I did something this morning I haven’t done in a few weeks: I absently scrolled through a social media feed and internally-catalogued my response to each piece of “information”. I recognized what privacy advocates and anti-social-media pundits have been crowing about for years: these platforms are means of surveillance, manipulation, and profit at their users’ emotional and personal expense.
It’s not a secret that my political and social views heavily skew toward liberal or socialist points (almost comically so). The 2016 elections gave me a significant number of things to think about and helped me to see the deeper workings and changes that are afoot in the “discourse” that we participate in online.
- Continued violence in response to ostensibly political and social problems.
- Posturing from individuals and groups whose egos and worldviews are being challenged.
- Continual cries for help un-helpfully issued as cryptic “come at me bro”
- Pageantry and pomp for things that won’t matter in an hour.
- Primping in lieu of actual, substantial change in people’s lives (I tend to call this the “Duck Lips Phenomenon” or the “Photo Filter Fallacy”).
- Feigned moral outrage over “issues” (that are more often non-issues).
- Rapid degredation of discussion in the public sphere.
Seeing stories and posts like these didn’t ostensibly do anything positive for me. All this media did was further entrench my firmly-held beliefs and did absolutely nothing to challenge my worldview in any meaningful way. I felt more frustrated and enervated after only a few minutes.
What’s worse about the entire situation is that there isn’t any kind of real discourse–it’s an assault on the senses and sensibilities. Media has to work harder than ever in this overcrowded age of clickbait, sensationalism, and shock-value stories to obtain That Which Generates Profit: our attention. Our “likes”, our “Retweets” and “Shares”.
What this points out to me specifically is that social media isn’t very social. As a matter of fact, it’s exacerbating a disturbing trend of tribalism and othering that we haven’t seen since the first half of the twentieth century. It’s probably more apt to say that social media isn’t socially responsible instead.
There are no moderators. There are no gatekeepers. There are no standards of decorum. Methods of debate, introspection, retrospection, and critical thinking have been shelved in education and our personal lives. This lack has led us to conclusions that have little or no basis in reality and whose frames of reference skew from blatantly fascist to remorseless, algorithmic technocracy. In short:
We’ve lost what it means to empathize and be genuine.
The technology that enables this dangerous trend of dehumanization also has the ability to enable us to be more humane. But the structure of the applications, our discourse both online and off, and our educational systems have failed us. We may be more connected than ever, but we’re more connected to our factions than the union we were born into.
We can change this trend if we choose to. We just have to make ourseleves and others conscious of the fact that there are real people on the other side of the screen.