I consider myself not old, not young, but a secret third thing. And if you live on the internet as I do, then over the past few weeks you may have seen people posting statements of this general format: “Not sick, not healthy, but a secret third thing.”
This meme has recently become popular online, as people find two diametrically opposed classifications both inaccurate to the situation. (Actually, I changed my mind; explaining an Internet meme like this definitely cements me as old.)
In some cases, thinking outside of the box and avoiding this binary classification system can be very useful for illuminating possibilities we may be missing. Light, for example, is very illuminating, and is arguably not just a wave or a particle, but a secret third thing. And most of us who have ever taken a quiz or survey online have been annoyed at multiple choice questions like, “What is your favorite food: a) Pizza and hamburgers, or b) Chinese takeout?” Obviously, the correct answer is Chinese hamburgers.
But while the secret third thing may be a good answer for internet quizzes, it turns out to be an annoying answer for political and legal questions. For example, consider Puerto Rico, which exists as a US territory in somewhat of a liminal state — or in other words, not a state, not independent, but a secret third thing.
Puerto Rico’s residents are U.S. citizens, but can’t vote. When Puerto Rico tried to raise taxes a few years ago, Walmart sued them, and a federal judge ruled the tax illegal. But when a natural disaster strikes Puerto Rico, as it recently did, U.S. sentiment is often less enthusiastic about quickly sending aid to Puerto Rico because it’s not a state. PR, ironically, needs better PR. It is stuck in limbo — “limbo” being the theological term for “Not heaven, not hell, but a secret third thing.”
Facebook and other social media sites are in dangerous limbos as well, albeit dangerous for us rather than them. We have a certain set of rules for technology platforms, and another set of rules for media publishers, and Facebook would rather be a secret third thing.
Whenever government attempts to say that technology platforms have to be neutral and transparent, Facebook will say, “That doesn’t apply to us, we’re more of a media publisher.” But whenever government attempts to say that media publishers are legally responsible for the content of what they publish, Facebook turns around and says, “That doesn’t apply to us, we’re more of a technology platform. And also, here are five advertisements and a TikTok video with no relevance to you.”
Surprisingly, this strategy has worked for nearly two decades, even though it’s roughly as sophisticated as a child claiming they are too full to eat vegetables, but too hungry not to have cake. Facebook is having its cake, and eating it too. Perhaps that’s the key to identifying when the secret third thing is being abused: When it’s not actually a separate thing, but just alternating between the other two things as convenient.
Once you start to look for it, you’ll notice people using it everywhere, not just social media companies. When it’s time to consider restrictions on gun ownership, people claim the main cause of mass shootings is mental health, but when it’s time to fund mental health initiatives, they claim that’s a waste of money.
People claim that we shouldn’t open our borders to immigrants because they’re lazy and don’t want to work, but turn around and claim that immigrants are going to steal your job. People claim that there’s nothing bad about marijuana and everyone tries it at some point, but also that we can’t just release everyone currently in jail on marijuana charges because they deserve their punishment.
Not a moral hazard, not an acceptable youthful indiscretion, but a secret third thing ... which is just swapping between the first two depending on who it advantages. This is something we seem to keep doing with our laws, while pretending it isn’t a problem. Or acknowledging it is a problem, but continuing on the same way.
Perhaps we should try a secret third thing.