Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why writing is like the pyramids

One of my high school English teachers (shout to Mr. Winthrop!) once said that the books we were going to read that year were on par with humankind's greatest achievements in any sphere, including the pyramids.

I was reminded of this comparison when I recently traveled to Teotihuacan in Mexico and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun. Not only are great novels truly singular achievements, but my trip got me thinking about the extent to which writing a novel is... sort of like building a pyramid.

You work so hard for so long... and that's just to finish the base

The base of the Pyramid of the Sun is so big (see above) you can't even really get it into one photo unless you are very, very far away. It's 720 feet long and 760 feet wide!

Can you imagine the immense amount of work it took just to do the first layer?? It must have felt amazing to begin such a lofty promise... and then it took a ton of work... and when that first layer was done, they must have known they had an incredibly long way to go.

And that reminded me of the first 50-75 pages of a novel. You're psyched! You're going to write the greatest novel of all time! And then you get started. And it takes so much work. And even when you get that initial base going, it almost feels impossible how much is still yet to be written.

Everything is building toward the point of the pyramid

All of those stones, all that work, builds on itself toward the capstone on top. Or, I guess in the case of Teotihuacan, the altar, since the top is flat.

In your novel, it's all about that climax. Every metaphorical stone you put in place should lead to a very satisfying conclusion. Sure, maybe people will notice the sides of the pyramid, but their eyes are always going to go upward.

Finishing is deceptively hard

One of the best things about finishing the first layer is that no other layer will be as big and wide. Every layer after that is going to require fewer stones. But... the farther you go, the higher you have to lift.

This reminds me of ending a novel. On the one hand, you're so close! You can see the end! You're really going to finish the novel!

But in reality, it's so hard to get that ending just right. With all of the different plot threads unfolding, every chapter toward the end feels far more difficult.

Sacrifices will be made

Many of the Mesoamerican pyramids were consecrated with human sacrifice. In the case of the Aztec Templo Mayor, those may have numbered somewhere in the thousands.

And yes. You and those around you will make sacrifices along the way.

But when you're done, you'll have something to marvel at forever.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The past few weeks in books 1/9/17

Hi! I've been traveling. Also I'm on Instagram here: @nathanbransford
Happy 2017! Good riddance 2016!

So. Where were we?

Thank you for bearing with some quietness on the blog front as I traveled around the holidays and restocked my zombie-proof survival bunker for the year ahead. (Just kidding. But then again maybe I should have...)

I have a Pyramid of the Sun-sized collection of links for you. Let's get to it!

So that HBO show Westworld came and went and we haven't even really talked about it have we? What did you think?? Have you figured out who the Hosts are amongst your friends and family? Do tell in the comments. Meanwhile, Writers Digest used the show as inspiration to talk about how the idea of Cornerstones are useful when thinking about your fictional characters.

Goodreads revealed its Readers' Choice Awards in several categories. Congrats to all the winners!

If you had Patti Smith on your "Who will accept Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature" Bingo card, congrats, you win!

In "Um how did they get a book deal again" news, there was quite a controversy in December over the book Bad Little Children's Books, which was a compendium of (invented) offensive children's book covers, which Claire Fallon at HuffPo rightly called out as indeed offensive but also unfunny.

And this other unfortunate person that the media for some reason insists on calling a "right wing provocateur" got a book deal from Simon & Schuster sparking some talk of a boycott but frankly I don't want to give said individual any more publicity than he has already received and think silence would be a better punishment so yeah NO LINK FOR YOU.

In other news, Fight Club (the novel, not necessarily the movie) is being embraced by people who seem not to be grasping its message, even as it appears more relevant than ever.

Alan Burdick has a great rumination on time in The New Yorker.

Dominique Matti has a great rumination on self-publishing while broke on Medium.

And speaking of self-publishing while broke, Maria Konnikova wrote a great article on the secret formula of resilience, which has what I think is an important message for writers. In a study of resilient kids, the ones who succeeded embraced as much control as possible over their destiny.

And speaking of articles that aren't about writing that still reminded me of writing, the band OK Go reflected on what made their viral videos go viral.

New interesting blog alert! My mom pointed me to this blog about a woman who is pursuing a dream of opening a bed & breakfast and blogging about her reflections along the way.

This probably deserves its own post, but Buzzfeed's Tasty cookbook was sold exclusively through a single site... and it's one of the bestselling cookbooks of the year.

And you know that old maxim "show don't tell?" Well, that goes for queries too.

In books and politics news, Sophie McKeand writes about the serious question facing writers today: speak up or be silent? (via Julia Forster). And there was another post over at LitReactor that took the opposite tack and suggested being silent about politics, which generated quite the discussion on Twitter, but that post appears to be no more.

And in politics-politics news, certain members of the far right have been expelled from Twitter. This is where some of them are going.

Ta-Nehisi Coates reflected on what it meant to have a black president.

With all that has happened these past few years, have we given up on tech optimism?

And still struggling to make sense of what happened in 2016? Here are some psychological studies that help explain the election.

No Comment! of! the! Week! as I have not been posting consistently, but do keep those comments coming for future awards purposes!

And finally, in what may be the most important article of 2016, if not the decade, io9 reflects on what Jones the cat is thinking in these incredible Alien promotional posters.

Have a great week!

Monday, December 19, 2016

8th Annual Heifer International Fundraiser!

It's that time of year!

This is the eighth year in a row for our Heifer fundraiser! In a time of so much strife in the world, an organization that tries to alleviate hunger is as important as ever.

Here's how this works. All you have to do is help spread the word by:

1) Leaving a comment on this post (bonus points for sharing it so others hear about Heifer and leave their own comments).

2) Tweet a link to this post ( and include the hashtag #NBHeifer

3) OR even easier, just retweet this tweet:

4) OR donate directly by going to this page:

Do one of those things? I'll donate $2.00, up to a max of $2,000.

While you're at it...

5) Click over to other participating blogs at the bottom of this post and leave comments there too
6) Make your own per-comment or tweet pledge and I'll link to you/tweet you!

If you want in on the fun and make a per-comment or tweet pledge on your own just leave a comment with a link to your blog post or tweet announcing your pledge or e-mail it to me and I'll feature it in this post.

Heifer International is an organization that fights hunger by giving families around the world livestock, training, or other assistance that helps improve their livelihood. Heifer has been recognized for its work in Fast Company and Forbes, among other places.

If you have anything to spare this holiday season I hope you'll consider making a donation. Over the past years we have raised over $12,000 together, which is quite something. Here's that link again to donate directly.

Thanks, everyone!

Participating blogs/Twitter handles:


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What is your favorite bookstore?

Photo by me in Aardvark Books, San Francisco
Amid the very sad news that beloved Cobble Hill bookstore BookCourt is closing, where I had my launch party  Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp, the New York Times recently asked seven authors about their favorite bookstores.

We can do better than seven can't we? What is your favorite bookstore and why? 

While I'm on record as an e-book aficionado, when I do want to buy a paper book for myself or as a gift, I go out of my way to shop at local bookstores. And I have plenty of love and nostalgia for bookstores. I still think they're going to persist in the e-book era.

Favorite bookstore is a tough choice for me. As an author, I'm so thankful for BookCourt and Books Inc Opera Plaza for hosting me for some memorable events. I loved my pilgrimages to storied bookstores like Shakespeare & Co in Paris and Powell's in Portland.

But for sheer influence I'd have to go with Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, Oregon. My family used to go to the Shakespeare Festival every summer and we'd make multiple trips to Bloomsbury, where the staff introduced me to David Eddings and all kinds of other authors.

What about you?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Will you ever buy mostly e-books? The results! (2016)

For the 10th consecutive year, I asked people if they could see themselves going mostly paper free.

We seem to have settled into a bit of an equilibrium. Ever since 2011, the number of e-book aficionados has hovered between 44% and 49%, but last year there was anomalous reversal down to 40.5%. Interestingly, this year's bump back to 47.1% was mainly driven by people coming off of the fence and choosing the "maybe" and "I don't know" options in fewer numbers.

With all the usual caveats (unscientific poll, different sample sizes and audiences), here are the people who welcome their coming e-book overlords:

2007: 7% (!)
2008: 11%
2009: 19%
2010: 32%
2011: 47%
2012: 47%
2013: 49%
2014: 44%
2015: 40.5%
2016: 47.1%

And here are the paper dead-enders who will go down swinging for their paper books:

2007: 49%
2008: 45%
2009: 37%
2010: 30%
2011: 25%
2012: 25%
2013: 25%
2014: 28%
2015: 38.6%
2016: 37.8%

What do you make of these results? Are we locked in a stalemate? What would be a potential game-changer?

Friday, December 2, 2016

This week in books (and politics) 12/2/16

Photo by me. Follow me on Instagram! @nathanbransford
This week! The books! (And some politics this time).

First up, if you haven't already voted in the 10th annual e-book poll, pray get thee to the post to vote! I'll reveal the results early next week and compare to the past polls.

Meanwhile, links galore:

It's December (um wait a second it's December???), which means it's best-of-the-year season. Kicking things off is the New York Times, with their ten favorite books of the year, and Amazon with the best children's books of the year.

Indie bookstore expansion alert! Congrats to the fantastic Greenlight, and here's rooting for more similar success stories.

How much income has J.K. Rowling seen from her books and movies and plays and theme parks? Um. Well. A lot.

Speaking of which, reasearchers have quantified what made us love Harry Potter (and other types of archetypal stories).

The Times had a conversation with novelist and now officially fashion-icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about beauty and feminism in Our Modern Era.

Jennifer Hubbard talks about heroes, real and fictional.

In publishing advice news, BookEnds reminds us that publishing is not a business for the impatient, and warns against the potential downsides of querying two books at once. And editor Melissa Manlove talks about the elements of a good picture book.

What's this I see? A rumination on the similarities between writing and chess? I clicked so fast.

Writing an acknowledgments section is the best part of writing a book. Here's a handy checklist.

And lord knows it's difficult these days to avoid distractions. Here's what Medium founder Ev Williams has to say about keeping a schedule, which has great paralells for the writers out there.

In political news, an interesting look at how publishers are scrambling to make sense of Trump's victory and readjusting to the new landscape.

There have been a ton of articles about the importance of empathy and the lack thereof. GigaOm founder Om Malik makes a convincing case that Silicon Valley has a lot of soul-searching to do.

I enjoyed this post on how designers can resist what's to come.

Trump supporters, you've been a little quiet on my line in the sand post. (Except for Jerry, thanks Jerry!)

And this article is very long, but for my money this is the best post-election recap I've read. The essence? With an election this close, everything mattered.

Comment! of! the! week! goes to ABC, who nicely articulates how dominant the election has been in many of our brains:
What is happening in this country is going to be too difficult to separate from everyday existence, including writing. Heck, I'm already considering how it is/will impact what I write next. This presidential election is making it hard to sleep, it's causing me more back tension than I already have, and (as a therapist) it informs many of the discussions I have been having with clients--even those who couldn't yet vote. It's in the water and the air and the food! 
And finally, I've been hearing a lot of people talk about how maybe things won't be so bad. This New Yorker cartoon was some necessary gallows humor.

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump supporters, can we make a deal?

Yes, this is a political post. Context here. No hard feelings if you decide to skip to the next post.

Hello and congratulations on the election.

If you are indeed a Trump supporter, I would like make a plea to you: please read this post in full even if you think I'm a lunatic. You won the election! Throw me a bone! Heck, you could throw me two bones if you were so generous as to share this with another Trump supporter or two million.

Let me start by saying what this blog post is not:
  • This is not an attempt to get you to change your mind.
  • This is not an attempt to make you feel bad for voting for Trump.
  • This is not an attempt to explain why I'm right about everything in the world oh make that the universe.
(If you do want one of those articles, by all means you can click here and here and here and here and here. But that's not what this post is about).

I don't know your personal reasons for voting for Trump, but because I'm an optimistic person by nature and believe the vast majority of people to be good at heart, I trust that you went to the voting booth with good intentions, however much I might disagree with you. I'm not going to try to persuade you otherwise. 

But I am, shall we say, scared. I am like a dog lying on its belly, paws up saying, "Master please pet my belly instead of goring my intestines." I'm scared for the country. I'm scared even more for the people who are less advantaged than me. I could list all these particular fears for myself and for my friends and for people I don't even know, which is a very long list, but again, not the point of this post. 

The fear I want to focus on, as a proud American who will croon "Where at least I know I'm free" with the best of them, and as a former public school attendee who is mindful of the very long history of charismatic leaders stirring a fear of outsiders in fractured times, is this one: the risk to our cherished democracy and the principles it stands for.

That's crazy, you might be thinking. You liberals have lost your damn minds. You are in a bubble! (FWIW my parents are farmers and I grew up in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Trump but yes I do now live in Manhattan in a building that has more people living in it than my entire hometown). We elected a businessman, not a tyrant. There you go again, overhyping and lying. You lost. Get over it. Our institutions are strong. If Trump sucks he'll be impeached or voted out. Give the guy a chance. This attitude is why you lost the election in the first place!! 

I HOPE YOU'RE RIGHT!! If this all comes down to me being a lunatic I will happily check myself into the asylum. 

But since you were kind enough to throw me the bone of reading this article, here's what I ask of you, with the inauguration still two months away and with history yet to be written:

I want you to take a deep breath and close your eyes. Just kidding!! Hope you didn't do that, I need you to read the rest of the article. 

I want you to take a moment. (Eyes open, to be clear). Set aside Trump, set aside Obama, set aside Hillary, set aside our politically fractured environment, set aside additional metaphors about dogs and bones. 

In a totally hypothetical world, what would be a "step too far" for you against our democracy? What would make you stop, even if it's your guy or gal in the Oval Office, and say, "Okay, that's too far." Pretend it's your friend Steve who just became President of the United States (love Steve!), or the Newman guy in Jurassic Park who got slimed by the dinosaur with the weird gills.

Here are some hypotheticals -- NOT SAYING THESE ARE GOING TO HAPPEN -- but just to give you a sense of what I have in mind for potential "steps too far":
  • Crackdowns on educators
  • Censoring of political speech
  • Jailing of opposition leaders and/or reporters
  • Systematic efforts to bankrupt institutions or news outlets
  • Registries for minority or religious groups
  • Restrictions on the Internet and social media
  • Assaults on peaceful protestors and a blind eye toward prosecuting those responsible
  • Defying court rulings
  • Assassinations or detainment of dissidents
  • Postponement of elections
  • Internment camps
  • Nuclear war
  • Failure to recruit Bruce Willis to avert asteroid threatening Earth
Just take a moment, work with me, and think, "If, hypothetically, Trump were to do X, Y and Z from this list (or something else), then I would have to reconsider things." Even if you think there's less than zero chance of it happening. Even if it feels like an exercise in writing young adult dystopian fiction (which you should totally try by the way).

Okay. Do you have your list? (Do tell in the comments section - I'm curious! Passive aggressive "things Obama or Hillary already did" will be deleted, not the point of this exercise though I appreciate the attempt also I'm onto you!)

Trump likes deals, I like deals, we all like deals. The deal I want to make with you is that if I do my absolute best to keep an open mind about the future and, as I am repeatedly asked on social media, to "give Trump a chance," you will withdraw your support for Trump if one of your "steps too far" happens. 

It may be hazy if and when it happens. It may feel like it had some justification. You may not even remember reading this blog post (although, if so: how could you, future you, HOW COULD YOU). That's why I want to do this now, in a vacuum before things start getting wild. Let's make this deal while our heads our clear.

All I ask is that you remember this post, remember this exercise, remember your "steps too far," and resist if it happens however you see fit.

Thank you for reading. You're fired. Just kidding.

Enjoy this post? Please consider following me on Twitter or Facebook, subscribe to my blog, or check out my guide to writing a novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Will you ever buy mostly ebooks? (10th annual poll)

Well by golly we made it to ten years of this poll.

I have been asking this question every year since 2007, when the Kindle was brand new and the iPad did not yet exist.

So. Do you think you'll ever buy mostly ebooks? Do you already?

Caveats, because even ten years in I still get these:
  • Yes, I understand this isn't a scientific poll 
  • Yes, it's further unscientific to compare between years when my blog readership may have changed
  • Yes, I know you want more poll options because no option here precisely captures your view. Choose the one that's closest.
Poll below. You'll need to click through if you're an email subscriber. (And if you're not an email subscriber, subscribe now!)

Monday, November 21, 2016

The last week in books 11/21/16, plus a few words about politics

Photo by me. Follow me on Instagram! @NathanBransford
First up, thank you to everyone who weighed in on the two posts last week (here and here) about how authors should navigate politics on social media. The discussion was almost entirely wonderful and positive, even when people disagreed, which is not something I take for granted in this charged up day and age. I highly recommend checking out the two threads for some thoughtful discussion.

And now, a "fair warning" about this here blog that I am so very thankful you peruse from time to time

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking almost nonstop about the election. About where we go from here, about what I can do, and about how we're going to navigate a world, and especially a social media world, where it seems like almost everything is political.

I have some ideas about all of this that I'd like to tease out, and especially because I have such a wonderfully positive and diverse group of people who read and comment on this blog, I'd like to use this as a test ground for some of those ideas. Basically I'd like to use this space as sandbox. Let's build some castles!

So... here's my fair warning to those of you who read and subscribe: this blog will no longer be an entirely politics-free space.

But here's my pledge to you:
  • I do not intend to turn this blog over to *only* politics. This will still primarily be a place where we talk about writing, reading, and all those things you've come to expect. This is not a bait and switch. Don't care about politics? Feel free to skip on past those posts.
  • When I do post about things related to politics, I do not intend to be strident or to be unwelcome to people who disagree with me. I want this to be a safe space for people of all views. 
  • In fact, if you want to thoughtfully disagree with me I WANT YOU HERE. Please stay. I want to learn from you.
  • Unless you're a jerk. Jerks of all stripes will be unwelcome.
I hope you'll stay for what's to come, but no hard feelings if it's not your cup of tea. 

Thoughts? Questions? Take to the comments section!

Now then. There were some solid books and writing links from the last week or two, and I still aim to give them to you:

People love them some old book smell. But what is that exactly? Electric Literature found a great infographic that explains it. Science!

People also love them some New York. (Oh, what's that you say? You don't love New York? Watch this.) Anyway, the Guardian had a list of the top 10 New York novels. How do you think they did?

I linked to this in my post on the end of truth, but in case you missed it, I highly recommend checking out Amanda Gefter's whole interview on the nature of consciousness.

Still surprised Trump won? The NY Times has a list of 6 books to read to help you understand it.

And if you're having trouble dealing with the election, the LA Times has a great recommendation: head to the library.

And if you're really really having trouble dealing with the election, YA author Ellen Hopkins has a message for you: we're not getting over it and we don't have to.

And if you're really really really having trouble dealing with the election, if may be of some small comfort to know that Octavia Butler totally saw it coming.

So is Bob Dylan actually going to show up to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature? Probably not.

In writing advice news, yours truly was featured in an interview with Kelly Q. Anderson, where I touched on such things as dealing with rejection (sometimes from the fetal position) and advice for embracing the right kind of fear.

One of the challenging things about editing-as-you can go is that while it can sometimes be helpful, it can also be an unproductive sinkhole of time that stops you from what you really need to be doing, which is charging forth. Writing Helping Writers has some ideas on how to navigate that.

In agent news, Jessica Faust talks about the advantage of an agent who really knows you.

And Penguin Random House has a roundup of 27 of the best books on writing. Which is great and all, but, um, Penguin Random House YOU FORGOT ONE.

Comment! of! the! week! There were so many good comments last week, thank you so much to everyone. For Comment of the Week I'm going with Alexandroid, who has a short but eloquent post on how empiricism is the answer to the fracturing of truth:
I think our only hope is to build a culture where people value evidence based arguments over conspiracy theories, where critical thinking and scientific method are taught and praised but speculations and poor fact checking are considered unethical and looked down upon. We will never be able to get objective truth but at least we can affect our common mindset and lens. We've done this before with things like valuing life, empathy and honesty, there is no reason we could not do it again as a society and civilization at large.
And finally, people of all political stripes have been longing lately to return to a more innocent time. In order to bring you back to some halcyon days, I give you... CNN's wonderfully ludicrous in-studio "hologram" effect during the 2008 election (email subscribers, please click "Read More" below to see):

Have a great week!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The end of truth

If you've been too distracted by the presidential election to follow the latest cutting-edge theories in physics, you may be surprised to learn that the latest in physics sounds... well... actually quite a lot like the presidential election.

(And no, I'm not referring to whatever physics account for Donald Trump's hair.)

In The Atlantic, science writer Amanda Gefter (whose mesmerizing book Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn is a must-read) had a conversation with cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman about the extent to which a "public object" doesn't really exist because of the observer effect, and how skewed our perceptions of reality may be as a result.

Let me try to translate this into English (and scientists, please let me know if I'm translating badly).

We humans like to believe that there is a "real" world out there irrespective of our individual perceptions. In other words, if you look at Donald Trump's hair and I look at Donald Trump's hair, we'd like to think that at the end of the day we're looking at the exact same hair. There is some "objective" reality of Donald Trump's hair. If we somehow had a third party god-view of Donald Trump's hair, we would know where Donald Trump's hair is at all times and we could measure it accurately, even if it, say, fell into a black hole.

The problem is, as Gefter points out, experiment after experiment with quantum particles shows that if we make the assumption that there is a "god view" independent of someone observing a particle, "we get the wrong answers." Experiments keep defying the idea that there is a third party, objective reality out there that's separate from who is observing it.

It's quite possible that reality itself is comprised entirely of the interaction of first-person points of view. If you were inside of a black hole and I was outside of a black hole and Donald Trump's hair fell into the black hole, we might see two totally different things happen and they're both equally real. You literally have your own Donald Trump's hair, and I have mine.

Lucky us.

So how does this relate to the presidential election?

"The Media" is Plural

For the last hundred years, owing to some quirks of technology (only so many channels on the spectrum) and economics (efficiences of scale), we had a largely centralized media after the rise of radio, television, book publishers, and newspaper syndication in the 20th century. Most people got their national and international news either from a major paper, from syndicated services like the AP within their local papers, or from the nightly news on one of the capital-lettered networks on television.

The effect of all of this is that our news was pre-filtered and shaped by these "mainstream" networks, which meant that we were by and large starting our political discussions from the same set of facts. We may have disagreed, sometimes strenuously, and there was much that was happening outside of the "mainstream" that we didn't even know about, but our disagreements were starting with many of the same basic "truths."

Cable altered this landscape a bit, leading to the rise of CNN and Fox News, among others, but then, of course, along came the Internet, which has had a profoundly unpredictable effect on what we even consider our realities to be.

On the one hand, the Internet has shone a light on previously unheard voices that would have previously struggled to have broken through to the mainstream. The Rodney King video was shocking when it landed on TV in the early '90s (at least, shocking to white viewers), but its existence depended on some person randomly having a camcorder on hand when it happened and getting the tape to a TV network willing to run it.

Now there is a stunning drumbeat of cell phone videos of police shootings and their aftermath that are dispersed on social media, raising awareness of the frequency of these types of incidents and sparking calls for reform and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At first it felt like the Internet was going to spur greater access to the truth by allowing alternate voices the room to flourish through crowd sourcing, through the gathering of like-minded people in virtual spaces, and by the amplification afforded by social sharing. Rather than being stymied by gatekeepers, truths could bubble up, the spotlight could shine in places that it previously failed to reach, and we could have greater confidence that we were getting the truth by having access to so many primary sources to verify the truth for ourselves.

It felt like information, as they say, was going to be free.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Freedom

But there was a problem with the colossal explosion of information on the Internet: there's way too much of it.

Along came Twitter and Facebook.

Both of these social networks allowed us to do something very important: they filtered information for us, and most importantly they helped filter our news. 62% of Americans now get their news via social media.

Facebook and Twitter went about this in slightly different ways. Twitter has always been a bit more of a wild west, but what you see on the social network depends entirely on who you follow and what those followers tweet and "retweet" (sharing someone else's post). There's some cross-pollination from outside your immediate circle, but if you follow only people who are like you, chances are you will largely see what is being shared by people like you.

Facebook started with a similar constraint (you are only seeing the posts of people you are friends with and the Pages you follow), but took one more crucial further step to filter. Because of Facebook's news feed algorithms, what you see in your news feed is influenced by who you interact with the most and the types of things you tend to click on. Their intent is to show you what you will find most interesting.

The result has, arguably, been the sorting of the country into isolated echo chambers that don't sufficiently interact with each other and see information that doesn't conform to their preexisting views. As Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in the New York Times, Facebook's own research shows the company encourages confirmation bias by "somewhat prioritizing updates that users find comforting." You start seeing the things on Facebook that you want to see, perhaps confirming your pre-existing opinions, rather than having them challenged.

This might not be hugely consequential to our politics if we were still operating with largely the same essential set of facts. Yes, we may see things we're more likely to already agree with, yes, we may have completely different narratives of the same real-life event ("Benghazi!"), but these would constitute different spins on the same facts.

But then came the fake news.

Alien Hunting

We've always had the National Enquirers of the world, which mixed some actually-true scoops with, ya know, Bill Clinton confessing he's an alien hunter.

What's new is that we now have an explosion of fake news that looks plausibly like the real thing, and it's... pretty much everywhere on social media, including the very false articles that the Pope endorsed Trump and that an FBI agent connected to the Clinton email case was found dead.

Facebook has taken a lot of heat for the role fake news played in the election, and in the wake of the controversy, both Google and Facebook have pledged to restrict ads on sites that have fake news, despite Mark Zuckerberg denying fake news influenced the election.

But the problem with expecting Facebook to filter out fake news is that such an exercise devolves into philosophy very, very quickly. Who gets to decide what is "true" or "fake"?

Let's take the "Bill Clinton confesses he's an alien hunter" story above. How, exactly, do you go about debunking that story and proving it's fake?

Someone asks Bill Clinton, and he says he's not an alien hunter? What if he's lying?

A majority of people don't think Bill Clinton is an alien hunter? What if they just don't have the facts, or what if the voters are lying because they're Democrats who think alien hunting is a bad look for Bill?

Snopes says Bill Clinton is not an alien hunter? Who made Snopes king? Do they have 24 hour surveillance on Bill Clinton's extraterrestrial activities?

At the end of the day, isn't it up to all of us to decide what we think is true or untrue based on the preponderance of evidence and the sources we trust?

And... guess what: JOKE'S ON YOU, BILL CLINTON REALLY DID KINDA SAY HE WAS AN ALIEN HUNTER. Or, at least, he said somewhat jokingly on Jimmy Kimmel's show that he looked into the Roswell and Area 51 records when he was president to make sure there were no aliens. ("Hunting" for evidence, get it?). Here's the video.

So... Now what. Do you let that article on Facebook or do you ban it just because the headline is somewhat misleading? How misleading is too misleading? What's the line between satire and fakery? And how do you know why someone is sharing something? What if I want to share something because it's bats*** crazy?

Sure, maybe you can use human editors or artificial intelligence to weight the likelihood of accuracy of a story and begin to weight sources by reputation and tag posts accordingly, but how do you prevent bias from creeping into what are, at the end of the day, editorial decisions with blurry lines?

The "mainstream" media already had a version of this problem with their "Democrat says this, Republican says that" structure of balancing stories, which can quickly devolve into false equivalency or total confusion if one side is telling the truth and one is lying. If one scientist says the moon is a satellite orbiting the Earth and another scientist says the moon is a giant mozzarella ball on an invisible pizza, organizations like the New York Times are reluctant to call person two a lunatic and instead present the pizza idea as a "controversial new theory." We report, you decide! They are loath to decide for you.

So it's no wonder we're out there clicking on things that mainly reflect what we already believe. The information out there is so vast and complicated and contradictory, how can we do anything other than charge forth using our gut feelings and biases and tribal allegiances to cut through the noise?

And now, I fear, we're in for one final hammer blow to a truth we can all agree on.

The Final Frontier

Much like the way ABC, NBC, and CBS used to marshal the news into centralized mainstream narratives as a starting place for political discussions, we may look back on having a couple social networks we could squabble on as a quaint relic of a more innocent time.

We're taking the dominance of Facebook and Twitter for granted. Just as the television networks' dominance were usurped by an abundance of cable news outlets that are now in the process of being usurped by an even greater abundance of Internet news outlets, there's a risk that the social media landscape could fracture even further into our own little echo chambers. Who's to say we're not going to divide ourselves up into liberal Twitter and Facebook and conservative Twitter and Facebook or into even smaller groups than that?

And even on top of that, we now have an incoming president with a, shall we say, interesting relationship with the truth.

For a glimpse into what is possible with a president who is unbound from the truth, who will have tremendous influence over the apparatus of government and the state, and a chief advisor who already runs a propaganda apparatus, I'd turn you to this 2014 article about the alternative realities created by one of Vladimir Putin's top advisors, who co-opts movements on the right and left, who drumbeats phrases until they become meaningless, and takes both sides of arguments to leave everyone feeling completely disoriented:

One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.

We don't have a national press we trust. The independent press that does exist is in perilous financial straits. We have a social media landscape where we live in our own echo chambers. We are constantly tricked by fakeries. We have a president-elect willing to spin up easily falsifiable stories and an interest in stirring up our emotions, who could very well further legitimize propagandists, and who could break norms to employ previously nonpartisan government data or institutions to create alternate realities that are extremely difficult to disprove.

Try to set aside whatever feelings you may have about my level of paranoia in going there, and, as Trump would say, "Believe me" on this one: It is about to get very, very confusing to figure out what is true.

The Observer Effect

Much like, well, apparently reality itself, the news is busy creating itself to conform to our existing perspectives, and our grasp of what is true is largely dependent on what we make of it. In the coming years, this is only going to get more and more complicated.

The Internet has fractured our centralized, mainstream realities into millions of individual bubbles. We have truths sitting side by side with fakeries and no time to sort them out. We don't trust and can't agree upon the institutions we used to rely on to sort through this for us. We can't even talk to one another, because our facts barely intersect.

Most importantly, the universe is bending toward us, letting us choose our own truth adventure and giving us whatever we need to believe what we want to believe.

Sorry, Mulder and Scully. The truth is not out there. We are all independent observers spinning up our own realities.

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