Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

12 Apr 2018, 10:29 a.m.

On Online Advice

I'll be speaking on a panel, "Social Media in Theory and Praxis: What is at Stake Now?" at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, in New York, NY, on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 (next week). It's partly about how "[u]se of digital platforms and tools like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and Google has altered cultural production, political processes, economic activity, and individual habits." And recently I've been thinking about advice, and how blogging and other social media affect this very fundamental interpersonal act.

I am a giant weirdo. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. Advice is like a diet plan. Our gut biomes are so varied and poorly understood that very strange-sounding diets inevitably work for some fraction of the population, and commonplace diet advice inevitably snarls up some people's digestive tracts. Similarly, your career, your household, your everything exists in a unique ecosystem, and advice you find condescending or hurtful may work for someone else, or even you ten years ago or ten years from now.

Sometimes I don't explicitly-enough distinguish between things that work prescriptively for myself and things that make sense to prescribe for All Of Humanity, and between prescriptive truths and descriptive truths.

Sometimes things I write down, even publicly, are aspirational and prescriptive self-motivational slogans. Many years ago, reading Steve Pavlina's wacky blog, I learned the concept of "lies of success": statements that are descriptively false -- or at least nonprovable -- but prescriptively true, like, "if I work hard and try new approaches when I get stuck, I will learn this". No one can promise that "will", so, it's not 100% accurate descriptively. But you may as well choose your unprovable and nonfalsifiable beliefs to serve your growth.

In every social context, there are topics that are apt to cause discord if we so much as name them -- sometimes the very word stops some people from thinking, like "abortion" or "cybersecurity". And when I write publicly, especially online, I do not control what social context my words are read in. So, some of these topics we can talk about in terms of our own values if we are super careful to be subjective and descriptive rather than prescriptive, but sometimes I find it hard to frame the conversation productively.

It's salutary for me to remember the ways in which I am an unextrapolatable weirdo. I'm grateful to all y'all for reminding me, pushing back when I act like my gut biome is the world.