Against Toxic Optimism

| 5 minutes read

Optimism describes a social behavior whereby individuals or groups tend to favor evaluating a subject’s positive sides rather than seeking to balance their view by also considering negatives.

We deem optimism as toxic when its application or incidence occurs excessively or as a form of denial of a skewed perception of reality.

The Itch of Positivity

Although I’d prefer not to, I want to start this essay with a personal anecdote, namely when I first helped co-create a platform for upvoting submissions in university. For a portal to collect and discuss privacy patterns, as a frontend developer, I helped set up privacypatterns.eu whose supposed goal was to bubble up the best patterns for improved privacy.

Rather quickly, a discussion ensued around the concepts of upvoting and downvoting patterns with my colleagues responsible for maintaining the database.

Already seven years ago, surprisingly, we were all intimately familiar with sites like Facebook and Reddit that served as role models for our site. We knew that FB’s “Like” acted as an upvote-only function, whereas Reddit allowed users to express nominal negativity too.

But apart from getting lost in thought, I still remember not involving myself much in the conversation as I found it to be over my head. And I can’t say for sure if the following seven years of software engineering make it any easier thinking about this topic today.

I have, however, managed to curate a persevering itch telling me that exclusive positivity on social media platforms must lead to detrimental outcomes. And recently, I’ve felt becoming a victim of toxic positivity increasingly. With this post, I now want to detail the charms of that itch.

The Curse of Positivity

Interestingly, they say that to be successful on social media; One has to present their most authentic self. And logically, this statement then mandates asking if human billboard Gary Vaynerchuk was indeed born with an authentic but highly commercial personality or if his behavior is merely a professional shtick to sell more NFTs.

Similarly, after wanting to understand if people really like Logan Paul and KSI’s new “PRIME” soft drink, naively I youtube’d “prime review” only to come across a video of “No Life Shaq,” a dude that “got big off purely big-upping everyone.” His surprising verdict: It tastes A M A Z I N G.

And while I may now fall into the category of “hating ass clowns,” I have to say that I would have wished to click on a more critical review of the beverage.

See, I don’t feel like the collective soyfacing of Tesla is necessarily a bad thing for society, considering that it may have contributed to awakening the Swabian automobile giants to make more fuel-efficient cars. Similarly, I believe that the CO2 criticism of cryptocurrencies will continue to have a positive effect on the field.

Although, I feel there’s now a class of positivity, stirred up by disjoint interest, which outcomes I’d mostly describe as toxic.

But the narrative of favoring optimistic quantitative engagement on social media platforms is still controversially discussed way beyond my little website.

Most prominently, with Youtube recently removing the dislike count from videos to reduce bullying on the platform. Seemingly challenged to make a rational argument, the dislike button’s proponents now claim that they cannot differentiate good from bad tutorial videos.

Getting Ratioed

Though, what that argument misses is a conversation about getting ratioed and its detrimental effects on the creator’s soul. And as someone that has had 32.1k impressions from Hacker News while writing a column about cryptocurrencies and web3, I, for one, can confidently claim to be a convincing witness of “getting ratioed.”

The other day, I had the stupid idea of reviving one of my most popular posts called “web3 is a stupid idea” by re-submitting it to /r/ethereum. And while the post had some genuine negativity around Ethereum’s vision of creating a web3 and not an internet2, I’d argue that the post’s message ends up being a friendly riff on Ethereum’s mainstream vision.

Although I knew the post had previously done extraordinarily well on the web3-critical Hacker News, I wasn’t ready for Reddit’s rude reaction.

Just seconds after posting, I was being called a “cranky monkey” just “bitching about web3.” While I tried to defuse the situation with humor, the broader community agreed with the premature headline reader by upvoting their rude comment.

And so, after just a few hours, and in a phase of my self-confidence diminishing, I deleted the post and arranged with myself to further limit my involvement with the /r/ethereum community. Screw them.

Negativity Through Toxic Positivity

Now, understandably one may say that my experience had little to do with witnessing “toxic positivity” as most of the above-mentioned reactions stemmed from negativity. But I’d, hereon, like to argue that I believe their source is excessive optimism towards the project and that it stems from short-term monetary interest.

In the case of Reddit communities or Hacker News, this way of banishing members of the potential out-group allows the group’s delusion to survive. “Groups Never Admit Failure,” and indeed, if we’d think about groups huddling around excessive negativity, then we’d notice a similar effect.

Critical Crypto Currencies

With the cryptocurrency market almost having morphed into a bear recently, it has become a source of relaxation for me.

I’ve found the excessive hyping and nonsense noise in the last year difficult to deal with. I’m not mad that we’ve received more attention than usual. But I think my spot of comfort is in a market that isn’t entirely irrational and driven by boom and bust. Maybe I like me some good old crypto winters.

Or, and that I’d prefer, the crypto market and its moonbois just grow up and learn to deal with critique professionally.

As a long-term believer of the space’s visions, I’d argue that only highly critical contact with the subject matter will lead to excellent results over the long term. So I’d be happy to see less hilarity and more humbleness.


Further reading


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