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With the Feed as my witness
How to make sense of a senseless world
Hello friends old and new, it’s been a while. Last year, I stopped writing Normcore Tech, a weekly newsletter about tech and the humanity in tech, because I was going up a learning curve at work and needed all my meager mental energy on matrix operations. I’ve recently had some thoughts that I need to organize longform, which means it’s time to bring the gang back together for at least one more Normcore.
If you would like to help people in Ukraine, please visit Ukraine Trust Chain. I know the organizers personally. If you would like to support people in Russia, and you work for a tech company, you might ask how your company is supporting its current employees there or handling hiring people who want to leave the country.
Every day these days for the past three weeks, I’ve woken up to a list of Telegram notifications a mile long. When it’s 6 am on the East Coast here in the States, it is already mid-day in Kyiv and Moscow. The horror that is this war has already been generating notifications, news alerts, and media of every kind for the past six hours.
In 2018, the government tried to block access to Telegram, Russia’s favorite messaging platform, run by Pavel Durov. He had previously created VKontakte, and got in trouble with politicians who wanted him to take down pages of opposition candidates. He declined to do so. In 2014, he refused to hand over data of Ukrainian protesters, and refused to block the page of Alexei Navalny, the figurehead of the Russian opposition. As a result, he was ousted as the CEO of the company, and left Russia. He is currently a citizen of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a citizenship which he obtained through “donating $250,000 to the country's Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation, and secured US$300 million in cash within Swiss banks.” All of this is just the surface-level stuff from Wikipedia, by the way.
Telegram became extremely popular in Russia, both for private chats and for subscribing to channels full of news, jokes, and much more. As an aside, Telegram is my personal favorite messaging service.
Russia and Belarus alike have tried to block access to Telegram more than once, but it’s still standing.
Since you need to install the app through either the app store or by downloading it and sideloading it (outside of any app store) on your device, people were offering flash drives with it and passing them around.
It seems that everybody in Belarus follows Nexta Live. During the first days after the country's presidential election, when the entire country went nearly completely offline, this channel on the Telegram messenger service was one of the only sources of information about an escalating political crisis.
And it was one of the only services that continued to semi-work in Belarus, and ostensibly, one of the ways that the protesters who organized a mass peaceful protest organized.
Because of its enormous stability and popularity, as well as the number of Russian and Ukrainian speakers that already use the platform, Telegram, in Russian, is the only place to be these days if you want to understand what’s going on with the war. Both sides are here.
Pro-Ukrainian news channels, including the aforementioned Nexta are here. Zelensky of course has a Telegram channel where he shares his daily addresses to Ukraine and Russia. Pro-Russian channels, official Russian outlets like TASS, Western media who have been kicked out of Russia, pundits, meme channels, they all have their own feeds. And, of course (?) Arnold is here now, with a very moving appeal to Russians. And, now even the NYT is here.
In all of these, and especially in family chats, everyone is discussing the war. And the number of Telegram subscribers is growing larger and larger (some estimates peg that 40 million people have joined since the start of the war), especially in light of Russia’s alarming crackdowns on literally every single Western social media platform, already a boost from the 70 million subscribers it gained last fall when Facebook was down. In fact, so many people over 50 have joined, urged on by their younger family members in light of growing censorship, that there are now memes about “Mom joining Telegram.”
Putting aside my personal stake in all of this and putting on my professional recsys hat for a minute, what is most remarkable is that Telegram has almost no recommendation or discovery features. Everything is organized how you want it, and every channel is found either through word of mouth, or reading about it on some news site or on Twitter, or in the shares from another Telegram channel, and it is entirely up to you to curate your Telegram experience. This ends up being both a blessing and a curse.
On the Ukrainian news channels, I read about children sleeping for weeks in bomb shelters, about babies being evacuated from Kharkiv, about 80-year old women climbing broken bridges on foot, about a colossal human tragedy being enacted one person at a time. The video that shook me the most was a steady view out the window of a second floor of an apartment building into a landscape full of other buildings and hills in the distance under a leaden late-winter sky. The caption read “I took this video at my friends’ apartment while her one-year-old was playing on the floor nearby” and for about ten seconds, there is nothing out of the ordinary, and then a rocket comes from the right side of the screen, right into a building about a mile away into the distance, and explodes, just like in a movie. Then everything is quiet once again. The combination of the normalcy of the rest of the video, combined with the horror of this thing just happening, of absolutely nothing stopping it, of the injustice of it, was to me the essential indicator of the cruelty of war. I imagined myself in that room, watching that rocket, with that toddler, playing loudly and joyfully and blissfully ignorant on the floor, and I had to put down the phone.
But this is not enough for me. I then go onto Russian channels to read about the panic and fear of a society that is, as I predicted six years ago, closing to the Western world. I read a constant stream of companies leaving the country. I read about women who are panicked that they are losing access to sanitary products (produced mostly by Western companies), I watch videos of 70-year old women who have survived the worst years of empty shelves of the Soviet Union, now fighting for sugar in long queues. I read that Russian prescriptions for antidepressants have increased by 25% year-over-year. I read morose memes that make fun of how little the ruble is worth, how little work matters now that Russia is closing, and also feel a dark sense of bleakness.
Why do I do this to myself? I am, in theory, just creating more digital noise for myself. Noise which I have the luxury to turn off.
The ability to have room for leisure has always also been an upper-class pursuit. Just ask anyone at Downton Abbey. What did people do there all day? Breakfast, chat, read, take walks, and by then it was time for dinner on large, quiet estates.
Today, the true signal of privilege and choice means not only the ability to block out physical distractions, but digital ones, as well.
Aaron Swartz told us to not read the news, and I still strongly maintain that this is one my largest pieces of advice for operating on the internet.
The news’s obsession with having a little bit of information on a wide variety of subjects means that it actually gets most of those subjects wrong. (One need only read the blatant errors reported in the corrections page to get some sense of the more thorough-going errors that must lie beneath them. And, indeed, anyone who has ever been in the news will tell you that the news always gets the story wrong.) Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant makes us less trusting people. Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day makes us less reflective thinkers. Its obsession with surfaces makes us shallow.
First, I cannot turn it off. It affects family and friends and the family and friends of almost everyone in my Russian-speaking community here in the States. Every Russian speaker I know personally is a walking mess.
But second, I’m starting to develop a theory for why following the war as it happens in Ukraine and its aftereffects on Russia are so important to me, even in the face of my (already fragile after COVID, by the way remember COVID? haha!) state of online sanity.
Lev Vygostky, writing over a hundred years ago, researched why children play. One of his theories was that play and imagination allow us to create situations that are in our control, in a world that, for children, doesn’t offer a lot of other ways to control it. In allowing children to play, we allow them to construct their own world which they can control and manage, and as a result, feel confident about.
In the face of the overwhelming horror, my growing sense of smallness and uslenessness, and in addition to donating money, what I’ve realized is that curating the news, particularly in the absence of any algorithmic features (that I know of) on the behalf of Telegram offers me some semblance of feeling like I’m in control of the news I consume and pass on to others among my friend and family groups.
Finally, what Telegram gives me is the feeling that life is still going on. Dina Rubina, a very famous Russian-language author who now lives in Israel, wrote a collection of short stories a few years back. I don’t remember the name of the collection, or even the short story that it comes from, but an anecdote from it really stuck out to me. In the story, she describes the siege of Leningrad (something, ironically, that Arnold Schwarzenegger also references in his video as the point of disillusionment in the Nazi regime by his father). Every Soviet apartment had a radio hooked up to government channels, and even during the absolute worst days of the siege, the radio was on, so the narrator’s grandmother simply kept it on all the time. She carried that habit over after the war, and the narrator of the story, a young girl, recalls how that sound of the radio on low is one of her favorite soothing memories of her grandmother.
“If the radio is on, it means that life is still winning,” she said, and this is how I feel about Telegram. If I can still reach friends in Russia directly on Telegram, if I can still see videos of Zelensky, alive, then life is, for the moment, still going on, and still makes some sense, even for a few minutes.
And so I continue to scroll the Feed and pick through the pieces.