Word of the day: ‘kneejerk’


“He released a statement on Twitter expressing his shock.” – The Guardian on Jeremy Corbyn’s reponse to the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park.

Twitter gathers instant responses to events faster than any other media, so conventional news outlets trail behind it rather like old dogs at the end of a long walk with an excitable six-year old child. In the above example little blame attaches to Corbyn himself, whose response did actually extend to several sentences and thus can’t really be described as kneejerk. In any case “shock” is a reasonable response to such a tragedy. Nonetheless, it could be argued that in basing so much of its source material on Twitter, The Guardian is at fault for following the lazy conventions of all modern media. If reactions to an atrocity or the death of a major figure somstimes seem glib it’s because Twitter just isn’t an adequate medium for thoughts and feelings which go beyond the most immediate emotional reactions. Especially, it should go without saying, in the hands of a child-brained president who (tellingly) considers it his ideal medium.

I’ve always disliked the word ‘kneejerk’ as it strikes me as too much of a cliche, and an increasingly prevalent one at that. It seems too easy to accuse someone of a kneejerk reaction, and thus the word embodies what it describes. Nevertheless, it’s a useful metaphor in that other languages don’t appear to employ it, preferring to describe such reactions as ‘impulsive’, which doesn’t capture the automatic response to a stimulus. If ‘kneejerk’ is a stale metaphor, it’s one that urgently needs reinvigorating as it’s such a useful term to describe how social media works. Tweets, posts and comments are almost always impulsive. A click is a kneejerk reaction. If the whole phenonemon of social media is the early stages of an experiment, it’s a Pavlovian one.

The speed of online interactions seems to be a particularly powerful trigger for cognitive biases we probably can’t apprehend or control, and which are in any case much easier to spot in others than in ourselves. Thus it allows for manipulation of those biases, going far beyond standard advertising techniques in its accelerated interplay of emotions of punishment and reward. It also allows for the insinuation and rapid diffusion of logical fallacies through the phenomenon of memes. A hammer hitting a knee at any point on the planet can reverberate exponentially, far quicker and wider than any Washington Post factchecking endeavour.

The opposite of a kneejerk reaction is careful reflection, the consideration of different and possibly conflicting evidence. Proper serious media provides this.One response to Twitter is the institution in long reads, which by definition demand patience and tolerance of ambiguity and attention to nuance on behalf of both writer and reader*.

Blogs, decrepid market stalls occupying an overlooked corner of the global attention economy, tend to be drawn towards clickbait, the equivalent of shouting out deals that sound too good to be true. Ostensibly left-wing sites such as Skwawkbox and The Canary copy the form of Breitbart and the like, specialising in hot takes designed to fix their followers’ craving for comfort snacks, using the cheapest ingredients available: links to other webpages, with very little in the way of (highly nutritional) original research.

It’s easy to decry the kneejerkery of the others, but what about my own? This blog makes no claim whatsoever to be a news site, but sometimes mimics the format. It uses satire as one means of commenting on events, thus drawing on no resources other than time, imagination and other online content. It does not provide facts. Sometimes fleeting visitors arriving from social media mistake it for an authoritative news site, which explains why in January, when my catnip post about Donald Trump snapping went viral, several people were seemingly googling the phrase ‘is Infinite Coincidence reliable?’. I’ve seen several opinion pieces I’ve posted labelled ‘fake news’, as though the commentor is unaware of the difference between news sites and blogs. Sometimes that term is used as a kneejerk reaction to a given argument instead of a meaningful counter-argument. Maybe sites like this are the problem, encouraging such a response, thus leading us further down the rabbit hole. Maybe not.

I know I should respect my own awareness of these issues and avoid producing anything resembling clickbait if what I write here is to be at all useful or meaningful. One problem with writing online is the ephemerality of links. Most readers don’t click on them and I can’t assume they will. It’s essential instead to summarise facts and opinions from elsewhere, especially when the link is providing insightful analysis. I can’t complain about others’ attention deficits if what I’m producing is guilty of provoking a certain lazy response. There’s also an entropic tendency with blogs, for entries to become shorter and more perfunctory with time, which I’m (consciously at least) keen to withstand.

Some short things I post here, often in the form of outright news parodies, are intended as direct interventions in a debate, a pointed statement of a perspective I haven’t come across elsewhere. I sometimes get it hopelessly wrong. A cursory analysis of my own writing reveals more than the occasional logical fallacy. I should focus on writing longer, more thoughtful pieces that fewer people will read. In market terms, ones that I’m constutionally disinclined to think in, that means writing for a niche audience rather than trying to appeal to a mass audience given to skimming rather than ‘proper’ reading. This experience has taught me a great deal about my fallibility as an interpreter of events, one with the same bad habits as anyone else: selective reporting, virtue signalling, and all the rest. I apologise for getting it so wrong so often and will endeavour to be more reliable in the future. That may well involve thinking and reading more and writing a great deal less. Tl; dr: more long reads, fewer hot takes.
*There’s also their teenage cousin, the Twitter Mega-thread.

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