Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Keeping tea experience simple

first published in TChing here


I recently responded to a Reddit post question (in r/puer) about use of tasting notes and developing tasting abilities, in "Tea Tasting":   

The basic question was this:


Has you sense of taste developed over the course of drinking tea? If so, has it transferred over to other drinks or foods? If taste is not that important for you, what do you look for in tea? Do you think that people are being pretentious when writing elaborate tasting notes? Have you ever been able to match the vendors tasting notes to yours?


To me it's more a question of how much function tasting notes serve, the purpose, which moves on to considering why they would often be inconsistent. Interpretations of aspects vary; that seems to be the short answer to the second part. I review teas for a blog so I'm comparing my own written description to a vendor version on a weekly basis. Still, the first part is harder to sort out than it first seems, why make notes, or why try to break down the experience to concepts and description.

I think in general there's no reason to create formal taste description, and no added value. As someone explores teas further it's natural to want to place experiences analytically though, to describe what you've experienced at different times, even just to yourself, and concepts are going to help with that. Just deciding if a version is better or worse than what you've tried in the past is going to require some definition, then variations in style and specific aspects all the more. Consideration of flaws or limitations is half of that, beyond describing what is experienced as positive.

Vendors often don't seem to be very good at describing their own teas. I can relate to why they really shouldn't even try, in detail, because the subjective interpretation theme is essentially impossible to work around. But then vendors are either bad at descriptions because that's an aptitude they haven't developed, which seems fine, not really a problematic limitation, or some don't seem familiar with a broad range of teas, or of what makes the tea versions they are selling more positive. That could be a problem, a vendor not being a good judge of tea, apart from the aspect description list theme.

People take or leave a lot of parts of tea experience. Describing experienced aspects is one thing, which can be functional, but then other parts can be included: meditation aspects, brewing ceremony, inclusion and collection of lots of tea gear, a social aspect, including background themes (drinking tea outside, or setting up a tasting zone theme), on and on. Someone could value simplicity in tea experience, and try to leave out as many of these parts as they could, and to me that would actually add something else, enabling more focus on basic experience.

If you do get into reviewing teas one approach that might help is along with trying to identify what a specific flavor aspect is like also consider how else it might be interpreted. That can help you relate to varying descriptions better, and can also help with what I see as a brainstorming or imagination related aspect of tasting and formal description.

All that said messing around with review process, aroma wheels, and description frameworks makes sense to me. It's just as well to never lose touch with the simplest form of the experience, just drinking tea, or to take tea so seriously that drinking it with food eventually seems negative. I usually don't eat anything while I'm tasting for writing tea reviews but to completely lose the experience of tea as an ordinary beverage is something else.  These posts relate to a couple such extra directions:


Tea Flavor / Aroma Wheels Reconsidered

Tea Evaluation Template


they're a bit inactive now, but this wheel is from here, used with permission


An edited version of some additional discussion and later thoughts follows.


I think keeping experiences basic and the internal modeling and description of experience limited works well. There's nothing like a good piece of bread, and in plenty of cases adding butter or eating cheese with that is plenty to experience for complexity, with no need to describe any of that. The analytical side of our selves, our mind, is actually separate from the rest, and forcing the two to mix in experiences can detract from the experiential enjoyment. I think people who intuitively reject formal review and description are onto something.

To clarify that, the same can apply to over-analyzing or describing any life experience themes. People who tend to write a lot--a journal, or something else--might also add a lot of internal or external narrative to their own experience, instead of just being present, and enjoying. I think that's why sports hold so much appeal to so many people, because even if you want to you can't add meaningful layers of concepts to the basic experience, in any way that really changes that experience, which can serve to liberate you from all the concepts. Or being in nature works out like that, and so on.


I didn't really connect this to simple versus complex brewing approach or process, but it's easy to imagine how that would naturally extend, and how I take that.  The less gear and the less steps the better, the exact opposite of how many people take "Gong Fu Cha," formal brewing process.  

It's helpful to keep in mind that gong fu means technique, roughly, or a skillfully conducted activity.  The tea ceremony theme comes up but that's not what "Gong Fu Cha" is, it's about making tea skillfully, and using a higher proportion of tea to water, and multiple infusions, to get better results.  I don't see including more infusion steps as adding much complexity, but someone could.  If experiential results are better for adding those steps then it would still fall under skillful means, no less so than Western style brewing would, which is how I see it.

To me it's best to keep tea experience simple and basic.  It works out better that way.  Of course that's just a statement of personal preference.

Then a lot of other aesthetic range can be hard to place.  What about drinking tea in a wood paneled room, with some plants around, and lots of hand-made teaware?  Or burning incense, or wearing special clothes?  I have no interest in those things, but as separate interests that pair with tea experience they could be fine, and add depth.  I can relate to people appreciating drinking tea outside, in nature, and I do regularly experience a setting related to that.




Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Great Mississippi Tea Company Biloxi Breeze and Grilled Southern Peach

 


Reviewing two more blends from the Great Mississippi Tea Company.  There was more on this producer that I already shared in this discussion with the owners, or an interview post with Jason McDonald (one owner), and reviews of other tea blends and plain teas, with this the latest, including a yellow tea.  

Their teas are pretty good, especially for them being so new to production, something like a half dozen years in.  Especially the blends, maybe; they are doing truly novel things, creating what didn't exist before, partially in response to a US preference for teas with flavor range beyond standard oolong and such.  I suppose it's that Americans really just aren't as aware of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian teas as they might be, so strong-flavored and novel blends can stand out something new to experience, that those consumers also aren't currently aware of, but at least it's clearer what they are.

Onto review then, after also mentioning the Great Mississippi Tea Company descriptions:


Biloxi Breeze

Biloxi Breeze is our newest item for the summer. It is a blend of MS Queen, strawberries, Kaffir lime leaves, and jalapenos. 

You supply the ice and lime and this set comes with everything you will need to make a Biloxi Breeze. If you would like, add Tequila and Triple Sec for a little extra fun!

It is the perfect balance of sweet, refreshing, and a little kick to make it fun!

Each kit makes roughly 1/2 gallon. 

Tea blend ingredients: MS Queen (green tea), Freeze Dried Strawberries, Kaffir Lime, Strawberry Extract, Dried Jalapeno Peppers. 




I had no idea that was intended as an alcoholic drink mix, served cold, or a "mocktail / virgin" version of that.  I guess reading the directions makes sense sometimes.  It probably would work well for that, although I really don't drink alcohol (not that I wouldn't, I just don't), and not being into pepper spice in general would throw it off.


Grilled Southern Peach

Pecan Smoked Tea Blend Using US Grown Black Tea & Oolong Tea

This is a real stunner of a tea! Perfect iced with pulled pork at a barbecue or hot while sitting by a fire reading your favorite book. 

This is a pecan wood cold smoked black and oolong tea blend with dried peach pieces. The pecan wood smoke lends a vanilla note to the tea. 

1 rounded tsp per 8 oz. of 200F water. Steep for 5 minutes. 




I can see why they are designing and promoting teas prepared as iced tea; that's what is most accepted in the US.  That infusion strength and approach probably would work for hot tea but for iced tea it might work better to go stronger, and double proportion to 2 teaspoons, maybe bump amount to more like 250 ml, and let it "brew out," steeping for 6 minutes, then strain, and add ice to chill and dilute.  It's that last step that changes everything; it's going to nearly double the amount of water in the tea.  All that isn't best-practice guidance, of course, just off the cuff speculation, since I've not prepared the tea that way.  I tried this with a little sugar at the end, brewing it hot, so I can talk about how that changes results.

That critique of the brewing recommendations prompted me to go back and review what was listed for the Biloxi Breeze version:  no specific instructions.  I think that's actually the best solution, to let people experiment and see what works for them, given that it's an unconventional tea and an atypical final form (as iced tea, potentially used to make a mixed drink).  I think the same general approach I just mentioned for the peach version would work:  brew it strong, steep it for awhile, then let ice dilute it.  Brewing temperature could be hard to pin down as an optimum, since cooler water (eg. 175 F) works well for green tea, and hotter water (full boiling point) tends to work best for tisanes (herbs or fruit).  No one optimum would exist; it would depend on preference for balancing slightly more astringency and part of the vegetal range versus the extra fruit flavor that would extract brewed hotter.

I didn't mean to imply that after 6 minutes brewing time the infusion results would be negative (for the second, or both).  For a conventional tea like tea-bag black tea that's probably objectively true, but for whole-leaf brewing multiple Western style infusion rounds is normal, so total time of 4+5 minutes (9) wouldn't be so unusual.  Gongfu brewing a full dozen or more rounds would tell you how that late stage infusion character would work out, I just tend to stop listing notes after 5 or 6 rounds in these reviews, and used a Western brewing approach this time (it works better for flavored or tisane blended teas). 


Review:


Biloxi Breeze is lighter and paler, as expected from a green tea and tisane blend


Biloxi Breeze:  I hadn't noticed that this had jalapeno peppers in it, along with fruit and green tea.  That's most of what I pick up, the spice edge.  I think people would either love or dislike this tea based on how they relate to a spice edge offsetting other sweet and fruity range.  Since I'm the kind of person who skips putting black pepper in masala chai, because I don't like that addition, even though it really integrates in for that form, I lean towards not liking it.  I can still try to describe it objectively, to the extent it works to set aside personal like, for others who would be more on that page.

The pepper doesn't necessarily take over the blend but it's by far the strongest input.  That you can even notice it has fruit range beyond that means they tried to keep it moderate and balanced.  For someone with a very high tolerance for spice it could be a perfect balance.  Even though I've adapted to an above average ability to eat spicy foods, related to living in Thailand for 14 years, I don't love them, and to me there is no overlap with that type of experience and my tea interest or preference.  If a balance of food flavors really needs a spice edge to complete it I can appreciate that (eg. in Thai curries; those flavors wouldn't be nearly as good without spice as a main input).  But beyond that I skip eating anything spicy. 

It's hard to taste what is there beyond that spice, beyond it being fruit.  I think the lime is discernable, and the fruit might come across as towards berry range, but there's no way that could seem clear.  Maybe a high end berry hint does stand out, but dealing with heat as a main input makes it hard to be clear on other things.  Somehow it makes the rest seem savory, like sun-dried tomato, even though it's probably not really like that, it's probably just a perception error related to how a mix seems to present.  Pepper with some sweetness, lime, a faint hint of berry, and stronger sun-dried tomato effect isn't bad, especially if the pepper part sounds reasonable to someone.  

As a match to my own subjective preference goes this is a complete miss; I don't like it.  For someone really into spicy foods, and open to experiences like spicy candy, it would probably be a natural fit.  It might be that even how one takes those intense red and white mint disc candies could serve as an indicator, if that heavy hit of spicy mint is appealing, or candy canes (pretty much the same thing).  

I love the idea of a peppermint candy cane but not the actual experience of them.  I've tried to finish them after my kids start through the same experience, and hand them over, but it doesn't really work.  I love sweeter, lighter wintergreen and spearmint versions of mint candy but not peppermint, unless it's really dialed down, like in a Peppermint Patty candy bar.


Grilled Southern Peach:  that's pretty cool.  The crux for this tea was going to be getting smoke, fruit, and tea to balance, and I think messing around with infusion parameters would help for anyone to get it fully dialed in, but it works.  I essentially always brew Western style using a relatively high proportion for that form, and multiple rounds instead of one 5 minute version at more standard / lower proportion.  At least I can try it for a second round and say more about how it might work combined, which absolutely wouldn't be possible the other way, guessing at how one infusion would have divided into two, instead of guessing how two would seem if mixed together.  I did brew these for at least 4 minutes, so they're not light at all, if anything on the heavy side (stronger infused).

As to balance and how this comes across as a flavor list that's unusual.  Smoke is evident, but definitely not overpowering.  Peach stands out enough to be recognizable, although maybe without that in the title I'd be fumbling with what fruit this seems like, even though it's the only fruit flavor input.  It's a mix of black tea and oolong, which is different.  The tea part is a bit non-distinct then, but that works for it being a base, in this form.  

On the negative side the peach could "pop" a little more; that would change how it all integrates.  On the positive side it tastes natural, and it all does work together, and those three inputs are a great theme.  It has richness and depth, and no hint of the "cheap tea" input that grocery store blends, or related main website blenders, all need to work around.  I could drink this regularly as a breakfast tea; it works well enough that repetition would still be fine.  It's like how you don't really get tired of Earl Grey very fast; it makes that much sense.

Probably adding just a little sugar would get the fruit flavor to stand out more.  It's funny how that sweetness input changes the impression of the rest.  In a sense I should try it, but it's really not the page I'm on.  It's nice that the smoke is subtle, given that this is supposed to work together with a fruit aspect.  Anywhere near the intensity of typical smoked Lapsang Souchong and it wouldn't matter how much peach extract they added, it wouldn't be there, but this is balanced.  For people into heavy smoked teas I suppose that could be a disappointment, but this just isn't supposed to be that.

It will be interesting to see how the balances shift over a next infusion.  Often flavored teas just rinse off, and some of that might happen in this case.  But tisanes "open up" slower, and a natural smoke flavor could easily be an exception, so maybe not in this case.


Second infusion:


Biloxi breeze:  it's a pleasant surprise that the level of spice dropped; this might have been more balanced brewed as one infusion, at half this proportion for slightly longer.  Even more evened out, with fruit a little more noticeable, and on the same intensity level, I still don't like it.  Pepper spice in tea just isn't for me.  Maybe I will add sugar to both of these to check results; that might cut the effect.  For the kind of tea enthusiast I am that's sort of throwing in the towel, but then just drinking blends is way outside my most typical range too.  I've been drinking more tisane blends lately though, even beyond these samples, so relating to a broader range seems more familiar from that.

with sugar:  that does help.  The fruit (berry) pops a good bit more, and it drops back the heat effect a little.  This is within striking range of making sense to me now, but not quite there, I still don't like it.  Only during the final edit did I read that this was "designed" to work chilled, as either an alcoholic beverage base or as a "mocktail," and that does make more sense.  Hitting it with just a touch of lime juice if the alcohol is left out might give it other range that balances it, or with triple sec and tequila it might be good.  Or vodka, I guess, taking it one step closer to a kamikaze, which I did like back in my youth.


Grilled Southern Peach:  smoke might have picked up slightly more than peach; somehow I had expected that.  It doesn't work better as a result, or really that much worse either, it's just different.  I'll have to check these with a small spoonful of sugar added to see what that changes; it's a necessary part of a more complete review.  There's a raw sugar version handy that's probably perfect for the role, adding a hint of molasses warmth along with the plain sweetness.

with sugar: it's strange how much difference that makes.  Smoke input seems different, if anything slightly more pronounced, but also just varied in effect.  To be more specific it might have shifted the flavor so that fruit is stronger, but an after-effect or undertone of smoke plays a different role.  I didn't add a lot of sugar to either of these; one of those small coffee or tea spoons worth (like you get on an airline flight, which you really aren't supposed to keep), in a full 8 ounce / 200+ ml mug.  

Peach taste isn't more distinct but fruit range stands out more; funny how that works.  Chilled this would probably be one of the best versions of flavored tea someone ever had, beyond the range of what a standard ready to drink bottled version could even potentially achieve.  No, I'm not going to do that and write about it here.  The tea should be prepared slightly too strong for that use, to account for the water from the ice.  [Editing note] cool that this was intended as an iced tea; they're on it.

This is much catchier.  It integrated well enough before, but that bit of sugar really ties it all together.  There's a chance that stevia could play a similar role (an herb that can work as a natural non-sugar sweetener), someone would just need to be very careful to only add a little, or it would surely ruin it.


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Subculture synchronization through social media group input


This is something different, not really related to a tea blog, but I'll share it in mine, in case it's of interest.  A good number of ideas I’ve been considering seem to align, in relation to running across the subject of synchronization, and comparing it to cultural expression and perspective.  This runs long covering that, really as much about me using writing to collect and arrange the ideas.

In the most ordinary sense synchronization is about complex systems including or developing mechanisms for aligning timing (described here).  If you set two metronomes (pendulum based clocks) beside each other in such a way that they can alter their base position (hanging from something, on a shifting platform, etc.) they will naturally align, by passing on physical stimulus between each. A footbridge in England worked as a different example, not related to people walking in lockstep, necessarily, but along a similar line, creating a problem that designers did not account for, with reinforced synchronized walking all but destroying the bridge. 

This is all about something else, but it seems to be related.  Spontaneous synchronization in physical or natural phenomena is about this, which I won't be getting into:


Spontaneous synchronization is a remarkable collective effect observed in nature, whereby a population of oscillating units, which have diverse natural frequencies and are in weak interaction with one another, evolves to spontaneously exhibit collective oscillations at a common frequency.


Instead I'll discuss this: 

Online social groups and divided sub-cultures tend to align perspectives, faster than ever now due to the effect of social media.  It’s not just about groups filtering existing perspective; it seems to function as a feedback loop too.

 

In a sense that’s what sub-culture is, alignment of interests, perspectives, preferences, and values.  Self-definition and image are a part of that.  In what follows I’ll cover a number of examples of how I see this playing out in a broad range of different sub-cultures.  I think it’s informative, in relation to making sense of patterns that are obvious in one sense but not so transparent in relation to root causes.

I’ll start by mentioning factors that seem to cause this, acting like the limited input feedback loop of pendulums adding force to each other, or the influence individual steps accumulating on a footbridge.

 

Inputs / factors

 

-online groups form around shared interest or perspective, or serve a positive educational function

-social media channels filter feeds in ways that over-emphasizing controversy, negativity, or exclusion

-filtering in online groups limits opposing views, narrowing range of shared perspective, even adjusting standard perspectives

-social media “influencers” or subject experts condense or lead perspectives (affected by the rest)

-interest group oriented media channel bias reinforces marginal perspectives

-any of these factors can set up feedback loops, as a continual and progressive input

 

All of these factors set up feedback loops that continually support increasing uptake of divisions, and extremist perspectives, derived from within a more normal range.  It happens across a broad range of perspectives, across a lot of issues.  Often it would be a positive thing, mostly about learning.  In some interesting ways gradual shifts in perspective and self-identification can occur, so that even the “normal range” fragments and shifts.

Related to the social media channel issue, recent news covers how Facebook utilizes negative themes to increase engagement (from “Facebook whistleblower revealed on '60 Minutes,' says the company prioritized profit over public good”):

 

"One of the consequences of how Facebook is picking out that content today is that it is optimizing for content that gets engagement, a reaction, but its own research is showing that content that is hateful, that is divisive, that is polarizing, it's easier to inspire people to anger than it is to other emotions," she said. She added that the company recognizes that "if they change the algorithm to be safer, people will spend less time on the site, they'll click on less ads, they'll make less money."

 

Why wouldn’t they, I guess. Let’s get the most obvious example of that problematic divisive content out of the way, or at least introduced:  the US is currently quite polarized in terms of conservative versus liberal perspective.  This sort of works as an example, although specific use of the term “synchronization” here informs the deeper level intention, that I’m trying to describe a pattern of change, made up of small inputs. 

That political divide evolved naturally, and extended into what is often described as a “culture war,” a mapping of lots of sets of ideas and perspectives into two distinct versions.  Along the way a lot of people and companies benefitted from emphasizing it.  Maybe it’s as well to treat the base context further and get back to how this seems to play out in that political divide, related to saying more about those factors.

 

Synchronization related to online social groups

Synchronization can be used as a model for looking at patterns, not necessarily as only one type of sequence of processes that adjusts alignment.  Of course people divide into groups, based on shared preferences and opinions; saying that really isn’t saying anything.  The model has to do more, to explain more, or else there’s no point to applying it.

 

I’m trying to establish that subtle mechanisms can cause a specific form of evolution of preferences and opinions, as feedback and adjustment, not just functioning as a sorting and grouping mechanism.  People entering into perspective lockstep with others can have the unintended consequence of enabling a new form of perspective shift pattern, that can progress faster and further. 

 

It’s not that the conservative and liberal American right and left already existed and were already positioned against each other (although that is true), or that positions on a limited set of issues caused the divide. This synchronization effect broadened and further re-defined the split.  Let’s start with a simpler example than politics, and then see how the same influence patterns can occur more broadly.

 

I’m into tea, and we see this effect play out in online social groups related to tea.  Group themes kind of evolve on their own, although a group founder or founders will often have a lot of that in mind in setting up new groups.  A group might be open, for example, intended as applying to everyone with a broad interest range, or to a sub-set.  Using tea as an example a group could have a focus on people discussing their discovery of interest in tea, and starting points (for people newer to it), or for advance practitioners to discuss more evolved preferences. 

It seems odd putting it that way, describing people making a beverage choice as “practitioners,” but as with many subjects tea interest and forms of experience become more complex as one explores further.  Then to some extent that complexity tends to even out and shift back to embracing more simplicity later on, but the rest of this doesn’t do a lot with that last part, about patterns of progression of types of interest changing over time, across varying forms, onto a natural endpoint.  A very extreme and developed form of preference and perspective can occur before that happens, and it can be accepted as a group norm, as not out of the ordinary at all.

Shared perspective of any subject is discussed in social media groups, and other types of groups.  People find such groups and join in from whatever perspective or position of topic interest they happen to already experience.  Although tea makes for a strange example it might work better for being odd (versus a sports team or university alumni group, for example).  It wouldn’t be so different for lots of themes, like running, weightlifting, cooking, or even interest in other subjects, like philosophy, religion, or mental health topics.  Touching on these different subjects will help show what I mean about identification patterns and forms of evolution of perspective.  It’s tempting to explain why my own interest scope is so broad, but maybe as well to get to that bit by bit.  I’ve led a long and complicated life, and have waste a lot of time online.

But why discuss tea at all?  People can self-identify through such interests. 

Then it could also be about finding out about other options, when chance contact brings up a subject.  But as I take it by the time much contact occurs at all it’s really about self-identification, and to some extent that has to pre-exist to prompt someone to look up a group through a Facebook search function, or however else.

Still on tea interest, perspective grouping most typically works out along the line of those two extremes.  On the one hand in groups formed mostly by people newer to the subject shared interest is about exploring what grocery store shelves carry, maybe moving on to discussing brewing loose tea versus using tea bags, or showing off mugs and teacups.  There might be some debate over whether loose tea is really better, or over sub-themes like flavored teas versus more plain versions.  But everyone could be on a similar enough page, beyond someone wanting to discuss relatively plain tea-bag tea, and someone else more into flavored blends.  It’s harder for extremism to creep into a group defined in relation to a starting point perspective; developing into different interest range would bump someone into the other kind of grouping.

On the other extreme tea interest really is about experience-developed preferences and self-identification.  Ceremonial forms of brewing can enter in, or meditation themes, or collecting expensive teaware that serves an artwork function.  Even limiting scope to just the tea can cover a broad range, related to types, quality levels, brewing approach, learning background, etc.  I’ve written 675 posts in a blog about tea, Tea in the Ancient World, just with some of those on other subjects, writing about random themes.  More than half are probably reviews, and since the blog posts often compare teas probably around 500 versions are mentioned.  No wonder the subject has got a bit old. 

Self-identification can relate to claiming a knowledge-related status, or mastering a certain sub-culture form.  Eventually one would tend to reach an end-point related to these themes too, and keep shifting to business interest, or let active exploration drop, but those steps could take awhile.  Prior to that one might assume a role as a respected senior member in a tea community, regardless of age, more based on status.

 

Self-identification, filtering, and reinforced perspective shift

In groups this self-identification plays out in different ways.  This is really at the functional core of the broader point I’m trying to make here, more than about how filtering for specific interests works out.  Online contact lets people connect with others with similar interests, and through such connection those interest forms evolve.  I don’t mean that inputs like blogging or video content is mostly driving that, or other “influencers” or experts, or discussion input, it’s all that together, and a lot more.  It turns into a subculture, and subcultures tend to evolve, and have a life-span.

It’s fascinating how organic that process is.  Discussion is one main driver, and subject expert input is another.  Reinforcement of shared perspectives plays a big role.

A narrowing or member pruning effect is a very important mechanism in groups.  That’s not achieved mainly through formal group moderation, or clearly expressed limits, but instead through self-selection.  Often moderation can also play a significant role, with a defined group tone or perspective being actively enforced by admin / moderator control.  But beyond that people come and go, and groups evolve, with negative feedback playing a role in that.  Groups of all kinds also tend to not stay popular, or keep to a tight theme; it all shifts naturally over time.

Perspective shift reinforcement occurs through many small steps, like the pendulum clocks synchronizing timing, or individual steps on a bridge adding up.  Every group comment is met with positive reaction (likes, positive comment reaction) or negativity (open rejection, “downvoting,” or varying forms of correction).  This leads to a stream of shared perspective, partly related to pruning, and also tied to positive reinforcement.

I first noticed the natural trend of group member transition related to IT (information technology) service management groups shifting in popularity, from one location to another.  That core group of subject experts was small enough that it was easy to spot which online location was trendy; it was where those experts were posting.  The same happens for tea, but to a more limited extent.  For a lot of other subjects participation is so broad that it’s not at all like that, for example related to sports interests like running.  There surely are well-regarded athletes and subject experts related to that subject, but Facebook or Reddit groups would typically have nothing to do with drawing on that.  Group experts would be “local.”

Plenty of prior experiences have related to those “pruning” and group evolution functions.  I left a Reddit running group that I wasn’t allowed to post to because I wasn’t approaching running in a way that shared their perspective.  The short version is that I don’t use a fitness tracking watch and application, I just run, experimenting a little with different format approaches.  Removing posts is more a Reddit theme; in Facebook negative discussion feedback would cover a roughly equivalent function.  I’m not sure if people insulting each other on Twitter also works as an example or if that’s just part of the broader culture there, a normal interaction form.

Group or platform algorithms reinforce the positive and negative feedback loop effects.  Facebook shows you more of what you liked in the past, and Reddit subgroup filtering downvotes some posts to oblivion or mostly shows others that are upvoted.  On the surface this is going to collect together existing views and preferences, but to some extent it would also adjust and shape those.

 

Evolving interest forms and perspective

So far I’ve framed these groups as filtering members by perspective and approach, and serving an awareness function.  That’s it, but form of interest and understanding can evolve quite a bit in relation to this established shared perspective.  Social media group forms set up a perfect context for that.  People are always going to put their own spin or take on any subject (liking the teas that they like, or varying running training), but “better practice” forms emerge, potentially framed within a narrow range.  Running without tracking biometric stats can be seen as primitive or ineffective, or brewing tea “Western style” versus Gongfu style can seem more or less wrong.  Or just liking green tea can, versus oolong and sheng pu’er, far more typical type-preference endpoints.  It’s taboo in many tea groups to even mention tea bags.

This filtering / shared preference selection seems harmless enough in these examples, and that’s generally how I see it too.  It’s only odd in these examples, not negative.  In some other groups patterns can typically show up that are far less positive.  Philosophy groups tend to evolve towards less and less traditionally grounded or academically based themes, for example, to shift from considering what Kant and Nietzsche really meant in relation to ordinary perspective onto topics that are really about politics, New Age concerns, or popular takes on spirituality and such.  They naturally degrade, per one way of framing those transitions.  I don’t see that as an example of sub-culture evolution, so I’ll set that kind of concern aside, about problems in conversation tone or scope development potentially derailing shared interest group participation. I see it more as the opposite instead; a failure for a well-defined or narrow group sub-culture to “take.”

Those runners probably really are advancing, in practice (training) and related to discussion scope.  Tea enthusiasts too; what works well gets discussed, maybe just shifting a bit far onto evolved preference, until contact with anything like “basics” can get lost.  That could evolve to a different kind of natural endpoint for the discussion range, not because it degrades, but because it runs some form of natural course.  Eventually people usually just drink tea, and stop talking about it.  Sets of active group members form and later become inactive together, and the cycle repeats with new members or the channel goes dead.

It would take a controversial example to highlight how all this could go very badly, and how unconventional and negative perspective range could develop from this.  I barely even need to bring up politics as a potential example.  Somehow conservative thinking led to people reject vaccine and mask use during a pandemic, in the same country where nearly 700,000 people have now died (688k covid deaths in the US, according to Google’s dashboard, as I write this first draft, but over 700k soon after during editing).  There are equivalent problems on the liberal side, about gender re-definition, political correctness, and fairness related to race and history being extended too far.  This kind of transition pattern enabled a sub-group of people to reject that the Earth is spherical in shape, something people have been clear on for over 2000 years.

 

It’s all partly the “echo chamber” idea; as range of discussion narrows and shifts are reinforced potential for continually progressive error increases. 

 

It’s not just the “echo chamber” effect, in relation to reinforcing existing beliefs, since it can also easily lead to gradual evolution of those.  Almost all hardcore conspiracy theorists thought the earth was round not that ago, and that “prepper” theme, about readying for the end of the world, came on pretty fast.  Some examples of men’s rights and extremist feminist groups probably relate to this negative potential, extending real concerns and experience-grounded personal perspective in relatively “toxic” directions, in both those instances to broad hatred for almost an entire gender.  Gun interest groups can move on from discussing purchase options and features to tactics used military operations, and then to applied domestic terrorism.  It was a strange early anomaly how “prepper” groups included people preparing for completely different forms of Armageddon, which could’ve turned into a stable perspective form, with everyone sure it would all end soon, just under different circumstances.

It’s not just about these extreme and negative examples, or filtering narrowing specialized groups further and further, as in the running and tea examples.  Any somewhat active and cohesive group could reinforce some degree of perspective shift. 

Expat (foreigner resident) groups tend to filter people into two sets, as those new to an area, with regular visitors included, and then also long term residents.  Among the second group one part integrates positively, and could continue to discuss exploration and participation in cultural forms, and the other has more negative experiences, and discusses problems and limitations in the host culture.  

The more positive set is generally less vocal, since there is less to say about participating in a myriad of routine or special-event local activities, you just do that, while the complaining about negative patterns and problems seems more sustainable as a discussion form, as commiserating.  In the end you really get positive groups for people newer to the experience and negative ones tied to longer term exposure, with the opposites (people put off by short-term experiences and positive about extended exposure) not being as active.  A tourist who had a single bad experience might discuss that with the bar-stool alcoholic online crowd, but those people would’ve typically moved on to experiencing failed marriages and businesses.

 

Sub-groups and mental health perspective

Another subject I’ve been looking into adds a lot of potential for shift in individual perspective, related to considering dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder.  In a sense it’s not a great example, because it doesn’t lend itself to the same degree of “spectrum” effect that conditions like ADHD, autism, and depression and anxiety tend to (or at least it seems not to; in practice that’s not quite as clear).  For many of those on the less extreme part of the experience spectrum, for the other conditions, the average person would have some experience of some of the same traits, or maybe many of them.  We all feel some degree of anxiety and mood changes. 

As people discuss and learn about mental health subjects in related groups the effect would have to be very different from that of learning about tea, and changing brewing approach and such.  If someone is trying to learn about a completely abstract subject, as I’ve approached learning about DID, maybe not; it doesn’t connect to my own internal experience.  But for subjects like anxiety and depression, with people exploring those naturally experiencing some degree of them, it would probably be different, and hopefully positive inputs to causes of experiences could adjoin learning, with treatment being necessary as a primary form of resolution in more pronounced cases. 

I’m certainly not claiming that people would tend to over-diagnose their mental health experience, or conditions, based on hearing of others’ experiences.  If anything a more grounded, informed, and accurate view of what they already experience should really emerge instead, with better decision making about treatment options and requirements.  But a feedback loop of changing those experienced initial conditions would seem likely, and it would be hard for me to guess if that form would typically be positive or negative, if the change would actually tend to be helpful or not, or would most often lead to positive life choices.  Mental health issues can tend to seem black and white, and an example from my own life can fill in what a grey area can look like.

 

I just asked my son and daughter if they ever heard voices that seem external to them, as not part of their normal internal thoughts, and my son said yes, in some cases internal voices seem to be external, or at least separate from his own main thoughts or opinion.  It turns out that as many as 10% of everyone might experience some degree of “hearing voices” in such a way (with internal or external form being a real factor, but with interpretation coming into play related to that).  Those occurrence  percentage numbers shift a lot, depending on what source someone cites from, and the intended meaning (/ inclusion scoping).  On the one side that could just relate to varying interpretation of a normal internal dialogue (maybe his case, or maybe not).  Of course now I’m talking about schizophrenia, more or less, not the experience of distinct and separate internal personalities, the DID case.  It seems possible that maybe a division could blur, even though that’s definitely not the conventional take.

DID is especially interesting because it manifests first as a hidden condition, in almost all references or discussion of it.  It might seem a little counter-intuitive but people experience multiple personalities while they are not aware of this form of experience.  I’ll largely set aside that some people pretend to have conditions that they don’t, or exaggerate forms of their own experience to fit into a more interesting and extreme paradigm.  Maybe that is a basis for a lot of online discussion, those false cases, or maybe a very rare occurrence.  Either way it seems necessary to not overthink or over-interpret that part, since there would be no way of knowing who is being honest or accurately evaluating which experiences.

Just a bit off topic, I suspect that mental health issues seem a lot more common right now than in the past (even 10 years ago) for a number of reasons.  One is that stigma may be lifting; people feel free to discuss more real cases.  If anything that might be overcorrecting, back to the theme of it being popular to have certain conditions, leading to the problem I just covered.  Real internal awareness probably increases too, better diagnosis, treatment, and general awareness, in a positive sense.

An online contact raised an interesting additional point, that what “counts” as a mental health condition may have shifted too.  This contact has considerable experience with mental health issues, with his own, and in knowledge of care practices. To be clear this isn’t framed as expert opinion and final judgment on mental health care practice in general, just as food for thought.  Per his input what was considered a problematic mental health condition in the past was truly debilitating, with more borderline cases regarded as normal / conventional experience.  Then over time that shifted, and a much broader range of people were diagnosed and treated for less severe problems, less impactful variations of the same conditions.  He even connected that framed as a standard deviation range, which applies percentages to that summary, but it seems as well to stop short of conveying that here.

There could be a positive and negative side to this trend of expanding definition of mental health disorder ranges (assuming that it is accurate, which isn’t put forth as a given here).  People with relatively mild depression or anxiety could still benefit from treatment, prior to those having a lot of impact on their life, and progressing to worsen.  If approaches could function in a preventative form, and relate to other scope than drug based treatment, early / less-severe case treatment would seem like a relatively universally good thing.  For example, if someone experiencing very mild depression or anxiety takes up moderate exercise, or can use meditation practices to counter those experiences, that seems like a relatively positive outcome, much more positive than them just “toughing it out.”  Putting half of everyone on “psych meds” seems like a different thing, and a potential problem.  But why shouldn’t my son undergo psychological counseling, just in case?  He probably won’t, but we will definitely closely monitor that issue.

I’m reminded of a friend—an ex-girlfriend, really--moving to Los Angeles to try to become an actress, and experiencing anxiety related to that life change, which was severe in scope (the change, at least, and maybe the resulting anxiety too).  Maybe she needed the psych-meds treatment she was put on after consulting a doctor there; I don’t know.  It was the first I’d even heard of such a thing, back in the 90s.  Her take, after some experience, was that the side effects of the drugs weren’t worth the positive outcome, which diminished in effectiveness over time, so she quit them.  But then maybe they had already played a critical positive role in a problematic phase of her life, whether she knew it or not.  She thought not, that doctors just prescribed those to do something, and to sell medicine, but that in her case it probably wasn’t essential.  Who knows?

How does this connect with synchronization of perspective, one might wonder?  Another example fills that in.

I’ve recently ran across a blogger post with someone explaining how they couldn’t get one of their children diagnosed properly for conditions that they talked about but didn’t clearly define.  From their description the children sounded healthy and normal, maybe one less so than the other (which I won’t cite in reference form here; it doesn’t add much, and implies a degree of negative judgment I really don’t intend).  It seemed to amount to a claim that both of the two children might experience ADHD, anxiety, and some degree of autism, with only one being diagnosed with some part of that, but it stopped short of adding full details.  That parent wanted them both to be diagnosed and treated, but mental health professional review found one to not suffer from any of these disorders, to their disappointment.  If that mental health professional input was that the child was healthy, why would a parent “want” the second child to suffer from these conditions?  It probably wasn’t that.

My guess (only offered as such here) is that repetitive exposure to online discussion of these conditions led them to interpret both their kids as experiencing this set of conditions, based in one instance on normal range aspects / symptoms of life experience, which also overlap as symptoms of more extreme cases and conditions.  For example, my daughter sometimes sucks her thumb, at age 7, which could be an indicator that she is on the autism spectrum (as a “stim,” a self-comforting action).  To be clear we don’t think she is even “on the spectrum;” she is just slow to lose that habit.  If the parent suspects that their children are suffering from conditions then of course they would want assistance in resolving that.  Then it could be a short step from media and online discussion exposure of such input to expecting it, based on incorrect evaluation, or even on to rejecting a psychological health care professional’s evaluation, which is where they seemed to be.

Of course there are a range of other possible interpretations of this case, or possible facts of the matter, actual real status.  Maybe the parent wanted the kids in special programs to receive forms of assistance, for self-serving purposes, whether or not they had experienced such disorders.  I doubt that, but it’s possible.  Maybe the parent is a better judge of mental health issues than a trained medical professional, but again I also doubt that.  Most likely the expectation came from real life or social media based exposure to ideas and incorrect evaluation, which had to be informed by personal experience and online source material or discussion.  The “spectrum” idea probably played a large role in this, and the parent just wasn’t comfortable with the typical—or at least individual judgement based—cutoff point. It seems at least possible that the mother didn’t “get the diagnosis that she wanted” for herself either, for something related or different, and that some degree of projection of that was involved. 

Over and over in mental health discussion groups this theme re-occurs, not just of self-diagnosis and interpretation, but of second-guessing medical subject expert input.  A main subtheme is the feeling of validation and reward from acquired recognition (diagnosis), as official entry into that sub-group, or rejection from not receiving that.  It seems like an odd cycle.  Group discussion members use diagnosis status as a way to filter group members, to narrow inclusion of false claims, which is probably mostly positive and functional.  But this also seems to evolve to serve a topic interest gateway purpose, as an informal indicator of full membership. 

If that parent had multiple confirmations that both kids suffered from no mental health issues then she would’ve needed to accept that life is just normally as she and her kids experienced it, inherently problematic, with no extra group there to support her form of day to day difficulties.  The spectrum idea complicates things, in this case, and in general.  It seems quite possible that the diagnosis for one or both kids would have been different 20 years ago, and might shift—based on the exact same circumstances—in another decade.

 

Varying social input effect by subject

These effects vary by subject.  It’s interesting jumping from random topic to topic, learning about subjects instead of following fiction as entertainment, and seeing these themes play out.  In many of my own examples it has nothing to do with actual current experience, as with those mental health issues.  I lifted weights when I was younger, more than 25 years ago now, and more recently it has been interesting learning about body related functions by checking on steroid use themes through Youtube videos, almost entirely related to bodybuilding.  Testosterone and human growth hormone—both normal internal body process regulators—double as drugs used for building crazy levels of muscle mass, and also for offsetting the effects of aging, I’m just not even considering using them for that.  It’s also interesting learning background on what my kids experience, in physically growing.

Then over time shared perspective on bodybuilding steroid use changes.  Over the last 5 years a lot of well-known bodybuilders have died; that has driven the main perspective changes.  This kind of theme extends personal awareness and perspective well into everyday life experience and choices; people out there are putting drugs in their bodies based on current conventional understanding, and a small percentage of them die from doing that. 

What I find most interesting doesn’t really relate to those higher risk use cases, it’s about how the human body functions normally.  But tying back to the sub-culture synchronization issue lots of people would take it the other way, and make week to week choices about drug use based on this input.  They probably focus more on scandals and deaths than the practical advice, given the context for what draws the most attention I’ve already described.

To be a bit clearer there are a set of 10 or less main Youtube influencers who define this specific subject realm (weightlifting / bodybuilding, in relation to health and drug use).  In many cases those subject specialists align in sets, sharing follower bases by doing cross-over videos together.  There is a lot of potential for a narrow group of ideas to be shared very broadly as a result, which is most often a positive thing, related to sharing valid warnings about unsafe practices, but I suppose the opposite could also occur.  Interesting scope omissions seem to occur; none of those people tend to ever acknowledge that liposuction even occurs (cosmetic surgery, versus work-out approaches and PED drug use), because there is no benefit for them in covering that topic; it’s off their central message.  Even a single sports injury by a high profile “influencer” figure can cascade into a lot of related discussion, and can bump a large base of follower perspective about related risk factors.

There being so many groups covering so much scope is hard to place.  No matter what tangent or interest one pursues there are groups and references out there about that.  It seems possible that in every single case the members experience some degree of perspective shift that goes along with a learning curve, maybe leading to more balanced, informed, functional perspective, or maybe the opposite tends to mix in, biases that are more negative.

 

It’s tempting to conclude that this is a potentially bad thing, the evolution of lots of small interest groups, enabling rapid shifts in perspective.  “Small” here is relative; I’ve personally co-founded a Facebook group about tea that currently has 22,000 members, and collected Quora answers in a Specialty Tea Space that has 7400 followers.

The runners and tea drinkers I kept talking about aren’t really hurting anyone, beyond maybe slighting other runners and tea drinkers now and again, for not being on their level.  It all feels a bit unstable though.  A lot of “cult of personality” forms of this influence seem negative, when people manipulate these patterns to elevate themselves, often to sell whatever they are selling to others.  In the form of a conventional ad that’s easy to spot, but other “thought leader” or celebrity roles are something else. 

Back to the steroid theme a very popular figure, Rich Piana, talked openly about risks and benefits of steroid use, focused quite a bit on risk, but his own heavy use and routine video posting about training methods and gains implied that risks could be kept moderate, or at least accepted.  His early death at age 46 implied otherwise. That sort of correction would only occur over time, that the most interesting or actively developed parts of a given subject could turn out to involve non-sustainable practices. 

Of course one could draw related parallels with covid, a topic I’ve already mentioned.  Trump had a lot of people believing there was no pandemic going on in 2020, up until about 250,000 or so people had died from covid, and it seems like forms related to what I’m discussing enabled that.  Now I’m not so sure that a lot of people who reject covid vaccine protection are even clear on why they don’t, it just fits in with other assumptions and shared perspective they hold.  Changing that perspective, even in light of overwhelming evidence about vaccine safety versus covid risk, would trigger negative reinforcement within those groups, and tied to media content inputs.  

I recently looked up what Fox News was saying about vaccinations and they were only running three stories on problems related to violation of personal freedom from vaccination mandates, nothing at all about comparative risk levels, or the benefit of being vaccinated.  The current 7 day average of US covid deaths is 1783 per day, according to the Google dashboard; they wouldn’t mention that.

 

Resolution of effects from these kinds of inputs

 

The way forward seems to relate to greater self-awareness, to identify and control the impact these associations have on us.  I spent a long time sorting out how one might go about acquiring that self-awareness, of inputs that tend to occur on a sub-conscious level, but it all stopped short of giving anyone practical advice, for the most part.  It wasn’t mostly about social media use, the practices of self-awareness I’m referring to, but other approaches and forms of review could carry over.

A higher order awareness of the forms of these patterns may work out.  That news-story Facebook whistle-blower confirmed that Facebook was aware that tone, controversy, conflict, and other negativity were factors in feed algorithm selections.  Facebook chose not to moderate or restrict that in any way, valuing ad revenue and profit over positive social media user experience (per the allegations, at least; the story is still unfolding).  This kind of higher-level discussion of social media influence could be positive, in the longer run. 

People joke that to witness the decline of civilization and general perspective one only needs to browse through Tik Tok.  It’s only partly a joke.  4chan really is a horror show, across some scope, and Twitter really can be much more negative than positive.  It’s not just related to extremist positions though, and adopting the practice of arguing online. Every subject can fragment and lead to more and more extreme positions, with plenty of shift of initial perspectives along the way. I hope that greater awareness of these inputs, and the results from them, can lead to some forms of partial resolution in the future.