A few weeks ago we posted a link in ArtsJournal to a piece in the Toronto Star under the admittedly provocative headline: “Time To Retire Beethoven’s Ninth?” In the piece, John Terauds, who used to be the Star’s staff classical music critic, suggested it might be time to put away the Ninth Symphony for a while.
Why? In his words:
We have the 19th-century ideal of strength in unity — expressed in the “Ode to Joy” — scraping up uneasily against a 21st-century ideal of strength in diversity. The change in perspective makes some people afraid and angry. It makes others hopeful and optimistic. Until we see whether we can achieve a paradigm shift or whether we fall back into something like the genocidal chaos of the mid-20th century, I think we should press pause on Beethoven’s Ninth.
Heretical? Sure – The Star ran it under a note that explained that this was the inaugural piece of a new series called The Heretic in which critics would “express a wildly unpopular opinion.”
No kidding. Within a day, some 120,000 people had viewed our tweet linking the piece. And thousands and thousands responded. A few examples:
I’d ask what the hell is wrong with you, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the time for what would be an extraordinarily long list.
— Physics Geek (@physicsgeek) June 29, 2018
Show me on this doll where Beethoven’s 9th hurt you pic.twitter.com/ptla8fCqaG
— Lt. Aldo Raine (@DLMooney69) June 29, 2018
Beethoven’s 9th is about 200 years old and yet is still more relevant than print journalism, especially your “journalistic” rag. 😜
— David Germain (@d_m_g_daffy) June 29, 2018
The Arts Journal News = pic.twitter.com/xlSSzO6hsf
— Cash Tumbles (@CashTumbles) June 29, 2018
You get the idea. There were a few thoughtful replies, but very few. Twitter stats show that fewer than 7000 – about five percent of those who saw the tweet actually clicked through to the story to read it. While Terauds’ piece was intended to be controversial, he was making a subtle argument: Powerful art defines paradigms, and perhaps because the Ninth is so powerful, we have been stuck in its paradigm and ought to examine why. One might argue with the premise or conclusion, but it’s a thoughtful question worth entertaining, posed by someone who has spent a lot of time listening to and writing about the music.
The Twitter hordes were utterly uninterested in engaging with the argument but overjoyed to be able to hate on something.
So 120,000 Twitter followers are rabid Beethoven defenders, outraged someone would take away their beloved music? Unlikely. We post heretical pieces on ArtsJournal almost every day – many far more outrageous than this, and they don’t go viral or provoke such reaction. So why this?
The drug is in the hating. Beethoven is a cultural icon at the pinnacle of Western Civilization. He transcends music, a seemingly unassailable symbol of achievement in all of human history. It doesn’t matter if you like to listen to Beethoven or not. To dispute Beethoven is to threaten the fundamental values the Twitter hordes believe are universal. Another example of elites trying to tear down core beliefs.
But the outrage also speaks to something more. Two things, actually:
- When we feel powerless, when we feel threatened and unable to be heard in “real” life, we lash out reflexively – us versus them. Who’s the them? People in our lives seen and unseen who have control over us, over the economy, over our politics, over the ways things work, over our culture. We’re just trying to get along but larger forces beyond our control are keeping us down as others are getting ahead. We have to fight them, to blame them. Who’s the us? Here’s the interesting part: they’re not necessarily people we “know” in a traditional sense. They’re people online who defend a matrix of values or ideas, usually in the shorthand of social media, where the objective is not to be deep but to be clever or cutting or cool. The incisive black-and-white quip gathers the most moss and the viral mob that gathers and retweets your cleverness affirms your value. Cue the dopamine hit. The Twitter mob becomes your tribe, even though you don’t “know” them in a conventional sense. “Traditional” values are easy to defend – they can be vague and idealized, and sometimes not even real, but they can define a “better” time, when things supposedly worked. Your community is this nostalgic time rather than the reality of the people around you. Defending these is fun, and the outrage, the grievance, the bullying, it makes you feel powerful. The drug is so, so easy to tap into, a way to penetrate the numbness of the internet and your daily life.
- Social media is designed to promote and reward the reflexive response. The quick one-note hit. Ever notice that the emails you get that require the most thinking about are the ones you respond to last? Social media doesn’t reward thoughtfulness. But it’s worse than that. Algorithms are built to make the provocative response more powerful by promoting it. On social media, attention is currency and you don’t get rewarded with an audience unless you’re outrageous or simplistic or tribal. We equate popularity with value. So in Twitter terms the Beethoven story is our most valuable post of the year. Is it? Nope, and the viral audience response to the Beethoven tweet is of way less value – there’s practically nothing useful in the “discussion” that Twitter provoked. And that’s a problem. If Twitter is set up to encourage and reward bad behavior, that’s what it will get. And this is just Beethoven.
There’s a backlash building against social media right now. I think it’s because the algorithms that determine the value of tweets or likes are misaligned with the value people are looking for. Ultimately, if more and more thoughtful people determine that Twitter or Facebook or Instagram aren’t rewarding them with value, they’ll leave. For years, most online publications ran comments under their stories. Over time most comments sections turned into a cesspool of LCD (lowest common denominator) behavior, and many publications have dropped comments. Where comment sections are thriving (The New York Times, for example) it’s because editors curate, organize and reward thoughtful response. In effect, they changed the algorithm that determined what got traction and what didn’t even make it to the site. Readers see that value.
Right now, much social media is a toxic scourge, one that has damaged our politics and coarsened public discourse. Until the platforms figure out how to radically reconfigure algorithms so they reward better behavior and filter the bad, they’re going to continue being toxic. And ultimately their massive communities will decline and die – colony collapse. Both Facebook and Twitter are losing significant numbers of users for the first time, and they’re fast approaching a tipping point. It’s in their interest to figure this out soon. If they don’t, we will continue to suffer in the short term. But they will ultimately pay the price longterm. MySpace anyone?