Lubricated social networks, great action movies that work without sound, and other pressing questions
Greetings from Read Max HQ! Yesterday was the final day of isolation following our brush with the dreaded novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. All members of the Read Max corporate family are healthy—arguably, in the case of my 18-month-old son, too healthy—and thankful, but at an entirely loving and appropriate level, for the resumption of full-time childcare. We project that this is the final week in which COVID-19-related supply-chain disruptions will affect our newsletter manufacturing and distribution process, and Read Max’s regularly irregular schedule will recommence next week.
Until then: I got a sizable volume of correspondence from readers last week following my call for mail, so I’ve selected some questions to answer today in a mailbag edition of the newsletter. I always like hearing from readers, and want to encourage people to continue writing in with questions, comments, recommendations, chastisements, etc. It would be nice to make the mailbag a more regular occurrence. You can reply to this newsletter directly, or reach me at maxread at gmail. (Or, for that matter, leave a comment.) I didn’t answer every question emailed to me, but just because I didn’t have time—I’ll save some of the others for a future edition.
Let’s start with this question from Simon:
Are closed-off Internet spaces (Discord, Substack, etc) ultimately better for us than 'town square'-style social media, cultural and mental health wise? Any disadvantages?
The short answer here is yes, but partly because I think basically anything besides “doing fentanyl” is better for us culturally and psychologically than using Twitter or Facebook.
I’m in a handful of Discords, most of them perks of Patreon subscriptions, and while I can speak only for myself I think they are better, healthier, and maybe even more culturally and intellectually productive than the big “town square”-style public social media platforms. A few years ago I wrote in New York mag that most of my social activity online had shifted into private group chats, which were free from the imperatives of attention and engagement that warp sociality on big public platforms; most of what I wrote about the advantages of fully private group chats holds for at least some of these “closed-off” internet spaces. And, even better, because (unlike private group chats) they’re still accessible from the outside, you’re not just talking to people you already know—you can meet all kinds of freaks and losers from all over the world, which is why we’re on the internet in the first place.
Something I think about a lot with respect to internet culture and community is the question of “friction,” in the sense of how online spaces create and maintain barriers to participation. A high-friction space might be very difficult to find, technically forbidding (or expensive) to join, and intimidating to engage; a low-friction space makes it easy to sign up and participate without needing to be aware of context, cues, or shibboleths. Twitter is so low-friction it might as well be lubricated: You can create an account and accidentally get the entire nation of Malaysia angry at you within 20 minutes. As a reader, Substack is sort of medium-friction: it requires a little bit of money and a little bit of work to fully participate. Discord chats, which can maintain message board levels of cultural complexity (i.e. baffling and stupid in-jokes) are often slightly higher-friction than that.
I think friction has been an underrated value in online community for the past decade and change, as tech platforms and eager VCs chase astronomical growth and buy into myths about the free flow of information. When you make your platforms completely frictionless, you basically eliminate any solid ground or community commitment through which shared context or purpose might be built. But just because we’re living with the consequences of a low-friction era doesn’t necessarily mean that high friction is an intrinsically superior value: high-friction spaces that never allow new members or ideas are brittle and barren. In general I think the most culturally exciting and intellectually rewarding online spaces are those that find the right level of friction to allow for a flow of new people and ideas within a broadly shared context and sense of trust and responsibility.
All of which is a long way around saying that I think it’s good that we’re seeing a renewed interest in “closed-off,” higher-friction spaces, but that the “healthiest” discursive and cultural economy online is probably one that has a good mix of high-friction and low-friction, semi-private and mostly public, scattered and centralized.
But this is all talking at a very abstract level. At bottom I think Simon’s question is probably reducible to one about revenue models: Facebook and Twitter (as we all know very well by now) make money from selling advertising, which requires certain volumes of attention, which is produced by platform design that incentivizes certain kinds of behavior, etc. Neither Substack and Discord, on the other hand, sell advertising, which means that they are (so far) free from the imperatives of attention and engagement that warp sociality on big public platforms. (Advertising works well in low-friction spaces and is harder to pull off in high-friction spaces.) So if “closed-off” just means “not funded by a soul-warping advertising business model,” then I think “closed-off” is definitely better, though the answer also points toward a possible disadvantage, which is that it’s not yet clear that Substack or Discord are long-term sustainable businesses.
OK, that was a bit longer an answer than I really intended. Here’s a shorter question from Colin:
what do you think the last irony-free Arnold movie (1980s and 1990s only) was? No winks or nods to the audience, just full on everyone involved being like 'fuck yeah this rules and we mean all of it'. wishing you a speedy recovery from your low level illness.
I actually don’t think you can demarcate Arnie’s career quite so easily? This is a guy whose career starts with Hercules in New York, after all. It’s true he enters a kind of high-irony zone between Twins (1988) and Batman and Robin (1997), but Eraser and T2 came out in that span (don’t tell me that James Cameron wasn’t thinking “fuck yeah this rules and we mean all of it”), and, having just watched The Running Man, it’s hard for me to say that the 1980s was an irony-free zone for Schwarzenegger. Part of the problem I think is that Arnie’s star quality has always been his ability to play up and into his own size and woodenness—he’s always being a bit ironic, even if the movie around him isn’t—so even the most straight-faced of his movies are sort of ambiguous.
Brought on by listening to the Hinge Points series, do you have any alternate history obsession that you wish our universe had traveled down? Lincoln doesn't get assassinated, Henry Wallace as FDR's running mate instead of Truman, etc? Or worst case scenario? Please do whatever you want to this extremely dumb question.
Not sure why this comes to mind first, but: Napleon converting to Islam and launching a new campaign to conquer Asia from Egypt, which I remember E.M. Rummage discussing a little on his great Age of Napoleon podcast a few years ago. (I might be misremembering the specifics but I’m too afraid to go back and check since the idea that Napoleon almost became a 19th century Muslim Alexander the Great is too good to get ruined.)
I'm currently a 35-year-old dad, but was a working musician and avid new-music-follower in my 20s. I'm very sensitive to the dad phenomena of only listening to music you liked in high school, and intended to avoid this at all costs and continue following music into my mid-30s. I thought I was doing well, but recently realized 99% of the music I listen to is made by 1) artists I liked when I was younger (i.e. Cate Le Bon, Beach House) 2) artists that came up in previous generations (i.e. music made as late as the 1980s etc.) 3) artists around my age or older (i.e. Aldous Harding). So, I slipped into the dad trope without realizing it.
My conclusion is music made by 20-year-olds currently comes from a different cultural context I am no longer connected to, so it doesn't resonate unless it sounds like something I already like (i.e. a garage rock band like Dehd). I can't imagine getting into, like, hyperpop, but, again, I think it's because it is responding to social and cultural phenomena I am simply not a part of. Conversely, I can get into older bands Wire because the cultural context it stemmed from pre-dated mine, and mine incorporated it, while new musicians around my age share my cultural experiences, so are able to make things that resonate with me specifically. I think this is a way around the definitely wrong , "Music was better in my day," trope. I think you are also a mid-30s dad, am I onto something or just trying to rationalize being out of touch? Love the newsletter. Thanks!
I think you have to think about it dialectically: it’s not just that cool young people who make cool unlistenable music are emerging out of a different context and responding to different cultural prompts than you (or me), it’s also that they are, to various levels of explicit intent, making music that you (and me) specifically will not like, so they will not be exposed to you (and me) and our fatally wack existences in their cool physical/digital/mind spaces. The hidden wholeness here is that by the fact of not “getting” the music we are participants in making it good and cool. You have to do your part for them, just as wack older people did their part for us.
Adrian wants to know:
what books from your childhood do you want to introduce to your child? What do you think holds up?
I really hope he likes Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, since I loved those books as a child, but his taste right now runs toward books that involve trucks and/or that play music, neither of which is a quality of The Dark Is Rising. Hoping this might change a bit over the next five and a half years or so.
You once tweeted that "you were in my dream last night" was one of few sentences that scored a perfect 10 in both "creepy" and "boring." (I believe another example of yours was "you have nice feet.") It's a good line that stuck in my brain and that I have "borrowed" over the years. Not exactly apples to apples, but it also occurs to me when a colleague emails me to say "Seth, hoping you have bandwidth this week." (I work in corporate communications.) My question is: are we living in a renaissance of the axis between creepy and boring? All that solitude in quarantine, the aesthetic of "Severance," the hyper-specific dissociation of "That Funny Feeling"... Is there something here, or nah?
Wow, yeah, this is well-observed. “Creepy boring” describes Qanon too, doesn’t it? Both the actual theory itself—the deeply creepy story of an elite child grooming network and shadow government war that culminates in the incredibly boring figure of … JFK, Jr.?—and also the phenomenon itself, crowds of aging normie parrothead types partying together around a mass delusion. Or Mike Pence, just as a person and politician—“mother”/”father,” no lunches alone with female subordinates, etc. Creepy, AND boring!
Henry wants to know:
Hi Max – I do have a request for action movie recommendations of a particular type. I like to watch movies while working out, but I often have trouble hearing all the dialogue or reading subtitles. What are the best action movies in which the words and dialogue are unnecessary to one’s enjoyment? Thanks!
Great question. I think martial-arts movies are the place to start—the first movie that comes to mind is The Raid, which is not, like, a little-known classic, but absolutely rules and might be better if you don’t need to listen to the script’s pathetic attempts to justify the perfect premise. Similarly, Stephen Chow movies (Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer) and early Jackie Chan (Police Story, e.g.) have that Buster Keaton-level visual intelligence, though they’re arguably sort of their own genres rather than strict “action movies.” Haven’t seen it in years but I bet Ong-bak would be great (or really any Tony Jaa). Hero is kind of slow but beautiful to look at either way.
I’ve also been watching a lot of Jesse V. Johnson/Scott Adkins b-movies lately (Avengement, The Debt Collector), and I’m sort of on the fence about whether they’d work without sound: they tend to have actual plots that are sort of relevant to the movie? But also just have dozens of scenes of Adkins absolutely whaling on guys/guys absolutely whaling on Adkins.
Outside of martial arts, another obvious selection: Mad Max: Fury Road has a great script but so little dialogue I don’t think you particularly need to have the sound or subtitles on. Basically any classic John Woo will work without sound or subtitles.
But I feel like I’m making really obvious suggestions here! Hoping the Read Max reader brain trust will weigh in.
Ashley F. writes:
Hi, Longtime Read Max subscriber here! I've got a question that's been bugging me for a while and I'm hoping you might be able to shed some light on it: What's your favorite tweet of mine? Thanks so much, looking forward to Friday!
Hi Ash! I thought this tweet of yours was really powerful.
1993 was an astonishing year in American cinema — Groundhog Day, Falling Down, Army of Darkness, Jurassic Park — oh and Schindler’s List and a bunch of other good ones too. But it seems to me the most underrated AWESOME movie that came out that year — the action film that you can still watch today with unblunted delight, is DEMOLITION MAN, which honestly just might be the greatest movie of any kind ever, ever made — the “oldies” station that’s nothing but commercial jingles, the “three seashells,” Sylvester Stallone knitting sweaters, in the future all restaurants are Taco Bell, Wesley Snipes in the most gleefully destructive role ever conceived, right down to that doctor’s eyeball at the tip of a pen... in its every wrinkle this movie is genius. So here are my Questions: 1) wtf 1993? Why so many good movies all at once? 2) wtf is with the under-appreciation? I read critics commentaries about how the actions scenes aren’t exciting enough and that a science fiction action movie shouldn’t do “social critique” (aka COMEDY) and I’m just like who are these humorless shits and why are they allowed to review films? 3) is it because Dennis Leary was in it? Yes, he sucks, but he was playing the role of a guy who was supposed to suck, so it was good casting. But I mean, this is a possibility; if Demolition Man isn’t getting the respect it so clearly deserves, is Dennis Leary 100% to blame?
My goodness, the closed off social spaces is quite an interesting topic. Back in my youth, when the Internet hadn't quite started yet one of the supposed "good things" about the Internet would be that marginalized groups that are isolated from each other, misunderstood by the community, and fact may experience risk to life and limb from the community could gather on the Internet, in a safe space, know they weren't alone, and organize to take their place in society.
Everybody was thinking of the gay and lesbian communities then expanding into transgendered etc. etc. Nobody thought of Nazis, Fascists, and white supremacists as being marginalized groups that need a safe space to meet others so they know they're not alone and to organize to take their place in society.
Holy fire truck, not only did we miss that particular pothole but we drove straight into it, broke both axles and ruined our tires.
Yes, small communities can be much less toxic than the twitters and Facebook's of the world. But I would recommend one small change. You can only participate if you sign up to be a member of the community but anybody can watch with the community does.
The counterexample to this is spaces like 4-chan and 8-chan. Repositories of hatred, bigotry and just plain unpleasant people you would not want to have over for Thanksgiving. I don't know how to resolve the conundrum. Open spaces can be cesspools enclosed spaces can be cesspools. I don't know if we know what makes an online space safe and supportive.