“To change how we talk is to change who we are,” notes Andrew Marantz toward the end of Antisocial, his breathtaking, page-turning foray into the clash between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and online extremists. He continues, “More and more every day, how we talk is a function of how we talk on the internet.”
A staff writer for The New Yorker and contributor to “Radiolab” and “The New Yorker Radio Hour,” Marantz spent three years immersed in two different worlds. Rather like a war correspondent, he focused on both the new social media tycoons and a variety of online extremists.
And while the title might lead you to expect a dense, academic treatment, Marantz’s narrative is like going along for the ride in a foreign landscape, bouncing into the unknown on a bumpy road. The book begins, for instance, with a lively, rather humorous foray into the 2017 DeploraBall, a party in Washington, D.C., for, as one participant told Marantz, “all the big names from MAGA Twitter.”
Marantz has a keen eye for character, and Antisocial sometimes reads like a novel about people with oversize personalities. But his intentions are serious, and ultimately Antisocial is an insightful look at two powerful forces shaping American society. There are the social media entrepreneurs motivated by a vision of the internet bringing people closer together and toppling traditional media gatekeepers and outlets. And, often in direct opposition to that vision, there are extremists, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Traveling with Marantz is indeed a dizzying and often disturbing ride. Depending on what readers know about social media, the characters Marantz encounters may or may not be familiar names. But some of the ideas and positions they espouse are increasingly impossible to ignore.
Whether you use social media or not, Antisocial is an important look at groups that are molding the nation. “We like to assume that the arc of history will bend inexorably toward justice,” Marantz notes in his prologue, “but this is wishful thinking.”