Regaining a Sense of Sanity in the Age of Social Media
It’s hard not to be cynical today, especially for those of us who follow politics and cultural issues. Through the combination of social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of click-bait garbage, we seem to be on course for a total cultural burnout. Seeing as I joined Facebook back in 2005 and have come of age with everything since then, maybe I’m just a little burned out. My indifference at being part of the “Facebook generation” has slowly morphed into shame and resignation. More and more, it seems the way issues are aired out in the public sphere is tainted by a perpetual cycle of sensationalism and professional offense-taking.
True, public discourse has always been a little over the top in The United States. I can vividly remember growing up in the era of Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky. So when I hear people say, “I miss the good old days when people were nice to each other,” I think, “what the hell are you talking about?” And if you say I’m dating myself, look at what liberals said about Reagan in the 1980s, look at William F. Buckley getting ready to beat the crap out of Gore Vidal back in the 60s. None of this is really new.
But that doesn’t mean our own epoch is not unique. It’s different in how outrage and verbal bile travels, multiplies and then blends with other forms of outrage until it flares out and we’re on to the next thing. And it’s incredible how frequently we see things like public shaming, harassment and hashtag campaigns used against people for the most minor transgressions. And before you think I’m only talking about post-modern cosmopolitan progressives, I would caution that no side has a true a monopoly over this phenomenon. Though much of this energy now sits on the left, it was only a few years ago that the outrage machine was primarily fueled by movement conservatives, at least until after Obama was re-elected in 2012.
I am in no way advocating a withdrawal from civilization, or some Quixotic anti-technology message. In fact, I’d say technology didn’t really change things as much as we think. The same principles of social etiquette that mattered before the dawn of social media in 2004 (or 1994 for that matter) should matter today, it’s just that the arrival of blogging and social media created a temporary void.
Into this void went all the best things about humanity, along with the worst, all at once. At best, it helped us show our ability to create, produce and share the unique elements of the human experience. Hell, it’s the medium through which I’m writing this article. And yet it has highlighted, amplified and exacerbated people’s inherent narcissism, inflated sense of self-importance and an almost pathetic need for attention. While I recognize a certain element of this in myself (patient, heal thyself), it’s the saturation of these qualities in public discourse that almost made me not renew the domain for this website last week. But perhaps there’s a reason to keep going, if only because things have gotten so bad.
But regardless of who’s doing what or acting in what abominable way at the moment, I think the time has come for some deep breaths and reflections about how we might better conduct ourselves on (and away from) social media and in the public square in general. So I’ve decided to outline a few principles that help me retain my sanity and hopefully they’ll help you too. I’ve purposefully left these unnumbered, and refused to mention the fact there’s a list in the title, thus detonating any SEO optimization I might otherwise hoped for.
You’ll live, trust me.
Just because someone’s wrong on the internet doesn’t mean it’s worth starting a confrontation. Consider this. What are you trying to accomplish with your response to someone’s erroneous tweet? Do you know the other person? Why not contact him or her directly? This frees you up from the 140 character limit and shows that you actually want to communicate, not make a show out of it. Airing it in public without some mutual understanding only creates a spectacle. Imagine you’re in a public area like a train station, and you see someone you know. For whatever reason, you hear him mutter something absurdly wrong and hyperbolic about politics. Do you shout your response so everyone can hear it and make a scene? Or do you pull that person aside?
Also, consider your own mental state, and the amount of hours there are in a day. How should your time be spent? By firing off a stern response to that person you kinda/sorta know from college, whose Facebook status got you momentarily agitated? Maybe a walk outside would be nice. Or read a chapter from that book you meant to pick up. Or as is probably the case, get back to work! Yes, that person may have some absurd ideas about the minimum wage, the Armenian genocide or drug laws in Singapore- but is it worth it? Maybe it is. I know several people through my writing here or at Metal Injection that I first interacted with on Twitter, disagreed with about something and was able to have a calm, civil back-and-forth discussion with. But there are always a few red flags that should let you know whether or not the person is just venting, looking for attention, reinforcing a confirmation bias. If you like to crash “we agree about everything” parties, then by all means, go ahead. You might even change a few minds, though they won’t tell you themselves. Always keep in mind: will it be a good conversation; what are you accomplishing; and is it worth it?
How consequential is an offensive remark? How important is it that someone, who may have been in a bad mood when typing it (and an even worse one after your poorly-written response), be proven wrong at that very moment? Let me take a personal example. Let’s say someone I don’t know very well re-tweets some terrible article from Salon or Alternet about how all libertarians are idiots who should go move to Somalia. I already know the author is wrong, and I don’t need to convulse with displeasure at the re-tweet to prove it to myself. And though articles like that still annoy me, so what? It doesn’t give me a cold, it doesn’t reach into my wallet and steal my credit card. Most of all, the article doesn’t change the truth about the need for restrictions on state power. Besides, I’ve already written about that.
I saw an article the other day that put our current state of perpetual outrage into a better perspective:
These controversies come and go and people move on to the next one within hours, sometimes minutes, sometimes seconds. That’s all it takes to read a story about someone doing or saying something offensive, send out an outraged Tweet or comment on the subject, and quickly continue along to the next slab of raw Outrage Meat.
That person who unleashed that vulgar tirade and told you to jump in front of a train and burn in Hell? He doesn’t care. He’s pretending. He’s probably said that to 14 different people today (all anonymous on the internet, of course, because he’s a coward).
Just wait it out. It will go away. It always does.
And on that same point: whose opinion of you should matter? It would take quite an isolated individual (probably a sociopath) to say nobody. But do you have a family who cares about you? Great. Do your friends have your back? Awesome. Does your boss like you enough not to fire you? Even better. Are you secure enough to know that, if people have something foul to say about you, they’re just wrong and entitled to be wrong, and your life will continue even as their hatred for you poisons their veins? Perfect. With the exception of legal matters like libel, slander and real (not perceived) threats, these things really don’t matter. Other people’s thoughts, words and opinions exist outside of you. Even if you choose to think that opinions play a role in reinforcing institutionalized norms and prejudices, should you choose to let them affect your mental state?
And if someone really bothers you, there’s always the option to unfollow or delete them. You’ll feel much better, like after cleaning the clutter out of your old car (though the emergence of “blockbots” is a little excessive). And there’s no reason you have to let all the noise bother you, because your thoughts don’t have to exist online. We have a first amendment, but we the fifth as well. You don’t have to share.
The Value of Private Thought
People like to complain about everything being so open and intrusive. And it’s true, especially in the case of state-run mass surveillance and online behavior trackers, there are a lot of things to get angry and call your congressmen about. In the case of social media however, you have broad control over what you share. You don’t need to share everything with everyone. Some thoughts are better left inside your head so they can develop and then be shared in a sensible way that will make the most impact. Private moments are important. It’s those moments that your thoughts are your own and your creativity can flourish in any direction you wish. We need those moments to consider things freely, without preying types who look to get upset about what we read, watch or listen to.
A recent piece in Spiked got to the heart of this concept, and how George Orwell championed the idea that:
life, autonomous, free, even if circumscribed, with self-defining loyalties and bonds between people who value their private relationships, is the highest law. ‘The liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above’, is part of our nature. To try to stamp it out is to stamp on a human face.
In a way, to live your life constantly outraged on social media – cursing at complete strangers and swimming in your own self-pity and self-righteousness – is to put a self-inflicted stamp on your face and ultimately, your character.
Time and Place
I know what you’re thinking: “Drew, this whole website is dedicated to you saying what you think, why the hell should I listen to you now?”
There’s a time and place for everything. Some things are worth getting worked up about and responding to. Some places are better for doing that than others. For instance, I’ve (mostly) stopped sharing my articles on my personal Facebook account. And though I’ll probably share this one, I no longer see a reason to share everything there. This site has its own social accounts, and I’m part of a separate discussion group where people want to talk politics, as well as another one where people want to talk about metal. My regular account doesn’t get a lot of traffic going and I’m sure several people have unfollowed me due to self-promotion. And that’s fine. Why should I bother old acquaintances with a review of the latest Leviathan album (which is really good by the way), when they don’t even listen to anything resembling heavy metal?
There are exceptions to this, but again, bring it back to life outside the internet. Let’s assume you live in a condo complex, and you have association meetings every few months. You walk into the meeting, talk about how the roof needs to get fixed and somehow, through some twisted slight-of-hand, someone makes a vulgar reference to Israel and Palestine. Someone gets offended and an argument breaks out. The situation sounds absurd. Who would be so maladjusted to start such a conversation in that time and place?
But it’s not that absurd- I was once standing in line to get into an event, when the significant other of the person I was with, noticing the two men behind us were from India, proceeded to berate, lecture and condemn them about the situation in Kashmir. This person did not know these two men, or had any reason to project any outward hostility to them as individuals, but decided that THIS was the moment to go on a grand moral crusade. What was accomplished? Did the authorities in New Delhi and Islamabad receive word and come to an agreement? No! It was just pointless posturing and self-affirmation! It was to project the affectation that this person was “right on” and “conscious” of the plight of the oppressed.
But this is basically what the internet has become, writ-large.
Stephen Fry once described it brilliantly when talking about why you should avoid reading YouTube comments. The video could be something as harmless as a puppy, but the uploader might have mentioned it was filmed on an i-Phone and suddenly the comment section is a storm of “anti-Apple madness.” Don’t laugh, you’ve seen it happen, maybe even participated.
Anyone with a touch of social intelligence knows that our in-person interactions with friends, family and coworkers require a level of nuance and subtlety that comes with being a functioning human being. But how we apply that intelligence in a medium like social media is slightly different. But the need for that intelligence still applies. There was an interval in the mid-aughts where everything opened up and it was a whole new world to us. It’s a lot like that first semester at college: you’re friends with everyone and open to hang out with whoever, whenever, whatever. But by the second semester, the social-cement begins to harden and things change. You realize that group that hangs out next door isn’t really your crowd, and they don’t feel quite at home with you either. There’s no animosity, but if you can’t be yourself with them, you’re better off hanging out with your friend you made in that weird philosophy class who went to that show with you.
Critical Thinking and Reflection
Speaking of college, I could go on for days about the many cultural absurdities taking place in and out of the classroom, but I’ll leave that for another time. But it’s worth remembering what education is meant to instill in us, and what our current zeitgeist of click-bait sites and social media has the capacity to damage if not handled properly: critical thinking. I’m not exempt from this. I don’t read long-form pieces everyday, and much of my reading is taken up by shorter pieces that catch my eye. But the channels of thought we wish to engage shouldn’t be monopolized by the likes of The Huffington Post, Salon, Gawker and Buzzfeed. Like Newsweek, Time and similar publications of old, these sites do hire some good writers, but they mostly operate as the engines of the polite consensus. They don’t exist to entice critical thought as much they serve to confirm what most of their readers think already, providing said readers a platform to share and gain applause from predictably like-minded friends.
But there is something valuable about reading a long, well-written piece and dedicating some serious thought to it. Even if you’re infuriated by it, don’t react right away. Step away from the keyboard for at least 20 minutes. Walk it off and let the words run through your mind. Let yourself be challenged. It’s okay, your friends aren’t watching you to make sure you still agree with them, pondering over the comment field like an executioner with his hand on the electricity. If you feel a little disoriented, a bit uneasy, that’s a good thing. Writing in The American Conservative, Steve Wasserman says the “pleasures of critical thinking ought not to be seen as belonging to the province of an elite. They are the birthright of every citizen. For such pleasures are at the very heart of literacy, without which democracy itself is dulled.”
“But what would my friends/family/whoever think of me if they knew I read that liberal/socialist/libertarian/conservative article? People like me aren’t supposed to read people like that because [insert petty groupthink nonsense here]!”
So what? If your oh-so-smart friends ask, use discretion, keep things in perspective and be mindful of the time and place. I’ve seen it work plenty of times, turning a possibly hostile misunderstanding into a good conversation.
Where to Go From Here
This was a long piece, so I appreciate those of you who bothered to endure the entire thing. I’m not expecting some grand cultural shift away from the polluted landscape where our political discourse currently resides. Even if more than a couple hundred people read this website, it wouldn’t cause some grand epiphany where we all collectively realize that feelings don’t trump facts, or that sharing a hashtag doesn’t turn you into an “activist.” There are some signs of hope among the young, who seem to be turning away from Facebook, mostly because they don’t want to be bothered by parents and other family members. Yes, people need to grow up, but it’s not a one-sided deal. Some people have become way too sensitive, especially on other people’s behalf. But we can all benefit from some more nuance in how we conduct ourselves. These are just some principles to go by when trying to stay informed, engaged and sane when you see that next set of (probably terrible) hot-takes and listicles run across the screen.