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Razib Khan's Unsupervised Learning

Sep 13, 2023

On this episode of the Unsupervised Learning podcast, Razib talks to internet commentator formerly known as default friend who is perhaps better known today as the internet culture writer Katherine Dee. Dee is a regular contributor to RetvrnThe Washington ExaminerThe American MindTablet Magazine and UnHerd. She has also recently written a piece for CompactWhy You’re Never Leaving Twitter

But first, Razib and Dee discuss how they have known each other for nearly a decade, going back to 2015 on the site formerly known as Twitter, and more substantially as residents of Austin in the late teens. Since 2019 Dee's existence has been a peripatetic one; after leaving Texas and first moving to the Bay Area, she then lived in the Pacific Northwest, before finally settling in Chicago. Working in advertising, and then in big tech, Dee has finally settled on a career as a freelancer, with all the freedom and uncertainty that entails.

Razib asks Dee whether there is today, in 2023, any culture that isn’t somehow connected to the internet. She agrees about the pervasive nature of digital and social media, and how thickly it is interleaved into the lives of younger Millennials and Zoomers. And yet as a counterpoint to this conception of a revolution that has transmuted “IRL” life online, Razib argues that ‌social media is just an amplification of “bulletin board system” (BBS) culture which existed as early as the 1980’s. Dee then reflects on her maturation as an observer of all things internet through Twitter and Discord, and the shadow-impact of more obscure platforms like Tumblr and 4chan on our broader culture, beneath the notice of the wider population of “normies,” while Razib reminds her how small Twitter’s user base is compared to platforms like Facebook or YouTube (the latter are measured in billions, while Twitter retains some 450 million active users).

In her piece, Why You’re Never Leaving Twitter, Dee argues that the anemic showing of dozens of Twitter clones and pretenders in the last decade argues that the platform just isn’t going to be dethroned from its central role in the media, and thereby wider American culture. From right-wing to left-wing imitators, or Facebook’s Threads, every challenger has failed to eat into Twitter’s critical position as a nexus in the media ecosystem, a central node in transmitting information throughout diverse subcultures. But Razib plays devil's advocate, musing whether Elon Musk’s erratic tenure since assuming ownership of the platform, his change of its brand to X, his petty beefs with publishers like Substack and ex cathedra pronouncements of major feature changes, might actually spell the end of the platform. Though Dee seems skeptical that even Musk could destroy his new property, not seeing any replacement on the horizon, suggests to her that the age of a single central information switchboard for the internet may be ephemeral and one we look back on as a particular and unique moment in history, just as we do the age of three major television networks in the 20th century.