The Internet Of Beefs

The culture war has turned into an endemic condition of online honor-based conflict.

Braulio Amado for Noema Magazine
Venkatesh Rao is a writer, management consultant and 2019-20 Berggruen Institute fellow. His work focuses on the intersection of technology trends, organization design and temporality.

Crash-only programming is a paradigm for critical infrastructure systems where, by design, there is no graceful way to shut down. A program can only crash and try to recover from a crashed state, which might well be impossible.

Turns out there’s a human version of crash-only programming: beef-only thinking.

A beef-only thinker is someone you cannot simply talk to. Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they’re doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect and a provocation to conflict. From there, you can only crash into honor-based conflict mode or back away and disengage.

Online public spaces are now being taken over by beef-only thinkers as the global culture wars evolve into a stable, endemic, background societal condition of continuous conflict. As the “great weirding” morphs into the “permaweird,” the public internet is turning into the “internet of beefs.”

The internet of beefs is everywhere, on all platforms, all the time. Meatspace (the real world) is just a source of material to be deployed online, possibly after some tasteful editing, de-contextualization and now artificial intelligence-assisted manipulation.

“Anything that is not an expression of pure, unqualified support for whatever they’re doing or saying is received as a mark of disrespect and a provocation to conflict.”

If you participate in online public life, you cannot entirely avoid the internet of beefs. It is too big, too ubiquitous and too widely distributed across platforms. To continue operating in public spaces without being drawn into a conflict, you have to build an arsenal of passive-aggressive behaviors like subtweeting, ghosting, blocking and muting — all while ignoring beef-only thinkers calling you out furiously as dishonorable and cowardly, trying to bait you into active aggression. Your only other option is to retreat to a shadowy network of private spaces defended by blocks, restricted feeds, gatekeeping boundaries and subscriber-only paywalls, a sort of underground internet that I’ve previously called the “CozyWeb.”

Beefing is everywhere on the internet. Seth Rogen beefs with Ted Cruz for being “fascist,” different schools of economists beef over trade policy, climate hawks beef with climate doves. Here you see Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson taking their beef offline. There you see Ben Shapiro attempt to bait Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into a live beef. Elsewhere, we find Jesse Singal beefing with trans activists. And in one corner by himself, of course, is Nassim Taleb beefing with all comers on all topics. Hulk, smash.

Taleb muddying the factional boundaries of the culture war is one of the few genuinely amusing theaters of the conflict on the IoB. The blast radius around his Twitter feed is not a safe space for anyone besides members of his own cult of Mesopotamian personality.

And this is just the North American, English-language theater of the IoB. The other major one I’m familiar with, the Indian theater, is much worse.

Mooks And Knights

The most important beefs are not between celebrities but among the anonymous masses who face off under their heraldic banners. Conflict on the IoB is not governed by any sort of grand strategy or even particularly governed by ideological doctrines. It is a flattened-out, honor-society conflict with a feudal structure, at the heart of which is an involuntarily anonymous, fungible, angry figure desperate to be seen as significant: the mook.

The semantic structure of the internet of beefs is shaped by high-profile beefs between charismatic celebrity knights loosely affiliated with various citadel-like strongholds peopled by opt-in armies of mooks. The vast majority of the energy of the conflict lies in interchangeable mooks facing off against each other, loosely along lines indicated by the knights they follow, in innumerable battles that play out every minute across the IoB.

Almost none of these battles matter individually. Most mook-on-mook contests are witnessed, for the most part, only by a few friends and algorithms and merit no overt notice in either Vox or Quillette. Beyond a local uptick in cortisol levels, individual episodes of mook-on-mook violence are of no consequence.

In aggregate though, they matter. A lot. They are the raison d’être of the IoB.

The standard pattern of conflict on the IoB is depressingly predictable. A mook takes note of a casus belli in the news cycle (often created or co-opted by a knight and referred to on the IoB as the outrage cycle) and heads over to their favorite multiplayer online battle arena (Twitter being the most important) to join known mook allies to fight stereotypically familiar but often unknown interchangeable mook foes. They come prepared either to melee within the core or skirmish on the periphery, either rallying around the knights riding under-recognized, beef-only banners (such as Richard Dawkins riding in defense of atheism), or adventuring by themselves in unflagged, unheralded side battles.

There is no higher honor for a mook than to be noticed by the knights they fight for. As a result, the fealty of the mook is the currency of the manorial economy of the IoB. Mookcoins are mined by knights through acts of “notice me senpai,” such as a like or retweet. Call it proof-of-favor. And on mookcoins runs the economy of the IoB.

“There is no higher honor for a mook than to be noticed by the knights they fight for.”

A mook once animated by a grievance is hard to destroy. Loyalties might shift through knightly sell-outs and betrayals, and mook allegiances might shift individually or en masse in ideologically incoherent ways. But once the psyche of a mook becomes animated by grievance-power, there is no going back. It is an almost irreversible sort of dehumanization.

The more mooks a knight can maintain in a stable state of combat readiness, the bigger a player they are on the IoB. Better, beefier mooks in your army who are capable of sustaining and dishing out more damage points will even win over mooks from adjacent theaters of conflict for you, and perhaps even bait a few frustrated non-combatants (not the same as non-player characters, who are in fact a class of combatant present on all sides) into joining the conflict. To the seasoned knight, it doesn’t matter whether a new mook joins on their side or the other side; the point is to grow and sustain the conflict rather than win.

And to be a knight, of course, is to have a recognized name and a storied reputation as a beef-only thinker to be reckoned with, one capable of owning opposed knights (and “absolutely eviscerating” them in strategically edited YouTube clips). Some knights are affiliated with a known imperial banner; others, fewer in number, are freelancers like Taleb who have no fixed loyalties, like mercenary knights in the medieval era.

“The fealty of the mook is the currency of the manorial economy.”

The centrality of mooks is an important point that is often overlooked, including by knights and mooks themselves, because of the obvious insignificance of any particular mook in isolation. In aggregate, however, mook power is what the IoB is about. If the relatively peaceful web of the 1990s and 2000s was about civilian eyeballs, the IoB is about mook-on-mook combat clicks, and it is now entering its second decade. The “Searing 20s” is the eyeball-roasting name I’ve entered into the naming contest; fite me irl if you disagree.

The technology of the IoB is the technology of pitting crowds of mooks against one another, as Renee DiResta presciently pointed out in a 2016 article, “Crowds and Technology.” Conflict on the IoB is shaped not by the strategic intentions of its nominal leaders — who largely have none, beyond keeping the conflict alive, growing and profitable — but by emotional energy flows in the field of mooks. The best knights on the IoB operate by an entirely reactive philosophy: “There go my mooks; I must find out where they are going, so I can get out in front and lead them.”

Actual belief is a liability on the IoB. The more a knight of the IoB genuinely believes in whatever principle they think they are fighting for, the less effective they are as wranglers of fickle mook energy. Sincerely ideological players routinely overestimate the depth of intellectual coherence required to accumulate and wield mook power, producing nerdy intellectual edifices where mere covfefe gestures would not just do the job, but actually do it better.

“There go my mooks; I must find out where they are going, so I can get out in front and lead them.”

The best knights of the IoB carry on their beef-only cultural conflicts only because the mooks make it profitable for them to do so. For the mook, the conflict is a means to an end, however incoherent. For the knight, the conflict is the end. Keeping it going is something like an entrepreneurial cultural capital business model, one with no exit from the hell-market of other people. Sartre would be proud.

If conflict in any particular theater shows dangerous signs of actually resolving itself, another must be spun up to take its place, much as businesses that hope to survive must replace markets in decline with new ones. As a result, on the IoB, the only meaningful transaction is the pitched battle between armies of mooks, the equivalent of a viral hit. The bloodier and stupider, the better for instigating knights on all sides. The greater the futility, the more useful, since it reinforces a disposition toward conflict for the sake of conflict. Like genuine belief, strategy is not just absent but an outright liability, since it might encourage negotiation and compromise, lower the social-death body count of faceless mooks, inhibit GDP growth in the mook manorial economy and, worst of all, potentially end the conflict.

Mook Manorialism

A common posture among the knights of the IoB — one that is more often clueless than disingenuous — is that the mooks are not important.

That the knights are neither responsible for what the mooks do, nor accountable for the views held by mooks who fight under their banners.

That the existence of mooks is merely a sort of unfortunate and unavoidable natural side effect, rather than the whole point.

That the work of mining more mooks through senpai-notice-me marks of favor is innocent noblesse oblige toward an oppressed population that one reluctantly leads, rather than a profitable grievance mine that one lives off.

That the excesses of one’s own mooks are both overstated and forgivable as crimes of temporary, misguided and justified exuberance, while those of the other side’s mooks embody the spiritual, if not biological, end of humanity.

That they are engaged in high-minded cultural battles for the soul of society against dishonorable opposition fatally compromised by bad faith, while they are only reluctantly entering the battlefield out of a sense of duty and bound by a code of reasonable, unbiased, balanced conduct, even if it means nobly marching to martyrdom.

I call this posture “mook manorialism.”

The posture is similar to, and indeed overlaps with, the postures of revolutionary leaders who instigate what has come to be known as stochastic terrorism. The difference is that the lord of a mook manor maintains a sanitary ideological distance from his mooks while keeping them tactically close on the IoB — close enough to hear dog whistles and take tactical cues from their own marquee jousts, distant enough for plausible ideological deniability. Unlike the leaders of ISIS, IoB knights are not particularly eager to take responsibility for terror attacks under their banners, only to profit from their consequences.

“A common posture among the knights of the IoB — one that is more often clueless than disingenuous — is that the mooks are not important.”

Mook manorialism is an economy based on ax-grinding. As the peasantry, mooks do more than fight other mooks. They are also responsible for keeping grievances both large and small well-nursed and alive. Occasionally, through an act like whistleblowing or leaking confidential communications, a mook might briefly become a named player in a particular theater of conflict. But the median mook is primarily expected to keep everyday grievances alive and fight under the glare of algorithmic lights when called upon to do so, unrecognized by history but counted in the statistics and noticed by the AIs (senpAIs?).

Importantly, unless you do something dumb that makes you vulnerable to being drawn into the mook-manorial economy against your will, like saying something that can be used against you while in a position of authority at an important institution, the IoB is an opt-in conflict arena. You only opt into the IoB driven by a sincere grievance if you are mook enough to want to. If you aren’t, and you haven’t fallen into the IoB by becoming vulnerable or compromised in some way, you are there either because you’ve been baited or because you are profiting from its existence.

What makes the IoB a uniquely toxic cultural mode is its innate tendency to perpetuate and even feed conflicts as ends in themselves, rather than drive them toward any sort of lasting resolution. It is this quality of endemic persistence, rather than the illegitimacy of perspectives or grievances in contention, that makes it hard to find redeeming qualities. While beefs litigated in the IoB might lead to justice apparently being served in particular cases, the underlying general conflict is usually aggravated and perpetuated rather than evolved toward a general resolution based on a deepened understanding.

Conflicts that make their way into the IoB have a tendency to become institutionalized, producing generation after generation of seasoned warriors who build entire careers that depend on keeping particular issues alive and festering. The IoB is, in a sense, like the famously litigious American legal system. The longer the IoB persists, the more unreliable public memory begins to replace cautious traditions of scholarly judicial precedent.

Playbooks for effective guerilla action, such as Saul Alinsky’s 1971 classic, “Rules for Radicals,” or more modern works, like Ryan Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying” (2012), begin to supplant gradually eroding notions of procedural justice. Battles begin to be picked based on tactical assessments of vulnerability, winnability and potential for profit, rather than considerations of fundamental ethical merit. Conspiracist patterns of prejudice — rather than principles of systematic doubt, such as the presumption of innocence — become the foundation of justice. 

The cost of this gradual institutionalization of endemic conflict can be hard for combatants to see, especially in the flush of any given localized victory that genuinely seems to serve justice in its own local context. A “canceled” individual might genuinely deserve to be out of a career. A reviled authority figure being held to account for corruption might well deserve to be removed from office.

But every such apparently decisive and positive outcome, even those seen as positive by all sides, comes at a cost: the conflict perpetuated for yet another cycle, defensible ends further strengthening dubious means, continued weakening of procedural justice and yet more incentives manufactured for bad-faith actors to exploit the IoB for personal gain.

Left unchecked, the IoB can only end in a condition of perpetual Hobbesian conflict. If justice delayed is justice denied, the IoB is a kangaroo court of indefinitely denied justice at the end of history, a space where no conflict is ever meaningfully resolved and where judgment day never arrives.