Nothing Nowhere At Some Other Time: A Social Media Tale
Jaybird clipped and posted this section from Jonathan Haidt’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “Why The Past 10 Years of American Life have been Uniquely Stupid” :
The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.
It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
I really do encourage folks to read the whole piece. It is very well written, excellent graphics, builds a cohesive argument and case, and Haidt is quite skilled in laying out a piece.
But I disagree with him in premise, in metaphor usage, and partially in his conclusion.
It’s utterly unfair to harp on a metaphor usage, since every writer including myself has tortured enough of them from time to time to deserve a sentence in Wordsmith Gitmo for Crimes Against Analogies. But nevertheless, the Tower of Babel story is misused here. If Haidt is going to mention the builders of Babel as having “community” and singular purpose then there should not be a glossing over of their purpose. Humans trying to elevate themselves into sameness with deity and elevating from the earth to the heavens was that singular purpose, and the lesson of hubris taught by the punishment of scattering and confusing the languages to ensure there would be no repeat doesn’t apply as well to social media. Social media connected folks through technology, removing traditional barriers of distance, communication, and time-delayed information. While there might be a singular purpose of being on the platforms, there will never be anything but a fractionalized group who gravitate towards their own cliches, niches, and happy places. If anyone is trying to raise up to god-like powers and lord over the earth from heaven, it is the folks complaining the most about social media being the great evil of our time, more so than the unwashed masses using it to send cat pictures and complain about their overlords, elected and otherwise.
The premise of not just Haidt’s piece but much of the discourse surrounding social media and by extension our culture and politics that dominates a good chunk of interweb usage is that things are bad, getting worse, and will further deteriorate because of this wicked technology. Such sentiments sound good, have the auditory feel of truth to them, and certainly roll off the tongue and flow from the keyboard easily enough that “social media is bad” is a pretty well ingrained conventional thought. “Look at all the bad, ugly, disgusting things that there (insert social media platform of your choice for its turn in the stocks here) has on it.”
But is the conventional wisdom correct or is it really a convenient scapegoat that allows the discourse to skim across the waters rather than delve into what lies beneath?
Yes, there is plenty of ugly, of wicked, of disgusting byproducts that come with social media. You could righteously mount the high horse of correctness and rain down rhetorical invective on the sewer that is Twitter, or the septic tank that is Facebook, and there is plenty of…stuff…floating and decomposing in both to justify the pounding of your chest as you do so. Revolting stuff. Smelly stuff. Filth. Imagine a great camp of the all the nations of the world, and the equally global latrine trenches such a camp would require. There’s a metaphor for you.
Which would be a great pronouncement as long as you leave off that there is no such thing as having human beings anywhere without some wastewater byproduct. The nicest house you’ve ever seen would not appear so if you judged it from its sewer or septic discharge solely, and even less so if that structure had no mechanism to remove the worst byproducts of humans from the premises. Even the most cursory reading of history will inform you what happens when such things are not taken care of in a neat and tidy manner, and the death and destruction that comes along with not doing so.
Yet over and over again, our chattering class wants to pass judgement on the great unwashed masses by judging the group solely on the worst excrement of the worst extremes that is in the open and not properly treated. Social media makes those folks highly visible to everyone, and picking out the worst offenders of the group gets easier and easier. Thus comes the contention that things are worse, that people are worse, that everything sucks, and we are all going to die, and it is all social media’s fault. Just look at the mess, point to it, and then demand who could argue with the smell, the stink, the awfulness?
It’s easy, but not accurate. There is much good on social media: an explosion of interconnectivity, of information, of bypassing gatekeepers, of breaking down barriers. This is talked about much less, however, since the loud, the obnoxious, the odious are front and center. But worse? Are things really worse? Or are they just louder, more immediate, less avoidable?
Most of the philosophical debates and public intellectual pursuits regarding how bad social media is are just proxy wars for the same old discussions on regulating human behavior, but we get to yell at Twitter instead of each other which makes it more socially acceptable. Plus, we can blame the nebulous Big Tech company instead of doing any meaningful reflection on our part. It should be noted as well, that the perspective of the very online — a class of folks that I’m guilty of being a member off — tend to assume the world revolves around the online when for a vast majority of folks the interwebs are an occasional visitor to their real world pursuits, not the universe they naturally inhabit.
Haidt’s insistence that the “uniquely stupid” of the last decade is worsening strikes me as both coming at it a tad high, and overstating this new spin on an old problem with a big red marker of recency bias. There is, unquestionably, a great sorting and sifting of society that has taken to social media, as they discover a very wide world full of very different people who are very much not like them. Some, perhaps most, then adjust by finding like minds to congregate online with just as they would have around the fires of early man, the salons of the last age, or the various socially ranked tables in the lunchrooms of schools across the fruited plane. And that migration, and the caterwauling that accompanies it, is everywhere, drowns out everything, and seems to be coming at everyone from every direction at once. At least online.
Underneath all that, and more overt in the commentary that advocates for a “do something!” moment both legislatively and as a society, is the very old debate about how folks interact, how they function, and how human behavior should be regulated, governed, and corrected. Twitter didn’t invent human behavior, and Facebook hasn’t made anyone do anything they didn’t want to do anyway. Both are digital lubrication allowing folks to do those things, including things they shouldn’t do, and do them faster, louder, with further reach.
Haidt ends his piece with the observation that “Most Americans now see that social media is having a negative impact on the country, and are becoming more aware of its damaging effects on children. Will we do anything about it?” He then talks of Tocqueville, and of America’s history of volunteer organizations that focus on social issues. I agree completely with his assertion that “We cannot expect Congress and the tech companies to save us. We must change ourselves and our communities.”
But wouldn’t changing ourselves and our communities be so much easier to orchestrate with the power and connectivity of social media? Far from the Tower of Babel, and if you take social media on the whole and not from a perspective from knee-deep in the downwind latrine trenches of the bird app and the book of face, there are people who could be good citizens in the gathering of the nations that technology is offering. And far from elevating themselves to some misbegotten godhood, most of them just want to find a better place in their earthly travails and find some fellow travelers to enjoy the journey with. And to share cat pictures with.
The issue at hand with social media is folks want something that by its nature is diverse and uncategorizable to have a neat and clean accountability to it. But it will never be so; social media will, by its very nature, be accountable to no one, nowhere, at any one time. Like the masses of people, it digitally represents, there is no shortcut to governing, influencing, and empowering them, only a lot of effort that needs to be applied.
We as writers should spend equal time covering that positive end of the social media story, analyzing what those trends and habits mean for the future of humanity, and telling those stories to draw conclusions from. After all, social media is just a tool. Let us stop beating people over the head with the shovel, and get back to digging the proper drainage for the global online community to function a bit better.