Why social media went woke

When Elon Musk took over twitter recently, one of the “drain the swamp” things he did was to get rid of the platform’s overt bias towards political correctness and “wokeness”. Out went most of the “trust and safety” team. In came Donald Trump (though he hasn’t tweeted since) and the guy who stupidly got himself arrested in Romania.

As some people in my office have never tired of saying, Musk let go of 70% of the company, and the app still largely runs fine (apart from some weird bugs that creep in once in a while). One part of twitter that is NOT running fine, though, is advertising – you might be able to guess that from the quality of ads you are getting served on your timeline nowadays. There are two theories behind this – one is that Musk got rid of most of the ad sales team, and the other is that advertisers don’t want to advertise on twitter given it is more prone to free speech now.

The latter was a bit of a surprising theory to me, since my assumption had always been that what advertisers largely care for is audiences, and relevance of the audiences to their products; and as long as the audiences were there, the advertisers would come.

However, something I heard on a podcast this morning on my way to work made me question this assumption. Listen to this (the link is from the approximate point I want you to listen):

So in this conversation, Jeff Green talks about “brand safety” in the context of advertising. What he effectively says is that advertisers are finicky about what kind of content their ads come next to. He says “right now I would say the value of user generated content has actually gone down dramatically because of brand safety”.

Back in IIMB, there were a couple of fellows who formed a quiz team called “Mary Magdalenes: The Reformed Prostitutes”. During our annual fest Unmaad, they conducted a quiz, which (I think) was sponsored by IBM. I I remember right, the title slide of the quiz said “Unmaad Open Quiz, brought to you by Mary Magdalenes: The Reformed Prostitutes”, with the logo of IBM (or whoever the sponsor was) somewhere on the slide.

The sponsors did not take to it too kindly – I was doing a quiz the following day and the sponsorship coordinators demanded to inspect my deck so that there were no such potentially embarrassing juxtapositions.

As it happens, one, or maybe both, of Mary Magdalenes: The Reformed Prostitutes, went into a career in marketing. However, contrary to the image you get by looking at advertising “creatives”, advertisers are fundamentally boring people. They are insanely risk averse, and very very loathe to bring even the slightest hint of controversy to their brands.

So, this is why social media goes woke. They don’t care about “misinformation” and “fake news” and porn and slander for the sake of you or me – as long as we are visiting their sites and looking at the ads there, they are happy. The reason they clamp down on free speech in the name of “trust and safety” is for the sake of the (normally rather boring) advertisers, who want certainty on the sort of content next to which their ads are shown.

And so, driven by risk-averse advertisers, social media platforms censor free speech and “go woke”, much to the chagrin of people like Musk and me.

Recently I read this fantastic essay by Robin Hanson on why most people are boring. Only a very long quote will do justice, but that too partially. You should read the whole essay.

If we act interesting, passionate, and opinionated in public, we are likely to seem to claim high status for ourselves, and to touch on sacred subjects, either by word or deed. And this makes us quite vulnerable to accusations of arrogance and violating the sacred. Because: a) the sacred is full of contradictions, so that saying truths clearly does not protect you, b) observers feel free to use complex codings to attribute to you intentions that you did not literally say (or have), and c) observers are much more willing to accept unfair and unproven accusations if they are seen as “punching up” at presumed dominant or evil races, genders, ages, professions, or political factions.

The degree of this danger is made clear, I think by the reaction of the “gods” among us. The public tone of huge powerful firms and other orgs is consistently “officious”, i.e., mild boring supplication.

Mild boring supplication is all okay. Just that they impose upon you and me with their ad dollars, meaning that places where their ad dollars go also tend to mild boring supplication. And thus for us, it is death by a thousand bores.