Tackiness is a moral issue, in the sense that it identifies free-riders. This is why it’s punished so harshly.

Tackiness is a quality we attribute to any action that produces cultural capital without actually benefitting the community as a whole. We’re wired to punish tackiness the same way we punish other kinds of ‘cheating’.

(The special case of social class in tackiness is something I won’t get into too much. Suffice to say that conspicuous consumption has weaponized anti-tackiness reflexes in order to destroy social mobility.)

Social groups (and media) are characterized, to outsiders, by their tackiest elements. The reason is that people who optimize for social capital to the exclusion of all else tend to get it (if only temporarily). Whoever in your group has the greatest self-promotion to group-benefit ratio (whoever is tackiest) will end up being the public face of your group, because everybody else is content to communicate among themselves and follow social rules. Only the tacky actually break through the edges of the group while embodying (a distorion of) group norms, as a side effect of trying to saturate the consciousness of the whole group.

Case in point: I joined Twitter in 2006. Hashtag use was never ‘normal’ among regular users. Using it felt tacky if not slimy. However, since hashtags are an amplifier, people who did use them became loudest. They came to characterize the platform to outsiders. As the platform grew, outsiders became new users, and they acted the way that they had been told twitter users acted (which is to say, they thought normal users were expected to act like marketroids and spambots). Thus, the new users got louder, and shouted over reasonable regular conversation.

How do you prevent that? One way is to ensure that tacky behavior is not merely socially punished but actually technically only marginally effective.

I think the fediverse (the federated social network formed by Gnu Social, Mastodon, and others using the ActivityPub and OpenSocial standards) does this relatively effectively: behavior is isolated to particular groups, and it takes more effort to hop between groups. Because of this, the ability for a message to get ‘outside’ depends fairly heavily on catering to the needs of the regular users, who feel a sense of ownership and protectiveness around their communities. Attention-seeking messages don’t have the same kind of edge on community-serving messages in terms of expected attention that they would on Twitter. Furthermore, because metrics are typically hidden, it’s slightly harder to carefully tune messages for virality.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store