Just to note, I really think sometimes people just choose an axe to grind and that's the case of Matthew Sweet here.

Sweet, in his thread, claims that Johann Hari cannot be trusted to handle data. Sweet's main argument comes from Hari's supposed misuse of a Nature study. According to Sweet, the authors that Hari cites themselves concede that the hypothesis of shrinking cultural attention spans isn't true. Sweet, referring to the paper, describes it thusly: "“The phenomenon,” its authors concede, “lacks a strong empirical foundation.”"

However, Sweet is lying. I say lying because this pull quote goes beyond mere cherry picking. Sweet has pulled that quote from the INTRODUCTION of the paper, and the real quote is "In the literature there have been strong hints of an acceleration in different contexts (citations), but so far, the phenomenon has lacked a strong empirical foundation." So they are not conceding, in any way shape or form, that their research lacks a strong empirical foundation. Rather, they are setting up how great their own research is in contrast to previous "lacking" research. This sort of comparison is what scientists do all the time in introductions (source: am a scientist).

The rest of the paper makes clear that the authors aren't conceding anything, they do find evidence of exactly what Sweet is taking issue with. You can read it here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-09311-w. It's extremely clear the authors find evidence of an "accelerating dynamics of collective attention" - clear from the title, the abstract, the discussion, everything. No honest person could read that paper and come away with a different conclusion.

Whether or not the study is correct is a whole other matter (it may not be). But Sweet claims Hari misrepresents it. To make this claim he has to go and truncate a random sentence from the Introduction of the paper that is nothing about its conclusions, then himself wildly misrepresent that one sentence as the conclusion.

Btw I care not a whit about Hari, nor his book, nor Sweet, it's just crazy how easy it is to make a name for yourself from this sort "take down" of vapid criticism mixed with dishonest representation.

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I think much of the urge to see things as "takedowns" and to find "debunkings" comes from the deep, often desperate desire to have the world be simple, easily understood, black-and-white. A world that admits of tradeoffs and complexities is a scary one indeed, fraught with moral balancing acts and degrees of rightness. Twitter has no truck with these. Better to dismiss uncomfortable ideas with a "So-and-so debunked that!" and be done with them.

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This feels related to other parts of the media ecosystem that you've written about well: constant networking and ass-kissing, and professional precariousness. When a writer acquires a certain trendy quantum of success, everyone wants to be friends with them (or at least align oneself with them), which requires praising them no matter what. This is exhausting both because it may involve lying about their actual opinion of the writer's work and because it generates a huge amount of professional envy that then has to be concealed. (I think the envy is a result both of the professional precariousness and of the fact that the media ecosystem causes a lot of perfectly fine writers to get plaudits that suggests they're the second coming of Renata Adler.) If someone else publishes a well-written pan of the writer's work, it can be a huge relief to have an excuse to leave the church of Jia Tolentino, or whoever. I think that if people in the subculture you're discussing felt allowed not to like certain things--or even allowed not to *love* them!--they would feel less hungry for an excuse to dismiss them. (This is in addition to the cognitive-load explanation--I felt obligated to read that 400-page book, someone told me it was bad, now I don't have to.)

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“The dollar store version here is that if you think that a bunch of people (who are just like you) deciding communally on Twitter that something or someone has been ‘taken down’ has any real-world salience, you’re a useful idiot for the Silicon Valley mentality you probably claim to hate” is one of the most bitter, scathing, fuck-you sentences I’ve read in a while, and I enjoyed every letter of it

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Here's a sentence for the ages: "We write about books so that we share our inability to explain what they mean to us, communally, instead of feeling that alone."

Jeez, Freddie. Thanks.

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Remember when videos all had titles like “WATCH: gay veteran DESTROYS hateful pro-life mom in supermarket checkout line” and all the comments said stuff like “slow clap it out”? just me?

It feels like a holdover from late-00s Daily Show monologues, or clips from The West Wing - liberals (I am 100% including myself here) love to see someone dismantled beyond all hope of serious rebuttal by an earnest, charismatic Smart Guy. We just love it. This is probably its own genre on TikTok now.

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The problem with the modern world and the ways in which it's now inextricably tied to the internet/social media is that everyone's basically lost at sea, drowning in content, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for people to understand what is and isn't important. Life is like one big hedonistic treadmill, and I think people sometimes crave binary simplicity. Yes or no, right or wrong, good or bad, etc.

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Jan 18, 2022·edited Jan 18, 2022

Ah, I see you've stepped into the ants' nest of Trans Women Who Write Vicious Quasi-Academic Screeds Against Each Other. I don't know what it is we get out of it but it seems to be an inescapable part of our community.

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1) I am not sure that it's impossible to rebut (much/most of?) a book's argument in a review. Matthew Sweet's name was familiar for some reason, and I figured out that it's because he was the BBC interviewer who deflated Naomi Wolf's book "Outrages," pointing out to her in a conversation that she had misunderstood crucial historical evidence that undermined or possibly negated her thesis. Wolf was widely ridiculed and the book was dropped by its US publisher, before a presumably revised version was picked up by a less prestigious press. (See https://nyti.ms/3fEHtXn among other places) To be clear, I have not read Wolf's book nor am I expert on the research Sweet cited here, so maybe this is more of what Freddie is writing about.

2) Takedowns, or hatchet jobs, or whatever you want to call them, are just FUN; but much less so if they take themselves too seriously, as Chu does here IMO. Literary bloodsport is part of the tradition, even if and because it's often a way for a lesser-known outsider to make their name. Dale Peck specialized in gutting more successful writers for TNR and got a NYTMag profile, which was possibly the pinnacle of his career. (https://nyti.ms/3tEMur5)

3) To Freddie's point about the "true aggregate opinion" and the relative irrelevance of the critic: in 2002 the Village Voice published a takedown review of Sonic Youth's album "Murray Street" headlined Sonic Euthanasia, in which the 20something writer urged the band to "please break up." (https://bit.ly/3nCAXEU) It is hard to convey here how big a deal that was, at that time and in that forum, but having been part of that media world, I will just say with anachronistic understatement that it was a shots-fired moment. The writer of that piece has gone on to a fine career. And Sonic Youth definitely broke up. Who can say who won?

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Matthew Sweet rose to prominence for a cringe-inducing live critique of Naomi Woolf's book Outrages, where he pointed out that she'd misrepresented and misunderstood key historical evidence. It seems to have gone to his head. Although, it's worth pointing out that Hari has a history of plagiarism and misusing sources.

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Frankly, I’m really disappointed in you people. Let’s recap:

Freddie: “I’m not entirely sure what Matthew Sweet is or does.”

Literally not even one of you: “Oh, he just wants to love somebody. He’s just looking to get back in the arms of a good friend. He’d sure love to call you his girlfriend.”

Not ONE of you??? There’s SEVENTY comments!! I went through them twice just be sure. Freddie is throwing an alley oop like 2014 Chris Paul and no one can finish. Just really disappointing. Apparently I’m the only subscriber to this Substack who listened to the radio in the 90s. I’m going to have to take personal responsibility the next time Freddie references some critic coincidentally named Duncan Sheik, or Alannah Myles, or Fine Young Cannibals (that one, admittedly less likely). For shame on all of you.

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I know I'm completely missing the point, but I was sent this tweet storm about how horrible even "mild" cases of Covid are by a friend who thinks I'm a bit too unafraid: https://twitter.com/IanRicksecker/status/1478611650760437765?s=20 For those unwilling to click the link, it's 40 tweets about long Covid, and that "mild" often means you suffer from symptoms for months and potentially have damage to many of your organs, including your brain. There's links to a dozen or so medical journal articles that supposedly back up the claims. I'm not particularly interested in reading any of them, and only skimmed the thread itself, and mostly because I'm already working from home, my wife refuses to allow me to take our kid to daycare, and the only other place I go is the grocery story. There's no action to be taken or not taken here, so why should I care?

A few days later, Freddie writes https://freddiedeboer.substack.com/p/one-more-time-what-do-you-want-us including the paragraph "They hate hearing the objective fact that vaccines have decoupled case rates from hospitalizations and deaths, they hate hearing that a great deal of data suggests that Omicron is less deadly than Delta, they hate hearing that a huge percentage of cases are entirely asymptomatic, they hate hearing that most symptomatic cases of the virus are and always have been mild, they hate being told that many of our rituals like six-foot social distancing are security theater…. Mostly, though, they hate that some of us are trying to move on from Covid, emotionally, even as we continue to comply with what the government is saying are best practices." He says so with a half dozen news links and I'm sure they've each got a few journal articles within them. And again, I didn't bother reading any of it because there's no action to be taken.

It would take 10-40 hours to try and figure out what the medical journal articles actually say, and how far that got stretched in the news articles or the twitter summary or blogpost. The answer is most likely that everybody's wrong a little bit here and there, and that if you squint, they're actually both mostly right, it's just that, etc. etc.

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Not for nothing, this made me think of the discourse around Whedon on Twitter right now. The guy is quite clearly an asshole, but I find it fascinating to watch all these people who once loved his work throw it all away. I get it when the abuse is so severe (Cosby) that seeing the perpetrator can be triggering but this all just feels very odd to me.

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I've learned a lot from negative reviews and come back to them often because I think the great ones teach you what makes literature good as much as what makes it bad. The Yanagihara one above mostly amounts to empty sniping and jabs, both of her books sound horrible to me but it's not very constructive.

https://www.commentary.org/articles/gary-morson/the-pevearsion-of-russian-literature/ (paywalled, but get-aroundable)

I've had this saved in my RSS reader for years and I always come back to it. I think he's a little harsh on P&V but it describes how small differences make up the sum of a translation so perfectly.

This one, comparing the Revised Standard and King James bibles taught me so much about the rhythm of language and phrasing. It's funny and bitchy in that midcentury way but it's much more than that:


Also, “it’s glaringly obvious the author would really prefer not to be writing a book” is the perfect way to describe Females and a bunch of other books, haha. Andrea Long Chu has written some work I've loved, I hope she finds a middle path between vaguely defined autotheory and tweet-ready takedowns of once-sacred cows.

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Jan 19, 2022·edited Jan 19, 2022

I just finished reading Matthew Sweet's tweet "takedown", first time commenting here because I read Hari's "Lost Connections" last year and found it fascinating if maybe overly dismissive of medical/pharmaceutical treatments for depression.

But anyway, while Sweet's analysis of various studies referenced may be true (posters below suggest that this is NOT the case for at least one) it seems to be doing some cherry-picking of its own in pulling out various statistics cited.

The "takedown" doesn't seem to address the big-picture thesis of Hari's upcoming book, and the fact is that for myself is that for myself and many others the constant feeling of distraction and short attention spans feels true and social media and its design seems intuitively the culprit.

It's also not the first book written critical or wary of social media ("The Shallows", "The Twittering Machine", et al) and even if various isolated studies are 'debunked' or dismissed it begs the question: what IS causing people to even 'feel' like their attention span is kaput? More CO2 in the air? Chemtrails? Boredom? White privilege? What is it?!?!

And if Sweet agrees with Hari that social media is negatively impacting attention spans, then he comes across here as being petty and vindictive.

Also while Sweet was set to "discuss" this with Hari on a podcast critiquing a critique of Twitter by posting a thread on Twitter is ironic and isn't an effective way to preach beyond the unconverted.

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"such spaces serve the public intellect when they point to more reading and work against it when they function as substitutes for more reading."

Being also busy In Real Life, now a new grandpa, I look for public intellectuals who can keep me abreast of current culture, some, specifically as a substitute for reading the whole sources, yet can induce thinking and consideration of ideas. Thus I mostly avoid Tweets, even when linked to by those whose longer posts I do read, since as noted so little real thinking can be expressed there.

I'd rather read two books and some 5-10 reviews of other books, than spend the same time reading one more book without any reviews. (Not to mention my near-addiction to blog post reading.)

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