This can happen in several different ways, and two broad examples are: (1) the slow burn. You write well and persuasively for a long time2, and you build up an audience that grows in influence and power—eventually including the people who write the laws. (2) the preference cascade. You write something that causes a lot of people, all at once, to realize “I’m not the only one who thinks [x],”3 and so they all suddenly come out in favor of a certain position. This explosive movement is enough to influence legislators, even if it doesn’t include the legislators themselves.
Slow burns and preference cascades can overlap and be kicked off by each other, and they both have their own unique set of affordances and capabilities. For example: slow burns are slower than preference cascades. But their slowness can also mean their stability; they change minds more slowly and steadily.
And I don’t think you need any extraordinary evidence to see that writing on the internet can result in changes in the law. The simplest, most readily available piece of evidence you need goes like this: you likely form your thoughts based on what you read online, and so does almost everyone you know, and so do most people. Legislators and policy makers are people too. They probably won’t be convinced overnight, but changing the information landscape by contributing to it inevitably has effects on people’s opinions, especially if it inspires them to start changing the landscape too.
For me then, the interesting question isn’t “Does writing online lead to changes in law?” It obviously does, although not necessarily immediately. The interesting question is, “Why don’t people who want to change the law write online about it?” In other words: why don’t people who profess a desire to change society…use an obviously powerful and accessible tool to do so?
Putting aside legitimate strategic concerns (sometimes being semi-legible is a good thing), I think most people don’t write online about politics and the law for these reasons (some of which are just facets of each other):
- The anti-concreteness meme. Writing online can pin you down to definite opinions, and this makes you vulnerable to attack based on those opinions. This means you’ll have to defend yourself sometimes.
- The anti-politics meme. Most people reflexively reject publicly engaging with politics and the law, because they psychologically conflate them with “everything that is bad.” They don’t want to be seen as “getting political,” which in their world always means “behaving badly.”
- They don’t actually know anything. Most people don’t know how their government works, or how the law works. Even if they want either of those things to be different somehow, they often can’t articulate how the current system is structured in basic terms. That can make it psychologically difficult to say anything at all. However, even when someone does know quite a lot, but doesn’t have the courage to be explicit, they will still use “I just want to be more well-informed before I post” as an excuse.
- Fear of conflict. Sometimes people think, often unconsciously, “If I just wait until I think of the perfect thing to say, no one can disagree with me.” Since someone will always disagree with you, no matter how perfect your utterances, this fear can permanently block writing and idea propagation. The ideal course of action is to recognize the inevitability of disagreement and conflict, and study the proper ways to respond to it.
- Fear of being wrong. If you say things in public, that means you stand a chance of saying something wrong in public, which could feel embarrassing, and might require you to correct yourself.
Now, I think some of the damages that these fears contemplate are real. But ultimately I don’t think the prospect of those damages should prevent most people from writing online about things they’d like to see change in the law. Why?
- Because the more you write, the better you can get at it, the more effective you can be, and the more resilient to critique you can become. The proper response to hardship is often to embrace its discomfort in order to improve, not avoid it. Writing can get easier over time, and fears about it lessen. Weakness and lack of skill are the default in writing—the only question is whether you will move away from that default by practicing.
- You must keep the goal, the upside, in mind. If you don’t write, you can avoid having to grow and change in the face of discomfort. But you also forfeit your ability to change the world in ways you think are beneficial. You should not run from fear; you should run toward your goal.
- If you write online, other people who agree with you will eventually reach out, and you can be friends and collaborators with them. Writing helps to grow political coalitions.
I’m both pleased and proud that I have a group of friends who are writing online in order to improve the world we all share, especially because they’re writing about New York City-specific things a lot of the time. Here’s a roundup of what some of them have written in the past week:
- Sunil’s list of questions: “Some questions & ideas to explore re: NYC”
- Liam’s thread of questions about biking in NYC, and his essay about a civic “Right to Repair”
- Hailey’s razor-sharp essay on birth plans in NYC (and beyond)
- Andrew’s essay on “Political Issue Tracking,” and bringing the tools of software engineering to civic and governmental organization
This essay also appears in the Maximum New York newsletter here.
For the purposes of this essay, when I say any of “law, government, politics,” consider that I mean all three of them. ↩
“Well and persuasively” is relative to your goal. This doesn’t necessarily equate to “logically and toward the end of human flourishing.” ↩
Preference cascades happen because, although a majority of people might be in favor of a certain idea or position, social norms prevent any one individual from becoming the first to publicly acknowledge this (aka preference falsification). But often all it takes is one person to come forward to embolden many others, and if this happens, the norms can invert very quickly. You might also think of this as the “The Emperor’s New Clothes” phenomenon; in that story, the child in the crowd is the first to acknowledge that the emperor is naked, and he causes a preference cascade that results in everyone else suddenly acknowledging it as well. ↩