How to keep yourself safe on the interwebs. Part 1: Curation.

(I am toying with the idea of writing a booklet on how to keep yourself safe on the interwebs from an interpersonal relationship standpoint. It may or may not happen, because I’ve got other stuff I want to do, but I’m going to be chucking out drafts of sections whenever something gets my goat I feel inspired.)


Curation is “the action or process of selecting, organizing, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition.” There is nothing new to it. Librarians, who know their shit and are not to be trifled with, do it all the time. The only thing that’s new about it is that we have to decide whether to apply the practice to our digital life, and, if so, how far we are going to take it.

I only use Facebook, which is in itself a form of curation; I looked at other platforms and decided that they were not for me. A search may occasionally take me to Reddit, friends send me links to cute doggos on Twitter, and pretty pictures may make me visit DeviantArt, Tumblr, Pinterest, or Instagram, but I don’t live there. Therefore, I can only talk about curation in Facebook terms; if you decide to go for it, you will have to translate the concepts into platform-appropriate actions.

In a Facebook setting, curation is about deciding who and what we will interact with, and how and when we will carry out those interactions. Do we “friend” anyone who asks us? Do we “follow” all our friends? Under what circumstances do we “unfollow,” “unfriend,” or “block” individuals? Do we engage in conversations with people we don’t know, and if so, in what circumstances and with what boundaries? What groups do we join? What pages do we follow? Do we read the comments?

All these considerations should be familiar to most of us, because they are the same considerations that we make in our “real” life. We pick the people we befriend, and choose the places where we are going to hang out. We have boundaries on the behaviors we tolerate, and consequences we apply when those boundaries are not respected. We pick the papers we read and the programs we watch. In a nutshell, we pick who and what we are going to be spending our time and energy on – to a certain extent anyway. We might not be able to just walk away from our boss, obnoxious as they may be. Telling Grandma to fuck off may get us into trouble, too. However, it is pretty much a given that we have a right to make that kind of choice. In fact, making wise choices in that respect is often hailed as a virtue, because we are not committing the sin of Wasting Our Time.

Curating your “real” life is not always cost-free, particularly when you find yourself in situations where someone wants you to let them ignore your boundaries. If you stick to your guns and end up having to restrict your interactions or to stop them altogether, some people may push back. That makes perfect sense, if you think about it: if they were reasonable, respectful people, you would not have had to cut them out of your life in the first place.

Curating your online life is often no easier, for precisely the same reason: people who don’t respect boundaries don’t respect boundaries. I know that it sounds like a giant case of duh when I put it like that, but many people forget that in the heat of the moment. They find themselves blocking the same person time and time again and wonder what they are doing wrong, because their message is obviously not getting across. They end up blaming themselves for someone else’s misbehavior. IF this ever happens to you, take heart, and remind yourself that if you’ve had to block the same person multiple times, you were definitely right to block them in the first place.

There is another hurdle to online curation. It has become very fashionable these days to lambaste people who curate what the internet brings to their attention. Most commonly, they are accused of “living in an echo chamber”: how can they possibly learn anything or develop as human beings if they refuse to listen to people they don’t like or opinions that clash with theirs? What are they, scared of the truth or something?

There is a nugget of truth to this . There definitely are some people who end up with a very skewed and limited view of the world because they spend most of their online time guided by their confirmation bias. They search and focus only on information and people who confirm their pre-existing points of views until they are basically looking into a mirror. However, they are not as common as the anti-curating movement seems to believe, and their existence does not justify the wide-sweeping accusations routinely levied against anyone who ever tries to leave a conversation, or refuses to make time to read a certain source.

The sad truth is that listening to conflicting points of view can be informative, but it’s not always that informative. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Not all opinions are created equal. There is a subtle difference between reading a book by astrophysicist Brian Cox and a blog about the flat earth theory: the former is popularized astrophysics, and the latter is bullshit. I’m not saying that you can’t gleam nuggets of wisdom from all kinds of places, but they are more likely to turn up in certain places than others. You might want to give flat earth theory a look, just so you know what it’s about, but you might not want to dedicate much time or energy to that pursuit because you have better things to do, and there is nothing wrong with that.
  2. Not all opinions are original. This may appear shocking, but people don’t always come to their conclusions via independent experiments and thorough research. A whole load of people absorb what they hear and repeat it ad nauseam. Therefore, your Aunt Bessie’s opinion on gay frogs may not actually add anything to your knowledge of the subject, because you’ve heard it all before. Yes, you won’t be sure of that unless you let her go through her entire spiel, but you can probably take an educated guess, particularly if she’s just quoting sources you’re already familiar with.
  3. Not all opinions are rare to come by. This is probably not news to you if you are a member of a marginalized group. For instance, if you are visibly queer, you probably don’t need to work very hard to learn about the intricacies of queerphobia; there are plenty of people out there who’re more than willing to shove that information down your throat while you’re just trying to go about your day.

That’s one of the things that strikes me about the Curation Controversy: every time someone has shrieked at me that by not engaging with them I’m choosing to live in a bubble, they have been white, straight, and cis. I suspect – and this is only a theory, and could be nonsense – that it’s because people from marginalized groups know full well that a degree of curation is essential to self-preservation. They know how much trash is spouted both at and about them. They have said trash thrown at them on a regular basis, and they know how very little they are likely to gain by spending their time listening to the umpteenth repetition of a lecture on how much they suck.

People from marginalized groups also know that there is a cost to engaging in that kind of activity. I learnt the term “digital self-harm” from a Contrapoints video. In essence, if you are finding yourself spending a considerable proportion of your time looking for online sources on what a terrible, worthless person you are, you might have a problem. This kind of behavior is a form of self-harm, and it can impact your mental health. Worse than that, if you engage in this kind of thing, your mental health is probably already not that great; healthy, happy, functional people don’t spend hours on the internet self-flagellating, or letting others flagellate them. (If that’s your kink and you’re aware of it and happy with it, carry on as normal, obviously.)

This isn’t to say that all minorities live under a rock, or should do so. President Obama urged Americans to “(…) listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas.” He didn’t urge people to live on the battlefield of ideas, though, or to pick up every gauntlet thrown at them. Not every fight is fair or useful, and exhaustion is a thing. Ultimately, if we want to fight a good fight, we need to pick our battles.

We might also want to pick our opponents. Not everyone wants to debate us in good faith, to exchange ideas with us and perhaps even learn from us. Some people just want a pulpit and a congregation. Some take particular pleasure in preaching to those who are most hurt by their words. You might find yourself in faux-conversations where you realize that your interlocutor has nothing new to teach you or won’t listen to your side of the story, and you might decide to still engage them for the benefit of any third parties… Or you might not: it’s up to you, and it should be up to you. It’s your time and your energy, and you get to decide how you want to spend it.

It is also up to you to determine whether the people who are discouraging you from curation are doing so because they have your best interest in mind, because they truly don’t understand your situation and don’t understand the impact of certain interactions, or because they want to hurt you. Typecasting (“Oh, so you want to live in an echo chamber!”), forced teaming (“But we are having such an interesting conversation!”), and ignoring no are standard predatory tactics. The fact that they are being used to “just” drain you of your time and energy and possibly adversely affect your mental health doesn’t make them any more benign.

A metaphor: if you’d like to know more about religions other than your own, you might benefit from reading about them, or having conversations with people who believe in them. You might not convert anyone and they might not convert you, but that’s not really the point: you will end up understanding each other a little bit better, and that’s useful. If a couple of missionaries come to your house, inviting them in and listening to what they have to say is not quite the same. They may teach you something new, but they’re specifically looking for converts, so you won’t really be having a two-way conversation. Still, you may benefit from the experience: you might not agree with anything they have to say, but now you know what they are saying. If missionaries from the same church turn up at your house every day, though, you might not want to invite them in every time. You already know what they’re there to say, and you know that they’re not there to listen, so the interaction won’t really benefit either of you. And if you are walking down the street, and a soapbox preacher starts yelling that people like you are subhuman, deserve horrible fates, and are going hell, you might not want to stop and listen until they’re all talked out.

Not all interactions are equal, and not all are beneficial. There are definite costs and risks to curating your online life, but there are costs and risks to not curating it, too. It is up to you to decide how that balance sheet stacks up. That decision may need to be reassessed periodically; for instance, if you are going through a rough patch because of life issues, or your mental health has taken a turn for the worse, you might have to take better care of yourself for a while, and shielding yourself from the worst of internet vitriol will probably be part of that. If you decide to engage, you might consider scheduling those occasions in order to limit the degree of harm to yourself. For instance, you might not want to jump into the fray first thing in the day, because it spoils your mood for the whole day, or before going to bed, because it will give you insomnia. Your online life should ultimately add to your overall quality of life; if it is damaging your health, you might need to reassess your priorities.

Like it or not, a level of curation is inevitable, because your time is limited. Try as you might, you will not be able to read or watch everything, or talk to everyone, so you have to choose. If you do not make those choices, they will often be made for you, and the results are unlikely to be wholesome. Trolls have no qualms about sucking up people’s time, while considerate people try not to impose themselves on others. As a result, if you let others dictate how you spend your time online, you risk spending most of your time surrounded by trolls.

CW: suicide

I’m about a third of the way into “Hardcore Self Help: F**k Depression” by Robert Duff, and here I am recommending it to you. Yeah, I’ve not finished it yet. No, I’ve not lost the plot. Look: it’s only £2.29. I’ve read it for about an hour, and I already feel that I’ve got my money’s worth. It’s short, sweet, and, thus far, useful. But that’s not why I’m trying to shove it down your throat.

The thing that sold me on it was chapter 4: “A Chapter About Suicide.” I come from a line of clinically depressed and occasionally suicidal people, I belong to groups with alarming suicide statistics, I’ve gone through three periods of severe suicidal ideation, and I’ve lost friends and acquaintances who took their own lives, so I’m a tad biased about the subject. To me, it’s a real and serious issue, so the amount of trash spewed about it angers me more than I can say. In particular, there are two commonly held myths that I’m pretty confident have killed a fair few people:

1. “Those who talk about it never do it.”

Statistically speaking, this could well be true, because talking about your suicidal ideation with people you can rely on is often a good first step towards recovery. It’s one of the pieces of advice Dr. Duff offers. However, that fact is often turned on its head, and the above statement is thrown around to dismiss people who try to talk about their problems. If they reeeeelly were suicidal, they wouldn’t be just talking about it! They’d be out there, getting on with it! The fact that most people who suffer from suicidal ideation would actually very much prefer to be healthy and happy is utterly disregarded. They’re talking about it, so they can’t really mean it. They’re probably just saying it for attention.

2. “If someone says they’re suicidal, just report them!”

The underlying idea is that if a person is really suicidal, they need professional help, so you’re doing the right thing. If a person is faking it, calling the emergency services on them will cure them of that habit. It sounds perfectly logical, but it ignores some key facts.

First of all, in some countries when you report someone in the middle of a mental health crisis, the emergency services dispatch a team of trained medical professionals to assist. In other countries, they send armed police, and that can place the person in question in very grave danger. This is particularly true for groups who are stigmatized, or for individuals who, for whatever reasons, are unable to comply with orders. Even if a person has lied about feeling suicidal, which is a supremely shitty thing to do, they probably don’t deserve to be shot for it.

Even in countries where that isn’t a risk, threatening people with forced hospitalization is more a gag than a cure. It may stop them talking about their suicidal thoughts, but that’s not necessarily because you’ve just called them out on their bullshit, or scared them into sanity. Forced hospitalization terrifies a lot of people for a number of reasons, ranging from having watched “One’s Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” to not wanting one’s children to be taken into care. I am not saying that hospitalization is never a valid solution; I’m just saying that waving it like a bogeyman at people who are already in distress won’t help them be any less distressed. It may encourage them to fester in silence about their mental health problems, though, which isn’t necessarily the best road to recovery, but will give you a quieter life.

If you believe that someone needs professional help, trust your instincts, but use your brain, too. There are usually better, safer, less coercive ways to achieve that than a call to the emergency services. If you’re in a relationship with someone who uses empty threats of self-harm to manipulate you, that’s seriously bad, and I’d advise you to get help – not for them, for yourself. They probably need help, too, but you won’t be able to help them unless you help yourself first. Hell, you might not be able to help them at all.

I’ve said it all before and I will probably say it again, because stuff that kills innocent people tends to anger me. I’m biased. Ignore me. Read the book by Dr. Duff instead. It will take a few hours of your time, but it could help you save a life.


I’ve been reading a bunch of secondary literature about neurobiology. It puts me in an interesting position: I know just enough about it to understand what it’s about and to spot when its basic findings are being misused, but that’s it. I have absolutely nothing constructive to contribute to a conversation on the subject, but I find it so interesting that I won’t shut up about it. So for once, I can actually blend in seamlessly with the majority of the public. Yay. Just wait until I get into quantum physics.

One of the most fascinating discoveries I’ve made is how neuroscience is being used to explain most things. Every time a human zigs when hindsight shows that they should have zagged, there’s a neuroscientific reason for that. I wasn’t surprised because the idea that our brains are poorly programmed is new to me, or because I was unaware that our psycho-emotional baggage creates ruts through which our thoughts tend to flow, guiding our actions. What really surprised me was that, apparently, neuroscientists kinda stay in their ruts, too. They are very clever people and get to play with some really cool toys, but they can’t be spending much time hanging out with the likes of me. If they did, they wouldn’t come to certain conclusions.

An example of this is the neuroscientific explanation for the sub-prime mortgage crisis. There’s a theory about it that I should be able to summarize for you, but I can’t, because I tuned it out. I was too busy thinking back about why I bought my first house, back in 2002-2003. At the time, banks were handing out mortgages and loans like they were candy, actively encouraging people like me (younger, with some savings and a relatively secure income) to speculate on the housing market. That wasn’t what motivated me, though; my decision was simply the answer to the following problem:

Your take-home income is £900 per month. Your unavoidable monthly expenses are £350 per month, and that doesn’t include budgeting for any kind of foreseeable expenditures (e.g. vehicle maintenance). Would you rather buy a house for £450 per month, or rent one for £550? And, by the way, your wages go up by 2% max per year, while the cost of housing is climbing at about 10 times that rate. So you better decide quickly, or you won’t be able to decide at all! TICK TOCK!

I’m not saying that neuroscientists are wrong, and that there isn’t a basic wiring fault in the human brain that makes people overestimate the significance of immediate gains while discounting long-term costs. I’m not saying that entrenched optimism can’t fuck people up, either. I’m just saying that, at the time, my hand was forced by my circumstances. I didn’t think buying a house was a great investment, or even a particularly good idea; I just have a strange fascination for sleeping indoors, particularly in the winter. I can’t be sure, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of people were in pretty much the same position as me, and did what they could to meet their immediate safety and security needs. And I find it truly shocking that there are people out there, clever people whose job it is to study other human beings, who are apparently wholly unaware of this.

It makes me think about how often I see people being exhorted to stay in their lanes. Plenty of people would argue that neuroscientists shouldn’t make pronouncements about economic issues, because they’re not qualified to do so. Plenty of other people would argue that of course they should, because neuroscience offers insights that could inform the field of economics. As I see it, the problem isn’t that neuroscientists aren’t staying in their lanes; it’s that they live in their lanes. They either don’t spend any time hanging out with people from different demographics, or they do, and they don’t listen to them.

The best example I know of this phenomenon is the marshmallow test. I can’t wrap my head around it, because, to me and mine, its basic premise is so obviously bogus that I can’t comprehend how the experiment ever saw the light of day. And it’s not that I’m a superior human being, with a brainpower so vast that I know better than trained psychologists: it’s just that I went to school in a pretty bad area of town. I lived alone with my mom, who liked sweets way more than I did. Most of our arguments related to treats consisted of her trying to get me to eat them, when I preferred fruit. All of my schoolmates came from larger families, and their home lives were very different from mine. My best friend had two older siblings and two older cousins who basically lived at her house, because their parents worked. Treats were rare at her house because, with one working parent feeding 5-7 people, there was no money for them. If she didn’t immediately eat what she was given, someone else would snatch it, and it wouldn’t get replaced. My other best friend lived with his grandparents, because his parents had fallen off various rails and couldn’t look after him. He had learnt at a very young age that the value of a promise made by a grown-up can be close to zero, even when that grown-up allegedly loves you. And as for trusting adult strangers, we’d all learned how bad an idea that was by playing at the local park.

I can tell you exactly how me and my two friends would have responded to the experiment: they would have eaten the marshmallows immediately, because for them that was the only way to make sure that they actually got a damn marshmallow. I wouldn’t have eaten mine, so I would have gotten two, and given them to my friends. And it wouldn’t have been out of kindness: I just hated marshmallows and was sick enough of having them shoved down my throat at home. Had the experiment been conducted with cherries, or the ability to go out and play for ten minutes, the results would have been radically different, and I would have “lost”. Had it been conducted when we were a bit older, I would have taken the marshmallow, the plate it stood on, and whatever was left in any unlocked drawers in that room, and waltzed out of there as fast as humanly possible so I could sell or redistribute my loot, because fuck the authorities.

I can only think of two ways in which the marshmallow experiment could have come into being: either nobody at Stanford shared my socioeconomic background, or the people who did didn’t get speaking parts. The result was a clusterfuck of an experiment which, although obviously laughable, was hailed as a major discovery and is still in the process of being dismantled.

I guess this kind of problem could be avoided by people staying in their lanes. Problem is, when you actually look at the real size of most people’s lanes, the result would be very little progress in any field. All of us come from somewhere, and most of us kinda stay there throughout our lives. If we listed all the specifics of what informs our experience, called that our lane, and stuck to it, we’d end up with a very narrow field indeed. More than that, we’d end up with a field that we can’t look at objectively, because we’re too damn close to it.

I wonder whether the opposite approach would work better: to wander wildly out of our lane while being painfully aware that we’re floundering through unknown territories. To keep our ears and eyes open not only to new realizations, but to being told that our realizations are bullshit because there’s just so much we don’t know yet. To be all-unknowing, and to embrace that; I bet that we could do a ton of learning that way. We probably wouldn’t get to write best-sellers about it, though, so I guess it’s a non-starter.