsibilities.
The point of widening Overton’s window is obvious — if more formerly aberrant, shameful, or even dangerous behavior is viewed as acceptable, there are more ways to fleece, fool, and fake.
These attacks have naturally led to an attack on norms in the information space, because norms in that space generally exist to make it more difficult to lie, provoke, or mislead. Norms in the information space also tend to influence expectations around behaviors, making them doubly important to a functioning society.
There were once strong prohibitions against lying, but for the past two decades, lies have been amplified faster and spread more widely than facts — because lies get more clicks, in essence. Now, lying seems to have become more prevalent across society, as misleading people — in small ways and large — seems less shameful and is seen as acceptable more often.
It was once a norm not to talk religion or politics, but that seems like all some platforms are about these days, with the result being an angry, divisive, and corrosive space with people glued to the fights, clicking away. And, of course, more conversations in the “meat space” are about these topics, leading to fractured relationships and tense get-togethers.
And platforms get paid for clicks, directly or indirectly. Volume is the name of the game. As a result, we are seeing platform purveyors seeking to avoid content norms in order to maximize traffic while lowering and/or externalizing costs, often by posing as defenders of “free speech” or “open science” or “public access” or a number of other techniques to avoid the responsibilities of media brands and cultural influences.
They seem to believe that by not applying norms — by not gatekeeping, vetting, qualifying, or judging — they are not establishing norms, and are simply allowing choice and access.
But not establishing a norm still establishes a norm, as the recent turmoil at Substack shows.
After Casey Newton’s reported on Substack’s Nazi problem in his “Platformer” newsletter — also hosted on Substack — Newton announced Friday that he would be leaving Substack for Ghost, the platform “The Geyser” has used for a few years now.
Not only was Substack creating a norm allowing Nazis to publish, but they were amplifying and normalizing Nazi posts via their recommendations engine.