Social media is a middle school cafeteria.
Political post’s possible outcomes: people who already agree with you nod their head. People who don’t agree with you make themselves known. People gracefully change their minds. With some exceptional charity let’s assume you convince everyone to be on the same page, and we all end up thinking that it’s appropriate for players to (not) stand during the anthem. Then what? Nothing. Superficial problems inspire surface-level solutions. We find something else to fight about or gape at. Keep it rolling, pass the popcorn.
Maybe it’s always been this way. Migrated from radio to television to the internet, it’s not new to say that media is overly dramatized, simplistic, and anecdotal. That’s because it’s for-profit entertainment, not a public service. O'Reilly and Maddow are what the market wants. But now we, the people, are all contributing to the static, we cultivate it without realizing, we enrage it. It’s no longer The Man, but you and I that are doing the damage. In the past we were only ankle high in a sludgy Viacom byproduct, capable of walking away from the boob-tube to a place of shared intention, to Vitamin D, to grandma’s for dinner. Now it’s self inflicted. We’re constantly face down in the gutter, drowning in our own mental dumpster water, hunched over, bloodshot and exhausted, aimless. A break to sleep, then back to being insect-eyed.
Don’t you feel it? This shadow of a thing, relatively new but now uncomfortably familiar, that’s come and snaked it’s way into our lives, constantly lingering, souring and numbing moment after moment. It’s a forcefed awareness of the chaos you can’t affect and a constant distraction from that in which you have actual authority. What a horrible trade. There was a time without this. A time spent alternating between calm, motivating boredom and focus soaked follow-through. Now we restlessly thrash. Instagram fixes boredom about as good as opening the fridge for a second time.
Even talking about social media has become disgusting. It gives me heartburn every time I hear that vulgar, two-word phrase. I wince, embarrassed, prepared to listen to some regurgitated analysis about filter bubbles, fake news, or superficiality. The discussion is played out, soulless. The worst cliche: a wide-eyed pitch for the next dumbest startup.
“We’re going to do Tinder for half Jewish girls from Long Island who also own Honda Accords. I know some HTML. Can you help? Do you mind signing a nondisclosure before we talk more?”
Sure, let me call Mark Cuban and also kill myself real quick.
Facebook and the rest of ‘em are cigarettes without the movie cool or the headrush. They’re cultural cancer. Coincidentally, nowadays we use both outside of bars and after sex. I wonder if that’s significant…
If someone were selling you a two-in-one cactus and mop, would you defend your bleeding hands as the cost of a clean floor? Is the convenience of this personalized information buffet worth what we’re paying for it?
There are other problems with this stuff too, like:
To watch and to play are not the same thing. There’s a difference between observing culture and participating in it.
Why risk getting a beer with the neighbor who gets on your nerves 10% of the time if you’re already up to date on her entire life? Why go to the coffee shop or open mic, or say hello to a stranger on the street if you’ve already got the zeitgeist’s cliffnotes from Reddit or The Drudge Report or your Newsfeed? Why have an opinion at all when gospel is just a Google search away? Think of all the potentially uncomfortable situations and all the wasted time that can be avoided! With a curated social experience on tap, in your pocket, there’s no need to risk it. Sit back and watch, effortlessly. All the more opportunity for work, Netflix, and wondering why you’re awake staring at the ceiling at 3:38 in the morning. But at least I didn’t have to sit through a (potentially) awkward date!
Well, maybe the anxiety felt over these foregone face-to-face moments had a purpose. Maybe it let you know a situation was risky, but also that it had the potential to pay out. Maybe bad and good are what orient us, maybe they’re what prune life from something raw and harsh into something beautiful, into something worth suffering to feel. Instead, now we’ve already seen everything that’s ever been or will be awesome, and so nothing is awesome; and we already know what most people are about before meeting them, and so no one is worth meeting. Or so we believe. Facebook’s mission is to “…bring the world closer together” but all it and the others do is breed cynicism, stereotypes, and shallowness for sake of selling eyeballs to advertisers. These machines make the world less serious, less intense.
Another problem: stories and information are not the same thing. Stories have trajectory, they are conflict followed by resolution. Information is a scalar.
Your mom, high school buddies, college roommates, colleagues, priest, pee-wee soccer coach, pediatrician, bus driver, and exes are now all in the same room, at the same time, all and every day; and they’re yelling their opinions, into the void, all at once, on topics within the range of sports, gun control, birthdays, deaths in the family, American Idol, vaccine efficacy, North Korea, pop music, North Korean pop music, Avon & Tupperware deals, economics, your little cousin’s football games, and the occasional high score on Candy Crush. Fresh, arbitrary information gets thrown on top of this mess daily, and it’s like watching a dozen cats fall into a locked bathroom’s brimming bathtub. Does this stuff belong all together in the same conversation? Is any of this productive? Can this process ever be productive? Can it remain interesting or, more accurately, titillating? Can anyone pull a meaningful story out of this rats’ nest – i.e. fully describe a conflict and then come up with a practical solution, one that can be believed to work? What does a resolution to a wall of contentious information even look like? Trick question…
Or otherwise, on the image oriented apps, we pump up vanity as a virtue. Look at me, tell me I’m pretty, tell me I’m successful, tell me I’m right. I am right, right? Right? The vacation selfie is the contemporary Cadillac in the driveway, the white picket fence, the American Beauty rose bushes: primed, chin raised, saying “my life is going great, thanks for (not) asking”. But it’s lonelier. More disconnected. Back then when you moved in you got a fruit cake from a flesh-and-blood neighbor. Now our greatest moments, big and small, are sugar coated and sold to one another as postcards, shallowly and anonymously confirmed by a double-tap, view count, or smiling emoji. Compare that to thousands of years of evolution-honed body language: a smile in the corner of the eyes, a furrowed brow, a polite laugh or one from the gut. The result is that our collective conscious is starved for depth, blistered and withered as our habit slowly boils on and intensifies, razing everything along the way into a homogeneous binary of GOOD or BAD. You ever wonder why the only popular apps are picture-based or purposefully short videos? Because anything candid or of decent length would show us for what we really are: desperate and shallow and incapable of performing the deep and meaningful.
Or otherwise still, there’s Twitter, which has never been anything but a stupid idea. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Email, forums, and AOL chat rooms were all better, but Twitter threw out Paul Rand’s solutions for Web 2.0 iterations. “Move fast and break things.” That’s 21st Century progress.
Critics of the above mention that these new technologies allow us to stay in touch with people when they’re far away or constrained by time. Two points to make: (1) does that have anything to do with what I’ve said here? Does “keeping in touch” mean we have to be vain, shortsighted, and constantly, mindlessly engaged with everyone we know, about every topic that happens to be in fashion that week? And (2) do these tools even do what the they’re claiming: solve the unavoidable problem of being apart from some of the people we care about? Does a lover living an ocean away become easier to deal with now that I can see a picture of her morning croissant while swiping through every other yahoo’s empty publications? Saying you’re close enough because of Facebook is like saying a Hallmark is as good as a hug. 'Get Well Soon’ never got anyone better sooner. Stop making excuses.
Speaking of excuses, I’m guilty in the extreme of every vice listed here. I’m a whiner. Cheap, gallon-jug Cabernet. I’m a whore for online attention. I’ll do anything for a Thumbs Up. I post all kinds of vain nonsense. I meticulously prune photos, mentally weighing all the ways they might be interpreted, how they might benefit my reputation. I’m a sycophant, desperate for celebrity-like recognition and obsessed with plastic. I judge and criticize topics I know nothing about. In other words, this essay is as much reflection as observation…
Here it is in summary: social media is part of an insidious retreat from hot-blooded, nuanced, mutually-lived culture into a cynical, simplified world of information; information that’s doesn’t fit together when looked at as a whole and information that’s cookie-cutter when looked at through any one tunneled lens. We make this sacrifice of soul for simulation in ignorance, walking away with some dopey, voyeuristic well of entertainment, and an abstract awareness of issues outside of our influence and understanding. A video of The Vatican isn’t a trip to Rome. A list of headlines doesn’t replace a book-length argument. Pontificating about Presidential Tweets doesn’t change the world like small-talk with your parents does.
But: we can move on from this decadence back to substance and to depth and to vivid existence; to talking about the great questions of what it is to live, why it is we do it, and to acting out the answers; to having communal, spiritual fulfillment and making actual progress. We went to the moon once. Has that become such a trite example that we can’t take it seriously? People flew through space, for three days, on an over sized tea-kettle, powered by a bomb, controlled by a t1-83 calculator, so that they could walk on an airless grey rock… for the hell of it? To throw shade on the Russians? No. It was to do something literally awesome. Something great. Imagine being Neil Armstrong sitting in that seat on game day. Really. Actually imagine it.
(Don’t keep reading, use your imagination, Christopher Robin. Close your eyes. Come back in 5 minutes. Tomorrow you take off into the unknown wearing a pressurized diaper, helmet, and obviously giant jock strap. What got you to that point? What are you thinking now?)
What kind of social structures – world-wide right down to the family – had to exist, all at once, to produce an opportunity like Apollo 11 and a person willing to take it? These people weren’t crazy, they were heros in a story we were all acting out. We all had our parts. Their effort is what it means to live for something bigger than yourself, and it can be accomplished at all different scales. We can start small, in our individual lives and neighborhoods, and work our way up to the next NASA.
But before we start producing that play, we need to purge the distraction. I’ve filled my head up with so much high contrast, saturation soaked, dopamine driven trivia – my own and others’ – that there’s little room for anything else.
I suggest you and I take a break from social media, together. A group New Year’s Resolution. Sometime between now and midnight January 1st, 2018, delete the apps and turn down the accounts. Leave them off for at least a year. Don’t plan on going back. Let’s see how it feels. To those that don’t often use social media, I say, fair enough. But just 'cause you’re not a barfly, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t stop drinking. This is an appeal to the affected. That doesn’t mean everyone, but that group includes more than just me.
Does your dream of the future include all these screens? Don’t we expect to raise our kids more responsibly than what’s possible in this cesspool? Don’t we want them to read great books before Buzzfeed? To ride bicycles and kiss in the woods, rather than stare at YouTube or its more obscene siblings? Don’t we want that for ourselves? Don’t we imagine maturing past this era? That, at some point, we’ll move on from all this wasted effort?
Isn’t this exodus inevitable?
Shouldn’t it start with us?
Shouldn’t it start now?
Thanks for reading and considering.