Author Archives: vihart

Spidermath and Four Utilities Puzzle

Two videos since I last posted here!


so I noticed this way cool spider web in the corner of my couch and 

*its making me have math thoughts*

Lookit the shape, its roundy but also antiroundy and now I’m gonna be stuck staring at this spider while my brain goes all

*spider math*

It reminds me of a wormhole, like, if you get sucked into the web what is on the other side? Besides mandibly death?

It reminds me of a pseudosphere, or maybe a hyperboloid, lookit that negative curvature, right? It’s roundy one way around the funnel but unlike a sphere which would be roundy around the same way it’s roundy around the opposite way at the same time.

it reminds me of this sculpture by Anish Kapoor called Vortex which I guess doesn’t photograph very well but trust me in real life it just sucks your mind into this incalculable void and you’re left standing there staring helplessly with your brain all fuzzy. 

It makes me imagine the entire room could get sucked into the roundy vortex of spiderness, or at least the bugs in it, like flies are points in a vector field and the vector field is like choochoochoochoo into the funnel, or maybe it’s a spirally kind of vector field where everything spirals in…

I looked it up it’s a funnel web spider, not to be confused with the australian funnel web spider, and its funnel is more a cozy retreat for the spider to hang out in than a place where bugs get stuck, it’s not even sticky, the bugs can fall on any part of it or even just be near the web and the spider comes out and does noms. So its kinda like the web extends smoothly to become the couch and the rest of the universe…

It makes me think we are all already inside the web we just don’t know it yet because the spider hasn’t come to claim us,

it reminds me of a 4d torus stereographically projected into 3d space, there’s this cool way to divide space into like two infinite donuts, whatdya call it, ooh that’s what I’m talking about, thank you Jason, so you think you’ve got a regular donut but it starts growing cuz spiders and soon it’s infinitely big inside and everything is spider territory and there’s this funnel web spider hole but actually surprise, the rest of space that isn’t the donut is actually also a donut that belongs to reverse-spiders or antispiders or something.

I know that’s probably not what the spider had in mind when it made this web in the corner of my couch buuuuut I can’t help wonder when presented with such a shapey shape.

*it’s making me have math thoughts*

Ok postscript, no joke, I went to see if that Anish Kapoor sculpture was still on display at sfmoma and

the 5th floor sculpture gallery is now entirely full of spiders. By Louise Bourgeois because she knows what’s up. So here’s some free promotion for sfmoma, go do art to your brain its good for you bye.

This video is funded by my patrons on patreon, so thank you all of you, and if you want a tau is greater than pi shirt you’ve got one more day before we put in the order.




So some months back Grant Sanderson of the channel 3blue1brown invited me to take part in a collaboration where various science and math youtubers attempt a twist on a classic puzzle where the original goes like this: There’s three houses and three utility stations: gas, water and power. Connect every house to every utility, simple enough, except oh no if you cross two utilities they explode so do it with no crossings. People usually manage pretty well up to line 7 or 8 but number 9 seems impossible.

The timing didn’t work out for me to take part in the original collab, where the same puzzle is printed on a mug, but I finally saw the video, and I was surprised to find that my answer was different from anyone else’s. You see, I wanted to leave room for future infrastructure, so, sure we need to untangle everyone’s gas water and power but we also want internet that connect every house to every other house, and a separate secure network that connects every utility station to every other utility station.

So if you don’t know the original puzzle try that first, and if you do know it then you might want to check out the mug variation first, and if you’ve already figured that one out then you might want to pause and see if you can figure out the Vi Hart Infrastructure Special and make everything connect to everything, that’s 15 lines, three each for gas, water, power, social network, and secure network, without any of them crossing. But on a mug.

And one more thing before we start. The official version of this mug is sold on mathsgear and comes with a dry erase marker so you can make mistakes, but I’m a sharpie person and a lover of beautiful solutions so we need something that makes enough sense that I can draw in all 15 lines using permanent marker without worrying about making a mistake.

Ok so here’s the thought process.

First I look at the puzzle and see what associations come up. If you’re a science or math person you might think, oh, this has to do with graph theory, there’s lines connecting vertices and that’s like the definition of a graph.

For the mug variation, you might think, oh, maybe it has to do with topology, because there’s that joke about how a topologist thinks a mug is the same as a donut because topologically you can transform one into the other, as seen in this piece by Henry Segerman and Keenan Crane.

So the main associations come up, and depending on how much you know about them these secondary associations might come up, or maybe you just start trying things out, or maybe your biggest association is “hey, that’s the classic impossible utilities puzzle,” which might stop you from looking further than that.

The classic puzzle is supposed to frustrate you with your inability to get that last line in there until you either mathematically prove it’s impossible or come up with some other creative answer like that the last line goes through a house, or over a bridge, or through a hole in the notebook paper and around the back, which is kind of what the torus will allow us to do. I mean, mug handle.

So I know I can solve the original three utilities problem if I can solve the four utilities problem. And I’d know it’s possible to connect all six into what we call a “complete” graph if it’s possible to connect seven into a complete graph on the torus. And maybe this bridge of reasoning can land somewhere near the four-color map theorem which is connected to the seven color map theorem for toruses,

And I just happen to have a seven color torus right here to demonstrate. Every color section of this torus touches all six other colors, this is by Susan Goldstine and I’ll link a tutorial in case you’re into mathematical beadwork.

Ok so now we just need to connect the bridge. Each color area here touches every other area, see, it’s like… well we’d better bagel it,

So take the orange area, it touches yellow on one side, red on the other, then next to yellow is green which touches the orange part over here, and then purple, well let’s do pink, yeah so all the colors have two neighbors on their sides and they touch two other colors on one end and two other others on the other end so they all touch all six other colors.

Maybe next time we’ll use colored frosting and do a bundt cake.

Anyway then I just take the dual, which means I make every area a vertex and then I can connect them all to each other, so it’s really handy that I know a lot about dual graphs. And there we go, I can connect 7 dots to each other without crossing, which means I could ignore one vertex to get 6, and then delete the extra lines until we’ve solved the original mug puzzle.

So this went through my head within seconds of seeing the mug because all this math stuff is close to the surface of my brain, I have experience using these facts and making them accessible, but it’s not yet a solution, it’s a sketch of a proof and a method of finding a solution, but we don’t want just any solution but a pretty one that’s simple to draw. And that means I want to take advantage of symmetry.

So when I wanna put six points with symmetry on a torus I’ve got some options, we want something reminiscent of the original puzzle even though on the mug they’re all squashed together. But I’ll keep the idea of having three on top and three on bottom, and with something like this I can see the symmetry and triangulation, we connect these to each other and then we connect the top ones to the bottom, so that’d be like everything is squares if we unwrapped it, and then just do triangles to it, all symmetric like so it’s easy to visualize, every square is the same, I mean it gets squished when you do topology to it but I can visualize it as a pattern that’s all the same, and now we have more than enough lines to connect the utilities to all the houses.

If the mug had the little icons printed around the handle maybe it’d be more obvious how to start mapping it back on, or maybe if the icons were spaced around the mug and if the inside of the mug actually had a hole in the bottom so you could loop through that way, and then we wouldn’t even need the handle. But from here we can scoot over to the handle and see just one more interesting thing that the more common solutions don’t take advantage of and that we’ll need more colors to make clear, so let’s go ahead and do this.

Ok, we’ll start with internet because that’s important and it’s just two straight lines that circle around the mug. Then we’ll triangle up our other utilities between them, and now it’s just three lines left and we’ll just pretend they’re looping through the cup so they’re nice and organized, and then scoot them over to the handle, And now here’s the funnest part.

If just one line is going over the handle it might as well be a flat bridge. But we’ve got three lines, and notice that they don’t match up. On a flat bridge you’d have to worry they’d block each other from connecting, But our solution uses all of the 3d roundiness of the handle by rotating around it so the lines come out apparently in a different order on the other side.

So there’s my answer to the three utilities mug puzzle, and also the four utilities puzzle, see if you can rediscover it yourself without looking, and if you need another mug challenge try adding a fourth house.


“Topology Joke”:

Susan Goldstine’s bead crochet demo:

Susan has also collected a page of other artistic renditions of the 7-color torus and links to instructions for beadwork, fiber arts, and other further reading:

This video not sponsored by or affiliated with mathsgear, but here’s where they sell the official version of the mug:

Tau Day 2018: Suspend Your Disbelief


I’m going to do a very special Tau Day video this year and break the 4th wall a bit. If you’re a fan worried I might ruin the Vi Hart Brandsperience this video is especially for you. Now, a youtuber’s brand is this delicate thing sustained through collaboration between the artist and audience. If I started younger I probably would have been more into the social vloggy youtubery aspect where we have a community with a name and we do tags and form an identity, not because that’s what younger people do but because that’s the norm, that’s the top ten tips for success on youtube, and at that point I wouldn’t have known what I want from life well enough to know that’s not the direction I want to go in. 

Some of our inside jokes and vihart lingo would be purposefully created, but some of it would just kinda happen, like, we’ve all got our hands on the little ouija board triangle thingy but no one feels like they’re directing it when all of a sudden we all agree that cats are the waste product of a particularly complicated multidimensional robot. hmm, kinda makes sense when you think about it. And now that’s the truth, or at least its canon, and after a while what’s the difference.

We would be such a good cult. We have so much amazing cult potential, it takes effort to not accidentally become a cult.

Anyway. Suspension of disbelief is an interesting thing with many varieties. Take the doodling in math class series.

“Say you’re me and you’re in math class and…”

This is standard suspension of disbelief where I write straight up fiction and you enjoy the story. You don’t have to think about it very long to realize I’m not talking to myself in a real math class as I draw in real time. It has scripted narration on top of heavily edited film.

However, youtube has some features that traditional film did not, which can lead to a sort of communal extended suspension of disbelief.

Sometimes I get comments asking about what my math teacher thought or did I get in trouble, responding to the character I play in the video rather than to actual me. I assume a lot of these comments are from folks consciously enjoying taking part in the fiction. And some are probably from folks in that fuzzy suspension of disbelief state where you’re going along with a story without really thinking about it, I mean if they stopped to think about it they’d know I’m not really in my math class but they’re enjoying a youtube binge in an extended suspension of disbelief state so they don’t stop to think about it, that would ruin the experience.

Overactive suspension-of-disbelief is common and encouraged in children but even as adults its normal to have knee-jerk emotions based on fiction. Like, you have a gut reaction against a stranger on the street and then you realize they look just like the actor who played the villain in a show you used to watch. Our brains are just really good at giving us fast first impressions based on fictional depictions of people, and then logic catches up and we either set ourselves straight or rationalize.

Sometimes our instinct is to idolize someone that we know we don’t actually know, and sometimes there’s a bit of a blurred line, say with vloggers with branded personalities where you feel a bit like you know them even though you know you’re getting a highly curated view of their life, and there can be some beautiful and worthwhile things in that connection if it isn’t abused.

See, YouTube is a giant cross-temporal ouija board with an algorithmic triangly thingy that collaborates with viewers to create the stories you want to hear without you feeling like you’re moving the triangle thingy even though of course you are, along with a million other people. So the triangly thingy, ok let’s actually look this up because I’m sure there’s a word for it, the Planchette. Recommendation Algorithms are a giant Million-person Cross-temporal Planchette. Yeah I was hoping for a funner word. Maybe we could use the English translation which is… Planky. The internet is a universal planky that points us to what we want to believe without us feeling like it’s our fault.

The intended use case of the algorithmic planky is a smooth user experience, I can keep on being a pair of hands doodling in real time in my gradeschool math class for as long as you want and you never have to see my other kinds of videos or think about the fact that these things take me weeks and I’m a professional in my 30s with a face before off you go to some other story, hopefully one with advertisements cuz planky is hungry.

So. I’ve been making videos where the story is that I hate Pi for 8 years, starting with the viral success “Pi is (still) Wrong” and most recently with “Alternative Pi”. But I don’t hate Pi. I mean, I do honestly think the circle constant should have been Tau, but I think pi is fine, there’s plenty of unfortunate notational choices that make math confusing and pi certainly isn’t the worst of them, I think celebrating pi day is a good thing to do even if Tau day is twice as good, and so I celebrate Pi day loudly and publicly every year with another installment in this manufactured controversy. 

Anyone who stops to think about it, who stops suspending their disbelief, will realize I’m not a student in algebra class who hates Pi, I’m an artist enjoying engaging an audience with a passionate mathematical experience, but if you’re just browsing around you might not think about it much and move on to something else thinking “wow there’s some chick who really hates pi” instead of applying your media literacy skills to every single youtube video you consume ever. I mean, if you’re not continuously suspending your disbelief while you watch youtube it kind of ruins the experience as you realize how much of it is just product placement and sponsorships and shallow clickbait meant to take advantage of the stories we’re collaborating with the algorithms to tell. What I mean is: we’re not just listening to the stories already there, we’re telling stories to ourselves through our searches and clicks and views, and the more shallow the content, the easier we can fit it into our story instead of listening to someone else’s. Which is why I try to not be shallow so you can’t take my story from me,

Anyway I’d originally heard that pi is wrong from the mathematician John Conway through word of mouth and I found some other things people had written about it through the years but there just wasn’t enough righteous anger in these math facts to make a good story, so that was my contribution to humanity, and others joined in, first people I knew and then people I didn’t, and now instead of me telling the story planky can help you do it in whichever way best serves all our secret desires.

Our secret desire to be told we’re smart and know better than those Pi people, if you’re on the Tau side, or better than those Tau people, if you start on the Pi side, or better because we accept both or don’t care. Same story. We all want to suspend our disbelief and take part in a fiction where we’re better than other people, what safer, better outlet for that than this fun little controversy about Tau vs Pi? We enjoy arguing and engaging with mathematical discourse in a way that harms no one and that I hope makes people a bit more conscious of the mechanisms of manufactured controversy.

BUT IF I WERE EVIL. Or maybe just if I got too wrapped up in myself and didn’t know better. Here’s how to ruin everything.

Step 1: create a group identity around a shared belief.

For us of course it’s that Tau rules Pi drools, we got that down, but it doesn’t really matter what it is. It can start as something simple, innocent, enjoyable to argue about without it really mattering. It can even start as an opinion. We’ll pivot to bigger and stronger beliefs in phase 2. But first:

Step 2: create a body of rhetoric that the group can repeat to defend their belief.

We know our talking points. Simpler equations, easier to understand, we’ve got rebuttals to their talking points too. As the group evolves beyond just being about Tau vs Pi we will expand our talking points to be that it was never really about pi vs tau, it’s about revolutionizing education, or maybe it’s about how only truly smart triangles are reasonable and open minded enough to accept new truths like Tau but also including the bigger beliefs of phase 2.

Having multiple layers of rhetoric is good because you can switch whenever one isn’t working. Whatabouts and its-really-abouts are such good friends.

Step 3: spread the word / start beef

It’s all in good fun, at least, in phase 1, the phase 2 version is start beef. But you’ve got to send your people out there to argue and act independently of you. 

First I’ll send out the Tauists to merely inform and link Pi people to some Tau information. It’s educational and just sharing something we love. In this step we’ll even recruit more tauists who want to join the fun and who think the math is interesting, and successful conversions make us look legit.

As we get into the habit of taubombing people it’s inevitable that at some point someone will go a little over the line. At this point one might realize that being a leader comes with some responsibility, but you must resist that urge, you can’t control other people’s actions, and anyway if some random person is upset about being called a loser for liking Pi, it’s just because they don’t get the joke, they should come join us, not get mad about it. We’ll all share a laugh over it so that everyone knows they have permission within the group to make mistakes and go a little overboard, it’s not a big deal.

You might recruit some folks but the goal of this step is to gain enemies, eventually someone is bound to overreact even to the lightest teasing. But in stage 1, even someone pretending to be an enemy for fun will do, because we’ll pressure them to either admit they’re not really against us, which is a win for us, or to become a true enemy, which is a win for me, because now I can move on to:

Step 4: Make your group members feel like the scum of the earth and that everyone hates them.

It might seem counterintuitive, also unethical, but this step is so important.

I need to constantly put my followers down by using other people’s worst words about them, and luckily we’ve manufactured some enemies, don’t worry about whether your enemies are actually causing real world harm to anyone, that’s not the point. You just want to make your followers feel attacked and disrespected. Think of it as if your enemies words are swords, and its not your fault if it hurts your followers when you show them those swords. In the face. Don’t get distracted by wondering if those swords were actually hurting anyone before you picked them up. Yeah, this metaphor is really working.

As our actions escalate in phase 2 the responses will too so I can play on my followers’ insecurities and wear down their self-worth until they actually feel hated. I mean we’re talking about humans here, we can convince ourselves someone’s mad at us if we send a message and don’t get a reply in 5 minutes, so this step is easy. To ruin everything, first I must ruin my follower’s lives by making sure they know they are scum. At least, outside of our little group. I understand them. I love them. I need them. And I’m the only one who ever will.

I’ve got to get them feeling really and truly hurt by everyone but us because that’s when we can: 

Step 5: Escalate.

We’ve got to get our group in a story where they are so wrapped up in the fun idea of righteous retaliation that they suspend their disbelief well past when they start to actually cause harm to other people and real actions feel rhetorical.

Of course, it’s not my fault if someone I’ve radicalized goes overboard and does something radical, but when the pi people unfairly blame me that just gives my followers more reasons to righteously defend me. They have to defend me, I’m all they got.

As our actions escalate our fake enemies become real enemies, confirming everything I drilled into my follower’s heads about how universally hated they are while still keeping the flavor that we are unfairly prosecuted.

Step 6: The enemy’s beliefs and feelings can be completely dismissed.

Make up a catchy story about how the outsiders don’t actually even really believe their own beliefs. Fake intellectuals pretend to like pi to sound smart. They’re just copying what they’re told, or are just being Pi-litically correct, and if they stopped being lazy and learned some math they’d agree with us.

The extreme of this is to make your followers believe that others don’t even feel what they claim to feel. They are just pretending to feel wronged for sympathy, they’re trying to look good to other Pi people, or feel pressured to conform, they might be paid actors, but they definitely don’t feel what they say they do. Shed some crocodile tears of your own just to make it clear that we don’t have to believe them any more than they believe us.

It’s not about whether your dismissive rhetoric is true, so don’t get distracted by trying to find out if they’re actually being paid or would actually agree with you if they knew more math. That’s not the point, the point is to give your followers tools to justify thinking they know better than random strangers about those random stranger’s own inner life. And in fiction, you can know other people’s feelings better than they do, because they’re not real people, they’re characters in our story. This is a big important step past the line into dehumanizing others.

Step 7: Benevolent Dictatorship

It’s not just about pi vs tau anymore, it’s about right vs wrong and who’s going to run things when clearly certain folks can’t even be honest with themselves about how terrible pi is, and honestly it’s pretty magnanimous of us to do this for them considering how much they hate us and how ungrateful they are but we forgive them and will send them to reeducation camps to learn about tau, yes it’s a joke at first but watch how we get used to the idea.

Soon everyone will forget how to drop the rhetoric and just look at the actual actions people are doing and the results of those actions in reality.

You know what step we don’t need? Leverage the algorithms. You’re already doing it. If you’re a space on the ouija board that some group’s collective worst instincts hopes their planky will land on, whether to agree with you or make you a villain, systems exist to find you and add you to their story. Which is great because your story relies on being other people’s villain and planky’s got it covered! It’s no one’s fault, we just all secretly asked for permission to hate each other and somehow all signs point to yes. Did you move it? I didn’t move it. 

Anyway. That’s my 7 steps to ruining everything. Now don’t forget to apply your media literacy skills. How much do these steps really apply to everything? Did I kinda just make em up? But maybe I’m really good at makin up true stuff cuz thats a mathematician’s job description. Or maybe I’m just trying to sell shirts.

Actually, I should totally sell shirts, yep, they’re real now, proclaim your loyalty in fun summer styles, available for pre-order for just the next few days and they’ll ship mid-july. What better conversation starter about the joy of mathematics and how to radicalize a following to create global chaos. The green one has it printed on the back so you can pop on a blazer in the evening for a more formal look. All proceeds go to the supreme triangle who loves us.

So happy Tau Day, it’s not just me that loves you, the world is full of people who love you and want you to be happy, whether or not you’ve found them yet. Admittedly it might be a little harder to find those people if you’re ok with hurting others to get what you want but no one said life is easy.

Enjoy your Tau Day, I hope it is double good! Tau is greater than pi! It’s not political if it’s a fact, right? wait what now?

support my work on Patreon:

Peace for Triple Piano

Here’s what I’ve been working on for the past 10 weeks:

It’s a spherical video in a mathematically triplified space with symmetry in space-time, in collaboration with mathematician Henry Segerman. You can learn more about that in our very cool making-of video:

The spherical video was SO DIFFICULT to get working, with all the editing and sound stuff. But the making-of was so much fun because I was back in my wheelhouse, explaining the very cool concepts that made us so determined to do this project.

I mean check out this hand-made space-time diagram made by sewing together video frames in stereographic projection:

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.53.15 PM

I am SO INTO space/time symmetries, something I’ve only lightly touched on in videos before (see “Folding Space-Time”, and of course “Doodle Music”, oh and “Möbius Music Box”), but I’ve done quite a bit of research on the topic (one of my first math papers was classifying symmetry groups in musical space-time, as distinct from the set of groups in 2 dimensions of space, and though it never made it into a paper I did a bunch of followup work on 3 and 4d space-time groups, especially as applied to video and dance, so I was SO READY for this when Henry suggested a triplified piano piece).

Doing a video or series that goes deeper into these sorts of topics has been somewhere on my to-do list for 10 years. Of course videos take time and the list is always growing, but when Henry visited two years ago and showed me his spherical video tripling technique and we tried it on the piano, I knew we had to do this!

I haven’t focused exclusively on a “long” project like this in a while (yes, 10 weeks is long in internet time), and I’ll admit I was a little nervous doing this while newly crowdfunding and still a little underfunded. Me and Henry know it’s interesting, but will the coolness of the math come through to others? What if the video just doesn’t come out good, or everything explodes last minute? Either way, will my patrons think it was worth 10 weeks of their support?

I trusted on average they would, but the part of me still traumatized by having been a starving artist and then having funding promised and pulled away so many times by so many people over so many years still says “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

…To which the first part of me replies “Fine, I’ll show you, people have your back!” So, let me be the first to tell myself “I told you so.”

It’s awesome not depending on any one person’s tastes, and also not on everyone’s tastes on the entire internet, but a large group of folks who all care for their own individual reasons. This means it’s ok if people come and go as their interest waxes and wanes; this means a new kind of audience creates itself around my work instead of me speaking to a pre-existing one defined by other institutions. Evolving work (and thus evolving audience) is essential for my mission to lift the human spirit by expanding our ability to think, see, and feel.

It also helps that my Patrons are so kind and enthusiastic :)

So, things are going pretty well. Come check out the Patreon if you haven’t already: Thank you for making all of this possible, and for all your trust and patience :D

Next up: Pi day video!

Some Favourite Authors

I was having difficulty deciding whether to give myself the day off for MLK day, so I decided to take off from my usual work and write about some of my favourite books and authors instead.

Let me tell you how much I love Helen Oyeyemi, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison.

How is it that three of my very favourite authors in the entire universe are black women? I don’t know. It seems statistically unlikely, but there you have it, and it’s in theme with MLK day so here we go!

1. Helen Oyeyemi

Let’s start with “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours” by Helen Oyeyemi. In 2015 I tweeted it as my book of the year, and within the limits of twitter described it as “weird literary intersectional feminist magical realist intertwined tales.”

Oyeyemi gives a mature voice to experiences and sensibilities that feel young, with a literary style that she has developed over 7 books and is just so soooo good. I love me some literary magical realism but this was a step above and felt effortless. It was like nothing I’d ever read, and I read a lot of strange books. Beautiful and different and so casually progressive. I felt a glimpse of literature ahead of its time.

Let me tell you how much I loved this book and how unique I found Oyeyemi’s voice. I immediately searched out another Oyeyemi book and read that, and then another, and another, until I had read every book she’s published within two weeks.

…and then I started searching out short stories in collections. And stories in online publications. And anything I could find. That is how good Oyeyemi is.

I will note that Oyeyemi isn’t necessarily easy or casual reading. If you want something a bit more straightforward, start with The Icarus Girl. If you dream of houses with too many rooms, try Opposite House. if you… well, just read her.

2. Octavia Butler

I love scifi and feel positively betrayed that I wasn’t introduced to Butler sooner. She’s awesome classic genre-defining scifi that holds up to the modern reader, indeed, seems more relevant that ever.

I mean, read Parable of the Sower and tell me you don’t get chills. It’s dark and prescient and gripping and I tore through it in an evening.

I love all the other classic scifi authors, I read piles of their books as a teen. But I never felt the need to read all of them from any one author. A lot of those books don’t hold up so well to the modern reader, and so much of classic scifi is embarrassingly clumsy with regards to women.

But let me tell you how much I love Octavia Butler because she is something else entirely. Her books hold up to the modern reader and to the adult reader. They have a depth of understanding, are not merely clever but also human. They’re great and you should read her. Parable, and Kindred, and Wild Seed, and etc.

And as with Oyeyemi, I have read everything Butler has ever published (except the one she disavowed later even though I WANT TO but I’m trying to respect her disavowal… I’ll break eventually but TODAY IS NOT THAT DAY).

3. Toni Morrison

Considered one of the literary greats, Toni Morrison in my opinion is one of the literary greatests. The book that made me want to read everything Toni Morrison has ever written: “Beloved.” I mean, Beloved started as a great book, and then it became surreal and weird and amazing in exactly the way I like and it became VERY GREAT.

There’s lots written on the internet about why Toni Morrison is so great and I am running out of writing time so I’ll leave it there. Oh except to mention that “Sula” is relatively short if you’re looking for a quick literary read this evening.

I HAVE NOT YET read everything Toni Morrison has ever written. Which is why she’s #3 on my list. Her books tend to be heavier than the above authors so gotta space them out because feelings. I might get there by the end of the year though.


Books are great and reading is great.

Also since there’s a vague MLK-day theme of black authors I could mention other classics I think are great, like The Color Purple, Invisible Man, Things Fall Apart, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But those books are great like lots of great books are great. And then there’s lots of great recent work by amazing black authors but none so good as Oyeyemi IN MY OPINION. Aaaah there are so many great books in the world it makes me so happy!!!!

Vi Hart

Christmas Page

I made a new page to collect all the Christmas and Winter Holiday stuff I’ve done over the years:

This includes documentation I just took yesterday of a 2014 Christmas project called Child:

And, because I might as well as long as I’m making time for this stuff, here’s documentation of the 2015 Christmas project Snowplace, an experiment in movement and collision design, which will never work in VR again but is explained here using a browser version:

Documenting and organizing all my stuff is getting tricky, as it has become spread across so many sites and subjects. So organizing by theme was fun… my Christmas/Winter-themed work includes videos, VR work, music, crafts, and crossovers between each. Someday I dream of all my stuff being organized and accessible on this website but we’ll start with Christmas and call it a win, for now.

I wrote extensively about Child in a new post over on Patreon, if you’re curious to hear more about my art game and the music and sound behind it:

Vi Hart

Hexaflexaflakes, and how to Twelve Tones

A hexaflexaflakes video has been on the list since I made Snowflakes, Starflakes, and Swirlflakes in December 2012. But first I followed up with Sphereflakes in January 2013, and then I started working on Twelve Tones and the holidays were over.

While I worked on Twelve Tones for the next six months, I continued the symmetry series in more musical directions with Folding Space-Time and Sound Braid, and before the next snowflake season came around I went off and became a Principal Investigator and did research for the next four years. Hexaflexaflakes was never a priority because at that point I hadn’t worked on it enough to get any meat into the video, so to speak.

But now I’m crowdfunded, and most of my patrons are interested in funding videos, so I can make time for some of those old ideas and see what the years have given to them.

In Hexaflexaflakes I saw an opening for a conversation about the relationship between mathematics and the real world, hands-on learning, and experience vs theory in general. Some drafts tried to go deep into those ideas, but I think that’s a different video. The draft that worked kept it light, fun, and personal, with a rant that has the feel of narrator-Vi being unable to help but throw some shade at someone specific narrator-Vi has recently argued with.

What I’m really looking for with these past several videos is to get back into the conditions that allowed a video like Twelve Tones. That means getting settled back into good working-from-home habits with a good setup, getting back into video-making, and maybe some slightly superstitious things like “make a fun holiday craft video”, possibly to be followed up by an “internet comments” video, which Hexaflexaflakes sets up for.

First and foremost, though, is that making work like Twelve Tones is an all-consuming full-time activity. Some other work may leak out alongside it, but that other work can’t ever be a priority. And it takes a long time, longer than most people expect or want to pay for.

In early 2013 I had few distractions, lots of autonomy, and I felt secure enough with my financial support from Khan Academy (where I’d been for over a year at that point) that I was able to put everything else aside and just work. Very few people have that opportunity. Good work takes time, and it also takes many years to develop the skill of making work better by spending more time on it.

It was also really, really hard. It’s only 5 years (!) later that I’m willing to think about attempting big projects again, that I can think about the months spent working on Twelve Tones without feeling heavy heavy heavy. This time I’d like to take it a little slower with fewer side-projects and maybe not burn out forever.

But of course the #1 key is feeling financially stress-free enough to focus on the project knowing that I won’t be doing a lot of crowd-pleasers in the mean time, so if you’d like to help with that, here’s my crowdfunding page:

Oh also books! It is very important to read a lot of very good books!

Vi Hart

How To Make A Hexaflexagon

Hello! I have finally made a video with my tips and tricks for Hexaflexagon making!

I put patterns and the video series on

So I’m a full-time Vi Hart now, with most of my income coming through crowdfunding on Patreon! The Patreon is almost at the level of sustainability for me, though not quite, so I decided to do something new and sell shirts this month. Turns out it’s a good time to sell shirts because it’s Black Friday, and the entire store is 20% off! Many sizes/styles already sold out so if you’re interested go here:

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I’m super excited about these shirts because I finally came up with a shirt idea that I’m happy with, something fun and useful that can help spread the joy of math. I could never bring myself to sell some boring branded shirt that I don’t feel adds more to the world than any other random shirt, and I also wouldn’t want to do it unless I could have shirts available for a range of body types, which isn’t generally the economic thing to do. But we’re proving that well-thought-out ladies and kids shirts can sell! In fact, some of the sizes only have a handful left in stock.

So it’s all very exciting, and between that and the Patreon I’m doing fine, and thanks to people hopping on board my Amazon wish list I’m re-stocked with the supplies and equipment I need for my December projects!

My goal for December is to not feel pressured to release more than 1 video, because 3 was definitely too many, even though they were all “easy” videos where I’d already done most of the script/concept work previously. And I’ve got other projects I’d like to spend time on! And maybe I will take some days off for the holidays! My piano is getting tuned tomorrow and I have new microphones to learn to work with and music music music :D

Oh and I just realized I neglected to post the new Calculus video to this blog. Here it is:

Math Improv: Smarties

New video!

This video was a Math Improv in that I sat down and filmed for about four hours without any script or detailed plan… I knew I wanted to hot glue them into polyhedra or something but the twist classification and woven polylink were arrived at through play. I’d wondered about color frequency and the Smartie Sandwichability Problem before and probably didn’t represent them as neatly as I would’ve if I went script-first, but that’s the kind of thing that makes videos take a long time to make! I think about all the things all the time, and have thought a lot about Smarties in my life.

In a way, I’ve been working on this video for 7 years. Back in 2010 I blogged some Smarties platonic solids:


…as well as Smartie Skeleton…


…as part of a series of Halloween math candy blogposts that also included candy corn Sierpinski triangles (which showed up as a video some number of Halloweens ago). It’s faster to blog photos than to make videos, so I’m still catching up video-wise on work I did many years ago. On the other hand, I’m much better at it now! I’ve been wanting to do a smartie video of some sort for a long time, and thanks to going full-time on Patreon it was a good time to finally do it.

The voiceover was written based on the footage I’d shot, and then the footage edited to the voiceover. So not quite my usual process, but same editing process in the end.

It’s another way in which video can be used as a tool for thought… I capture one aspect of a thought-process as I film, and then use the footage as a scaffold to write out a clearer version of the thought-process, and finally put the two together to hopefully capture and communicate what’s going on in my head a bit more effectively than conventional communication can. I capture thinking with my hands, not just with my brain, which is evident in things like feeling the clockwiseness or widdershinsness of a twist.

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Some parts of math are easier to feel than to think, especially with practice. We need a curriculum for getting an embodied understanding of mathematical concepts, beyond just “hands-on learning”. I’ve got to start keeping a list.

Ok, I started the list: Someone remind me to keep adding things to it if I forget!

Oh, one more thing: did you know that while regular polyhedra have been around FOREVER (like thousands of years), regular polylinks were discovered relatively recently and are still being explored? Check out Alan Holden’s 1980 paper on them.

The first polylink I tried to make in the Smarties video was of 6 squares. I’ve made it out of balloons and other things through the years:


Regular polylinks are in my repertoire of go-to shapes at almost the same level as polyhedra, fractals, lattices, and other canonical mathematical forms.

The polylink of 4 triangles, despite being one of the simplest ones by number and sides, is quite difficult to weave correctly. A balloon version from 2008 or 2009:


…which reminds me, mathematical balloon twisting is another thing I’m many years past due on making a video about!

That’s it for now.


P.S. Here’s my new video studio, now with camera arm and hyperbolic planes! Really half the reason I made the smarties video was to play with my new setup.


Support me on Patreon!

Crowdfunding Nowfunding! And Halloween update.


1stly: I’m Crowdfunding!

We’ve been ramping up the Patreon campaign over the past few weeks, and the response has been pretty overwhelming, with almost a thousand new people pledging to support me with their hard-earned dollars, for a total that is now over $5,000 a month!

It has been successful enough that I’ve decided to pursue this crowdfunded Vi Hart thing, above other opportunities. I mean, having been a starving artist in the past, I REALLY appreciate a stable salary with benefits. But given how people have stepped up to support me, I’m confident that we can do this.

Here’s the short video I posted for that:

Surprisingly, the push to YouTube (where I have over a million subscribers) resulted in a much smaller bump than the push a week earlier to Twitter (where I have 66k followers). It makes some sense because the people who follow me on Twitter are the ones who particularly care about my work, and also the ones much more up to date on what sort of work I do on a day-to-day basis. Many YouTube subscribers have no idea what I’ve been spending most of my time on for the past 4 years, so it’ll take some output before they’re convinced.

I like the Patreon page because it’s an easy place to share updates and things I wouldn’t share with the public. Also, in a place where everyone is invested in my wellbeing, there’s a much higher level of discourse than on any other platform I’ve posted on… I can actually respond to comments and have discussions with people about things!

I’ve also been updating progress on my new video studio I’m setting up. I’m going to have separate dedicated work surfaces for filming, editing, and other, which is something I’ve wanted to have for the past 10 years and thanks to your support it is FINALLY HAPPENING!!!!!

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Stay tuned on Patreon for studio updates as we spruce up the place and add more equipment.

I could really still use your help though! When we hit 5k, part of me was very excited. 5k a month is the median income in the US. Of course, the other part of me could not help but endlessly calculate what that comes down to after the 10% or so pledges that will have payments declined or withdrawn, the 10% that goes to credit card fees and Patreon’s cut, then taxes, and how much tax can I write off for which business expenses, and that the median US income isn’t meant to cover the costs of office space, studio space, video audio and VR equipment, software subscriptions, internet services and hosting, piano loan, piles of books for research… indeed, the median book ownership in the US definitely doesn’t reflect my needs…

But I do have the support I need to throw myself into this new endeavor with full confidence that this will work, and I’m lucky to have inherited a lot of equipment from previous people and jobs. As I output more work I’ll get more funding, and most people still don’t know that I’ve just left 6 years of institutional support and need to crowdfund if I am to continue my work. So, we’ll get there.

On Nov 1 we’ll collect the very first round of Full Time Vi Hart Stuff pledges! If you want to be in it from the beginning, head on over to

2ndly: Spiders Forever!

I took a little time to finish a video that has been on the backburner for years, just in time for Halloween:

It is a dance piece. There are no spiders in the video. I’ve heard it’s very creepy, though!

One of my hobbies, when waiting in line or bored somewhere or hanging out somewhere where there’s music, is doing tiny dances. Dances that use just one finger or toe or knee or whatever, or then multiple tiny rhythms and practicing getting them going together. Before we had cell phones we had to make up our own pocket-sized games. It’s the same aesthetic as doodling in math class, even if it comes out in the form of weird spider videos…

When I first read Dune, there was some line about how Bene Geserrit witches have such control over every muscle in their body that they can move even a single pinky toe in isolation. This is the kind of thing I practice when I’m bored (or while reading Dune), and then I end up with tiny dances that sometimes want to go to spider music.

The music alone is available for free download on Soundcloud.

I trained extensively in dance for a large portion of my young life, so it’s satisfying to make professional use of those skills. Although in a sense I’ve been using those skills all along—many dance skills transfer to music, mathematics, and VR. My body has developed intuitions regarding space, time, rhythm, symmetry, etc, that are hard to articulate in any language besides dance. Embodied knowledge, and all that.

I love dancing so much! I also love dancing just a little.

I guess that’s all the updates for today!

Social Media Systems and Democracy

There’s an article I’ve been meaning to write for 4 years. Every time I read another headline about fake news or social media and democracy, I once again say to myself “I’ve really got to write that thing I’ve been meaning to write!”

I hinted at it in a post about Google+ and the new YouTube comment system in 2013:

Now even discussion is curated by Google, rewarding those who talk often, and promoting hateful inflammatory comments because they provoke responses. Taking all the collected data and computational power of Google and using it to optimally encourage people to watch advertisements and argue with each other is, in this author’s opinion, brazenly unethical…

There’s a lot more to say about how this is part of a bigger picture involving various related companies and industries, but I think I’ll stick to the comments integration thing this time.

And then there’s this bit about YouTube comment curation from a post in 2015:

When I post a video, I create a space. And I choose what to fill it with. I could pretend to myself that I’m just letting it fill itself, letting people decide and express their own thoughts that I am not responsible for, but I know too much to fool myself like that.

When you let a space fill itself, it fills itself with whatever’s the fastest material. Ignorance is fast. Hate is fast. It takes a lot of practice to be fast at love and tolerance, so while there are those who are fast at it, there’s not enough of them. It also takes time and practice to get fast at cultural norms, but everyone gets that practice and becomes an expert, whether they realize it or not. People can judge what’s outside those norms really really quickly.

I created that comment section, and I’m the only one who can curate it. There’s no such thing as impartiality, only avoidance of responsibility and capitulation to those who are quickest to judge and spend the most time judging. The internet is not a 1-person-1-vote democracy. The only responsible choice is to either mute selectively, or mute everyone. Given the time it takes to curate comments, removing comment sections altogether is often the only choice.

Sometime I’ll make a longer deeper post about the systems involved in this sort of stuff.

Well, dear reader, I’d like to say that now I’ve finally found the time to write out my thoughts on the matter, but I really don’t… all my time for the last three months has disappeared into trying to find funding for my work. But I wanted to at least get something out there, and so knowing that I’ve at least ranted on this topic personally to people, I searched my email to see if I could quote some more quotes, and found a draft from April 2015 that I’d entirely forgotten about.

Some of it would be very different if I wrote it today, though enough of it is on the mark that I really wish I’d posted it back then. I’ll leave it as it was, both because I still don’t have the time, and also because I think it’s good to remember how I thought about these things years ago, before Trump’s campaign, before evidence of Russian interference and bots (though I like to think that maybe if I’d done the research and thinking required to finish this post, it would have occurred to me that the fastest users with the most scripted responses point to bots as an inevitability).

So with that preamble, here’s an email draft titled “Social media systems” from April 2015.


Today’s topic, in honor of my deciding to talk publicly on the internet about systems philosophy, is social media internet systems and how they relate to democracy. Comment systems, twitter, reddit, email, etc. We’ll talk about four types of easy responses and four types of feedback loops that work together to make sure your corner of the internet is addictive yet unsatisfying.

In the Vi Hart school of systems philosophy, it’s not about what’s good or bad, right or wrong. That is a job for moral philosophy. I care about what is inevitable. I care about understanding the consequences of the systems we create, so that we can’t claim ignorance when the inevitable happens.
So, first, to quote myself: “Rating, upvoting, sharing, commenting. A pale illusion of democracy where those who are quickest to judge get many more votes.”

There’s a sense in which the internet is quite democratic, possibly even more democratic than our current implementation of democracy in government (for viral content, money only goes so far). On the internet, content rises to the top if it wins the popular vote. But unlike modern implementations of democracy, you get as many votes as you have time to give, all day every day, and most of those votes are taken by web companies without asking. And unlike the popular vote in democracy, internet popularity votes do not imply endorsement.
Votes that come from gut reactions take less time than anything involving actual thought.

Gut reactions are very useful things and voting from gut reaction is not inherently good or bad. When we see a video of a cop killing an unarmed person I personally think it is good and right that we should, without hesitation, respond with a gut reaction of horror and injustice. Many people do, and so this kind of thing can spread on the internet quite virally, but because there are political connotations and you might want to fact check first or make sure the wording of your tweet is respectful and conveys the gravity of the situation, it takes longer to cast your internet vote for the importance of police killings than to internet vote on the color of a dress. If there were one election and one vote, the important issue would win. But on the internet, The Dress simply gets votes faster.

Meanwhile, complicated issues that are extremely important but subtle, issues that require hours of research before you even understand it well enough to want to vote on it, those things cannot compete. Economically speaking, shallow votes are significantly cheaper to make.

I think of fast gut-reaction votes as being in one of 4 categories, with the 4 being the combinatorics of controversial or not controversial, common experience or identity attack.

1. Common human experience: Votes that are easy because they’re completely uncontroversial and of little consequence. Examples include cats being adorable, puns being groan-worthy, and sunsets being pretty. Most people agree, and even if you disagree, you don’t really care, so anyone can feel safe participating on the internet in the delight of adorable kittens without fear of backlash.

2. Common mass media experience: controversial but unimportant arguments over media that many people are assumed to be familiar with. Which house is better, gryffindor or slytherin, stark or lannister? Is the dress blue and black or white and gold? The opinions are strong and discussion is fierce, with each camp having its stock set of answers. But everyone involved knows that it does not really matter; debate is easy and by-the-script without the barrier of caring. It is understood that when someone argues against your camp, it is not a personal attack.

3. Common criticism: Examples include shallow visual judgements and stereotyping. There is a common cultural script for stereotypes and so these judgements can be expressed immediately and automatically. They are faster than less-shallow responses. Criticism is asymmetric and uncontroversial in that, rather than there being an opposing party with an opposing criticism, there are only those who criticize and those who find it irrelevant or in bad taste. Also in this uncontroversial-but-critical category, I put criticisms of inaction. If you want to criticize someone, it is always possible and always easy to think of something they didn’t do or didn’t say, and then criticize them for not doing that thing. It borrows the form of a thoughtful calling out of a glaring omission, but it takes no effort and contains no content.

The criticism itself is not controversial, but the making of it often is, which can spiral into easy gut reaction type four:
4. True controversy on party lines. Votes that are easy because they follow party lines. Similar to the above, but symmetric. There’s a template, made by someone else, that you can follow, of how things should be and how to respond. There is more than one template, and so whenever two people with different templates collide, they each follow their template, instantly, and the debate carries on. This is differentiated from true intellectual debate because this is the case where response and internet-votes is easy and instant; whoever stops to think gets outvoted by those following the script written by their in-group. In order for thoughtful responses to win over instant reaction, thoughtful responders need to exist in numbers significantly greater than those following the scripts.

It is possible to think long and hard about how you personally want to react to certain types of things, and then, having made the decision, react that way very quickly. But the internets ability to amplifying quick reactions works best when an entire group is all following the same template.

These four kinds of judgements are really easy to make and can drown out all other discussion if your system lets them.

type 1: Is the cat adorable? Yes. Is this other cat cute too? Yah, or maybe you hate cats and that’s easy too. Very few people need to agonize for hours in order to decide whether a cat is cute; the decision is visual, shallow, and of very little consequence. Whether you intend to vote on cute things or not, there are certain internet systems where every time you engage in a shallow visual act you are leaking votes; and thus trivial easy-to-judge pictures with no personal judgement are doomed to overrun any social media outlet that counts those votes.

Twitter likes Common experience tweets. Common experience votes can be given without context; twitter’s lack of organizational capabilities, the sheer volume of disconnected snippets, means that in order for a tweet to be self-contained it must rely on common context. Twitter originally was text based, no automatically integrated video and pictures, so originally short text jokes became prevalent. Puns are perfect because they are short inside jokes common to the speakers of an entire language.


specialty sites with the context for the argument. Reddit, or a subreddit, will let you argue about game of thrones. The comments of an article about a subject will let people enjoy arguing about the trivialities of it.

vine and stereotypes
4: twitter politics. politics. evolution, abortion, vaccines, feminism.

If the goal of a web company is to maximize engagement, they must encourage engagement that is easy and cheap to produce. They must create and share content that is economical in that it solicits comments written with the ease of cultural scripts.

So where are these scripts created?

1. Reactions considered and tested on the internet

Reactions scripted by experience making angry, stereotypical, or hateful comments on the internet often miss their mark when attempted in their unamplified real-world form. There’s something to think about if you’re relying on internet systems to make your voice stronger than it is in the real world, if you feel safer expressing your opinions publicly on the internet than saying them to anyone you know in real life.

2. Reactions considered and tested in the real world, then brought to the internet

In contrast, reactions created out of slow real-world thoughts and personal experiences often do better in the real world than on the internet. In many cases they can be brought to the internet to in turn help amplify real world actions. Twitter has had a large role in organizing marches for social justice and climate change and organizing disaster relief. The reaction on twitter is fast because the script was decided by previous understanding gained in the real world, that can be brought back to the real world.

Now the feedback loops come into play. Almost every action you take on the web is recorded and used to shape the actions future users are directed to take, which is a recipe for feedback loops.

1: the keep-voting feedback loop

Crowd-sourced popularity guarantees the promotion of content that generates user actions, not real life actions; the internet thing that inspires you to get up and do something means only that you are no longer internet voting.

Many internet comment systems are optimized for engagement. It’s nearly inevitable that any company that is winning at capitalism cares less about whether you like their product and more about whether you use it.

Imagine an image search engine where every time you enter a search term, it searches for images near those keywords, and then gives preference to images that previous users clicked on. Every time you click on a search result, that is a vote for what that search term should give to future searchers. You might imagine that this helps them give users relevant results, as crowdsourced by other users.
Say I do a search for, let’s say, a conference, to get a general feel for what it looks like. There’s various logos and graphics for it, and a picture of someone in an amazing cosplay outfit. Which looks cool, so maybe I click on in. And then I go back and keep searching for just a regular photo of the conference. When I find that photo, I stop looking.
Of course, those who get distracted by every cosplayer and want to look at all the cosplay photos cast more votes. It’s up to the search engine to decide whether it’s good or bad that people searching for basically anything will see a page full of irrelevant sexy photos and clickbait; the point is not that it’s good or bad but that it’s not surprising when it happens and it’s not the fault of the users but of the system.

When I do an image search, don’t click on anything, and immediately leaves the search site, that is usually a sign of a successful search. When a web search results in a user immediately clicking a link to another site and never coming back, this is the sign of a successful search. But for google, for example, successful searches are not the product; the user searching is the product, sold to advertisers. It is important that you search, not that you find.

It’s a classic systems pitfall: you get what you optimize for, not what you pretend that thing represents. When you create a system to optimize for most user actions, it doesn’t matter whether you’re imagining user actions represent meaningful engagement. It’s hard to quantify and optimize for meaningful engagement, but a love for data-driven approaches doesn’t justify using a data-driven approach on the wrong data. It is better to use fallible human judgement and intuition on trying to solve the right problem than an algorithmic approach that is guaranteed to solve the wrong one. If you optimize for clicks, don’t be surprised if all you get is clicks.

For example, YouTube’s shift in the meaning of subscriptions. At some point, some manager or board member decided that increasing subscription numbers was an important goal for YouTube. A YouTuber with 10 million subscribers would look good for the economic health of the company. Successful megacreators make it appear as if investing in creating youtube content is a reasonable choice. And so it was no surprise when YouTube quickly reached the goal of having a youtuber with 10 million subscribers after making some optimizations. All they had to do was change what it meant to subscribe to someone, as well as automatically subscribe all new users to a list of heavily-subscribed youtubers in an opt-out system. The system prefers ten million people shallowly engaging with one shallow content creator than to have those same ten million divided up among a thousand niche creators that they feel a meaningful connection to. YouTube will reap all the short term benefits and face all the long term hazards of cultivating a monoculture.

In theory when you want to work but feel uninspired, browsing the web should lead you to a great many wonderful things that really make you want to create something. But if you are browsing in a part of the web that promotes things using internet votes, you are all but guaranteed to only find things that elicit a quick easy user action and then leave the user unsatisfied and looking for more. In practice, inspiring and satisfying pieces of content are dead ends for user actions. Thoughtful pieces of content that take twenty minutes to read get one vote in the time it takes for pretty pictures and amusing memes to get dozens.

Reddit is probably the epitome of this because it’s always been explicitly internet-vote-based. Facebook and YouTube used to show you only individuals you subscribe to and everything you subscribe to, but have since decided to filter your content based on “algorithms”; so they now have all the symptoms of systems run by internet-votes and are fully optimized time-sucks.

For companies that run on advertising, this is the economical choice in the short term, though as internet ads become worth less it might not be enough. For a web company that provides a valuable service to its users, it is possible to turn those users into paying customers. But for web companies with enough popularity and momentum that they transitioned into providing a service to advertisers, where the users are the product being sold, well, if web advertising continues its current trend it will be interesting to see these companies trying to turn their own product into their own customers. Google and YouTube’s latest attempt at a subscription fee, for example, would have made sense a few years ago, but seems very strange indeed given their recent change in direction.

Twitter, in contrast, shows you only and every tweet from people you’re subscribed to (plus clearly-differentiated advertisement tweets). It is still an internet-vote system that disproportionately favors trivial content, but showing all tweets avoids the worst of this feedback loops. It is no wonder that many people find twitter to be a more functional news source than legacy news media.

Which brings us to:

2: the filter bubble feedback loop

You may have heard of this before [talked about here]; basically the content you give positive internet votes to is content you agree with, which leads to your being surrounded by content you agree with. This can be pleasant for the user, but it also can sustain harmful communities by making members of them feel normal. Anti-vaxxers, antifeminists, and climate change deniers, are mostly not particularly terrible or stupid people, they just are bubbled into communities where reality is unwanted and so social media algorithms make sure reality doesn’t have the chance to get in.

Again, we’re not doing moral philosophy, we’re understanding the systems that enable certain things.

The communities that survive best in their isolated bubbles are those that develop scripts for how to respond to conflicting opinions; these automated defense reactions mean you can out-respond anyone who considers their words in real time.

3: the voter influence feedback loop

Easy-to-make decisions happen faster, so people see those first. When voting is asynchronous and public, the fastest reaction gets disproportionate influence on future voter behavior. The fastest reaction is also not usually a very well-thought-out one. (also see stack exchange’s fastest gun in the west problem).

Pure statistics says occasionally things will quickly gain enough positive votes, out of pure chance, to rise to the top of promoted content areas, where they are more visible and can gain more momentum.

4: the creator motivation feedback loop

If a creator is motivated by gaining ever higher numbers, then that creator must make large quantities of content that appeals to ever higher numbers of people. If a creator is motivated by positive reactions but demotivated by negative reactions, inoffensive culturally-normal content wins. Most creators can handle the occasional negative comment, but pretty much everyone has some threshhold where if they get that amount of negative or hateful feedback they will not continue putting content in that space. It is easier to reach that threshold if the internet space you’re in harbors a culture that makes easy stereotypical judgments about your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. And if you’re a creator who finds a barrage of trivial comments demotivating, whether critical or not, it’s difficult to find anywhere on the internet that seems worth existing in.

Personally, I consider businesses responsible for the inevitable results of the systems they create and I’d like to see more systems-creators taking responsibility for the results of their systems, though in my experience businesses prefer to cite their good intentions and when the inevitable happens they pass off the blame to their users.

Sometimes these scripts develop organically, sometimes they are explicitly made for this purpose. Last year’s “gamer gate” thing is of interest because the creation of the scripts is documented. It’s a case of a tiny insular community explicitly strategizing about how to overwhelm the internet by outlining standard responses and scripts for behavior. This strategy was extremely successful for a short period of time. When no one understood what gamergate was or how to respond, it was easy for a tiny group to overwhelm conversations. Members had so successfully filterbubbled themselves that many truly believed their grievances were legitimate and that the game industry, even mainstream media, would sympathize with them. But their strategy was successful enough that the filter bubble popped; the outside world realized ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away and finally took the time to respond. Gamer gate was confronted with reality for the first time and many previous gamergaters quickly disassociated themselves from the group, while the most invested went back to their bubble.

Gamergate’s mistake was trying to effect real world change, when their existence was only supported by internet systems. Scripted responses and instant outrage are amplified by internet structures, but real world actions are not. Internet groups that rally around making instant anti-social-justice reactions without aspiring to real world action can do a much better job at surviving with the helping hand of the many social media systems that amplify them.

Now democracy. Voter turnout is terribly low, and everyone complains their vote doesn’t matter. And yet, people mostly vote in the big elections where their vote matters least, rather than the small local elections and primaries where their vote is extremely valuable. But no one knows their local officials, and learning enough to be firm in your vote is hard! A simple democrat/republican party line vote, once every four years, is ever so much easier. Not only can you easily choose a side, but you can easily defend it, by following the party script.

Often in democracy, people feel they are not voting for their candidate, but against the other one. I worry about the extent to which this might, beyond being true, actually be the opposite case: that people are voting for the opposite candidate. Not in the election, but for the election. For example, most republicans are just as reasonable as most democrats, and yet the republican leaders are often complete caricatures that the party only backs out of loyalty and lack of other options (and vice versa). It is fascinating to me, this process by which a party ends up with leaders that party members actively dislike. I think it is probably the case that democrats, wallowing in easy votes against the most ridiculous republicans and following the script for judgements against those easiest to judge, make those candidates extremely popular. Republicans are left defending and further popularizing these targeted caricatures, and while many would like to vote for better candidates, voting for lesser-known candidates is slow and hard and diffused.

In a system where we imagine each other as monsters, it’s no surprise when we get monsters.

Vi Hart

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