Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On Social Media PART V: The Yin and The Yang Or The Fifth Limb and The Third Eye

So we come to the end...

I have spent the last month dissecting, analyzing, and qualifying the social media experience into four digestible blocks in order to evaluate its utility and place in the world. From conjecture to personal experience I have tried to present social media as a tool that can be used for good and a digital drug that can addict a person into complacency—at best it ignites revolutions and at worst it incapacitates. In my fifth and final installment, I would like to analyze one more aspect of social media that I think is overlooked before moving on to judgment— its medicinal value. By creating a digital space free of many of the constraints of the "real world", the Network has given a voice to some of the voiceless; access to people, places, and ideas otherwise inaccessible for those who are differently-abled; and removed many stumbling blocks of communication and learning for the otherwise challenged. 

The Internet has facilitated a stupefyingly rapid shrinkage of the world. Destinations and cultures that are half a world away have been brought near with the click of a mouse and knowledge that was once reserved for the privileged is now quickly becoming accessible to even the financially poorest human with access. It has also created similar near-light speed-fast access to other humans.

People who once were far off are no longer incommunicado thanks to the Network. It used to be a great privilege to phone someone in another state, but now, voice and video services from Facebook to Google allow for instant calls and even video chats with people across the globe… for free. Communication has become so accessible that we don't even need a specific person to contact anymore; we even meet new people online.

Such instant access is a tremendous blessing for a lot of people. Physical travel between two places is a great impediment to some and impossible for others. These inhibitions make it less likely for some differently-abled folks to participate in certain realms, sometimes even in simple ways that we may take for granted like communicating at all. However, the Network shrinks this gap. Modern technology allows for a variety of ways to get ideas from the neural pathways to the electrical ones.

It may not be as instant as the (dys/u)topian Matrix that I described in PART I of this series (yet), but thought-to-type apparatuses are not science-fiction anymore; the hearing-impaired can read chat boxes in the same way a person with "normal" functioning ear drums; the mute can communicate their ideas with relative ease with folks who might not know sign language with a few clicks of the keyboard; and most importantly (IMO) when engaging online one would never know anyone with any of these or many other conditions is any different than themselves. Any assumption one makes of anyone else while in the Network comes from her or his own preconditioned biases. In the Network, our avatars are all created equal; anyone is free to share ideas, organize campaigns, entertain, and validate herself or himself just like anyone else with access.

If the great disease of humanity is hatred based on perceived difference, then the Network is its medicine, because we are all 1's and 0's in the digital world.

- - -

It has come time for my judgment.

I do not claim to speak for anyone else nor think that my opinion is deserving of any sort of special recognition or validation. I simply offer it as a thinker who has by the good grace of the Cosmos been blessed with the time, freedom, and access to ponder the nature of human character and Her creations. I have spent the past month pouring and musing over the question of whether social media and the digital Network that it is creating is a good or bad thing: Is it helpful or hurtful? Is it creating opportunity or destroying community? Is it igniting human creativity or suppressing it? Is the Great Democratizer or Big Brother?

When I began this series I thought I would have an answer to those questions. I honestly thought that I would unmask social media for the Soma-of-the-Brave-New-World-of-the-21st-Century that it is. However, in the time that I have spent ruminating on it in private and publicly here with you, I have realized the yin and the yang of social media; the blessings and the curses. Even now, as I write this, "Google Now" is being unveiled and lightning storms of new possibilities are striking in neural pathways and computer chips all over the world. Google is offering you and me an easier and more connected life, but it comes at a price— it wants our location at all times. It wants us to open our hearts, minds, wallets, and privacy and in return it will tell us how to destroy just enough space/time to maximize our enjoyment in life. It promises us heaven on Earth in return for our allegiance.

Like Andromeda and the Milky Way galaxies in a billion or so years, the “real world” and the Network are merging. Only at this scale they are merging at a quantum level. Every day we are faced with a choice of whether to sacrifice some of our "real world" and ourselves for an idealized representation of it and us online. The Network offers the potential to cure our ails; set us on equal footing with every other human; and enwrap us in digital ecstasy. Yet, it comes at a price: it may be our privacy; it may be our confidence; and it may be our soul.

Aristotle posited that the soul was simply the accumulation of one's habits. There is no denying the evolution of the matter: if we use social media as a tool then it has been become an inextricable fifth limb or third eye. However, for the one who seeks their validation or self-worth and posts (or reads) religiously out of a need for the "look at me" factor—for the dread of the anxiety of "real world" interaction—then I fear that the Network has become a purgatory for the soul.

In H.G. Wells’ famous work The Time Traveller, the protagonist travels to the year 802,701 where he encounters two groups of people. One of them—the Eloi (the Hebrew derivation of this word translates to "gods")—is a meek and peaceful people that sought out enlightenment and learning over the millennia. The other group—the Morlocks—lives underground and is a frightful and savage bunch that retreated below into the safety of the darkness. In 802,700 years social media and the Internet will have come and gone, however, I can see these two groups representing our futures.

Those who would seek out peace and learning will become more frail for the technologies they will create will replace human labor and allow us to focus more on the mysteries of the Cosmos. I do not foresee such creatures milling about their time in a digital daze; they will be busy evolving in the light.

However, I can also imagine a group who is committed so much to their savage nature that even with the advent of a no-work era retreat to an arena where their hatred and malice can still be poured out in safety—the darkness of an idealized and anonymous identity in the Network. Instead of pursuing knowledge and enlightenment they content themselves with the brutish lustful pleasures of the old ways. In the darkness, they evolve.

The Social Network is both a blessing and a curse. It has the potential to enlighten or devolve humanity. I think the difference between the two outcomes is our capacity to honestly ask why we are using social media the way we are, individually. The ubiquitous nature of the Network makes it impossible to avoid on 2014 Earth, but how we use it is up to us every time we log in.

May we use this tool for good and not evil in moderation and with good will toward all humanity in search of a higher calling for its power is great. Consequently, our responsibility is even greater. I pray that these five POSTs on social media have served and will continue to serve as a catalyst of thought so that you—the responsible human being—can further discern your own motivations and act accordingly. Much is at stake in the future of the Network. In the end, we will master it or it will master us.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On Social Media PART IV: Organizing and Networking Or The Great Equalizer and The Great Pacifier

So far in my series on social media I have been pretty hard on the Network. I started by ruminating on the possibility of social media being the precursor to the Martix before moving on to examine its use as entertainment and validation. This post however is going to give a nod to the Network because—for better or for worse—it may be the greatest networking and organizing tool ever devised by humanity. From keeping up and reconnecting with old friends to organizing revolutions, social media has created an unprecedented level of access for people to connect across the globe. Whether this is a good or bad thing I will save for PART 5, but for now I would like evaluate some of these uses in the hopes that those who continue to use social media throughout the next decade will use it to bring down corrupt regimes and build real lasting communities.

The most obvious form of networking that is made possible by social media and the Network is access between individual Nodes (if you are joining me for the first time I am using "Node" to designate a point of reference for a person's online identity. I did this instead of using a blasé term like "online identity" because I want to point out that we idealize ourselves online. We paint these pretty pictures and choose just the right words for our posts because we want to open ourselves up to maximum exposure.) Whether we want to entertain or simply be noticed by other Nodes one thing is clear—we want their attention. We want it because the social Network gives us access and the illusion of being connected to them. When our thoughts can be instantly transmitted across the globe then we are eliminating all the space-time it would have otherwise cost to transmit idea X, Y, or Z to all the people in our network. Why have a conversation with one person you haven't spoken to in a decade when you can perfectly craft the same statement and send it blindly to 500 people with ease instead? (The latter seems a lot more efficient, right? I wonder if we would otherwise even tell that one person at all?) Whether to the one or the many I think--at best--we convey these ideas as a means to start a dialogue.

Dialogue has always been my favorite aspect of social media. While I don't think entertainment posts really do this area justice (i.e. "Cosmos" is awesome." or "Where is a good place to eat in West Philly?"  [Followed by comments like: "I know, right?!" or "Abbysina is my jawn!" etc.]), there are however some questions that I find can be much more easily accessed on threads than in the "real world". Recently, I posted an article I wrote entitled "The Table Of Brotherhood Or Race—Can We Talk About It?". It was written as a conversation piece to ask a question—can we talk about this? What ensued after I posted it on social media was an interesting dialogue all its own. It took place in a forum that eliminated the space and time it would have taken several people to get together and talk about it (who probably wouldn't have done so otherwise). Was it a good thing? Maybe. There was of course the emotional dullness of the 1's and 0's of a computer screen and safety of conversing in an online arena, but at least it took place in an equal space. No one could talk over anyone else (though certain vocabulary words still have a way of shutting some people down); no one could yell (though ALL CAPS was always an option for emphasis); and everyone's voice carried equal weight. I am not saying that history was removed or that certain biases still were not brought into the conversation, but the space was everyone's. Such a space created the potential to bring in more voices who would not have otherwise participated in certain conversations because--again, at best--it leveled the playing field. The Network could be the Great Equalizer.

In the same way social media is the ultimate public service announcement. Any organization or institution that does not develop a presence in the Network these days is doomed to failure. Many people get their information solely from social media. There is a reason that Facebook calls it a "News Feed". From breaking news to awareness campaigns and boycotts, social media has created a portal for the instant communication of ideas. However, as I have tried to establish throughout this series, every blessing of social media comes at a price. In this case the cost is the dilution of the passions of the people.

The Network for all its access is not designed as a public forum. It cannot replace the park or agora because there is rarely room for opposing views online. Like attracts like and friend lists inevitably become a—pardon the expression—big circle jerk. When timely issues deserve and desperately need wide public discourse they are instead thrown into rooms of likeminds to be dissected and validated or ravaged. Big mass media outlets have staked their claimed, put down roots, and spread their golden tentacles throughout the Network as well. People's preconceived notions are even reinforced with paid-for banners and ads. Instead of creating debate social media often creates tirades and a circle of reinforcement.

Don't get me wrong. Not all conversations that take place in the Network are paid-for corporate sponsored talking points or circle jerks. Real grassroots initiatives have taken hold as well. Liveblogging has created a level of access and specificity of content that otherwise would be lost to a lot of folks who either cannot or would not attend functions. While sponsored posts are blasted right in front of people's eyes there can also be a plethora of crowdsourced content to compete. In this way the corporate giant can be matched post for post and even drowned out.  Events can also be organized and countless people invited with the click of a button. While this comes with the danger of dilution (I am much less likely to come to an event that someone simply mass invited me to on Facebook than I would be if they called me or sent me a physical invitation. Also, there are SO many events that it is hard to separate the worthwhile ones from the superfluous), it also offers a way to spread the word quickly. Two examples come to mind: The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

The Arab Spring erupted in a blaze of glory so quickly it was hard to keep up. It happened so quickly in large part due to the accessibility and efficiency of social media. For my purposes here I am going to focus on Egypt because I am a little more familiar with what happened there than I am in Tunisia, Bahrain, or Turkey among the many others.

The problems that were endemic in Egyptian society that led to the events of the Arab Spring there were not new. People were being detained, beaten, and oppressed at the hands of a bloody regime for decades before the Movement blossomed. Everyone knew about the abuse, but no one really talked about it. A close Egyptian friend of mine once told me that it used to be essentially taboo to talk about politics. After all what could you do? Then the young people started sharing information on social media. The instant access and ability to share information created waves of education that translated into conversation. Eventually that conversation led to a desire for action, but how could you bring enough people together to make an effective demonstration of strength? Invite them.

Everyone who went down to Tahrir Square did not know each other. As a matter of fact before the great migration to the public space a lot of soon to be comrades would have considered themselves enemies. However, the equal space of the Network provided a platform to share a diversity of ideas that were accessible to all. The idea of resistance was poignant yet big enough to bring millions to the streets. Had the Network not existed then it would have been much more difficult to spread the word. Videos of abuse couldn't have as easily gone viral (because there would be no such thing as "viral"); state television would have shut the protest down; and dissenters would have been rounded up and beaten into submission like they always were before they even got to the Square, but social media made it possible to spread the message so far and so quickly that the government did not have the time, resources, or support to resist.  In the end the masses toppled a dictator all because folks shared an idea that they should resist in the streets and spread the word over the Network.

Secondly, I am a little more familiar with the US partner to the Movement: Occupy Wall Street. Similarly to the Egyptian situation the disease that had infected the American way and led to mass dissent was not new. However, something changed that gave the dissenters a new level of access to each other. There have been many leftist Movements in this country since its inception and even more resistors, but they were not able to reach people with the same audacity of speed that Occupy Wall Street did. It was not long before a couple of tents pitched in New York City became tents pitched across the US. Even the tents were an occupied and crowdsourced idea: Protestors in Spain and other parts of Europe had been occupying their city squares in solidarity with their Egyptian comrades against corruption long before they did on Wall Street. It seemed the whole world was rising up in a similar manner and very quickly. Why? Because we had access to one another and were able to freely share ideas quickly in a public equal space: the Network.

During phase 2 of the Movement—after the camps were demolished—we kept up with each other via social media as well. We started to use the same strategy we had used for the Movement as a whole for individual campaigns: 1) share information, 2) start a conversation, 3) crowdsource a plan, 4) create an invitation, and 5) take the streets. This worked so efficiently because folks did not need to be "activists" to organize or participate. They did not need to feel like they needed some specific knowledge. They simply felt connected because they followed the stories and showed up at events. They felt emboldened to express their rage because they knew that they had comrades long before the event even happened. They could see others supporting the ideas in the form of "likes" and "RSVPs".  Social media created access and a platform.

In the end though social media was the undoing of the Movement for which it breathed life. What started as a tool for a general call to dissent actually provided a platform for passivity. When it became difficult to function in the public forum in the real world due to the old allegiances and the camps being raided and dismantled we began to settle for online correspondence. Daily sit-ins became weekly marches which became monthly assemblies which became online petitions. Our initial surge was due to a volatile level of pressure that had been built up over decades that was made accessible by social media. As that pressure dissipated over time the powers that be were able to capitalize on our divisions and force us into irrelevance. Now a good deal of my friends who I was in the streets, banks, squares, and parks with everyday (myself included) find it satiating enough to share stories on social media in the hopes that the pressure will build up again.

My fear is that the ease of Network posting has become the new public commons and has become an acceptable alternative for public dialogue because, again, very rarely do we engage with those whom we disagree. Social media algorithms do not exist in a vacuum. They are designed by corporations to maximum profits by maximizing exposure. No matter how many "friends" we may have or how many Nodes we are connected to people do not generally like their senses bombarded with principles and ideas that they fundamentally disagree with. Therefore, the Network gives you want: validation of your ideas. We supplement our circle jerk by giving them a hand; we surround ourselves with those who agree with us and pretend like that's building a community. We seem content to be validated. Therefore, the potential for bringing people into the street is pacified by the Network's ability to keep you in your seat.

It has been said that it is a shoddy workman that blames their tools and I have no doubt that social media is one of the greatest tools ever invented for organizing, but, again, it comes at a cost. It seems to have become for the marginally-involved an acceptable alternative for the gritty and grueling real world task of making the world a better place. In this way, the Great Equalizer has become the Great Pacifier.

I was going to end there, but I left out a crucial part of the story and I want to give organizing on social media a fair treatment. It also helped enable one of the most efficient and robust disaster responses in recent memory: Occupy Sandy. Superstorm Sandy—as it has come to be called—was a disaster that no one saw coming. The rising waters and flooding that swept through New York, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut were far more severe than anyone thought they would be. Hundreds and thousands of people quickly found themselves without homes, electricity, or hope. It happened so totally and quickly that the official disaster response ("Big Response") was not able to keep up. Thankfully, a lot of the lessons that had been learned about how to use social media were able to be utilized.

Within minutes and hours organizers were able to connect to each other and share information about affected areas and needs so that they could start a conversation about how to organize relief hubs for supplies to be delivered and volunteers directed to dispatch. They horizontally crowdsourced a plan and invited the world to join them. Within days the world was stepping up to help the East Coast while the Big Response was still trying to get its pants on. The connections that were able to be maintained within the Network and the access and efficiency of social media were a huge part of the reason Occupy Sandy in New York and New Jersey were able to succeed.

As you can see when social media is used quickly and efficiently in times of great need it is one of the most powerful tools on Earth. However, this power must be constantly checked because it also holds the potential to pacify dissent with the same efficiency that it ignites passions. Extreme access means extreme precautions must be taken to balance social media organizing with real-time "boots on-the-ground" efforts. Otherwise, dire situations that deserve attention may be diluted and lost in the sea of information that the Network contains.

(I should note that I was an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Social Media PART III: The Grand Validation

In PARTs 1 and 2 of my series on social media I examined the entertainment value as well as the potential consequences of an unchecked digital neural network that mirrors our own reality. In PART 3 I want to evaluate social medias role as our external processing agent.

I have always been fascinated by statuses and updates that appear to be nothing more than a person's thoughts put to a digital byline. From updates on what we are eating to a random thought such as "I love Neil DeGrasse Tyson" for some reason we feel that is a valuable exercise to put our thoughts onto digital paper. Why?

To examine this phenomenon I think we have to back up a bit and examine why we write anything down at all. The complex transmission of ideas in language is something that is far beyond my reach and is more of a subject for a philosophy student than a blog poster, but I figured why the hell not take a crack at it.

Written communication is a relatively new thing (as far as we know). Even going back thousands of years to the emergence of cave paintings, hieroglyphs, and the proto-sinaitic alphabet we are still dealing with very rudimentary (and theoretical) forms of communication. Trying to convey an idea from one person to another varies in degrees of difficulty based on the complexity of an idea. If I am trying to convey to you "I am here" then I can simply point to myself and then point to the ground. You may misinterpret what I am intended to convey; you may think that I am pointing to my shirt, my chest, or my heart, but you understand that I have a signifier (me who is trying to do the communicating) and a signified (that which I am trying to convey to you). However, the more complex the idea gets the harder it is to communicate.

If I tried to explain to you what I mean by the word "art" we would do well to pour two glasses of scotch, sit down by a fire, and prepare for a long conversation. Mental constructs that do not have tangible points of reference require a great amount of information about the signified from the signifier just to begin to convey what it is someone is talking about. For many this will all seem to be basic information, but I think that it is important at the outset to define what I mean by "communication" before I attempt to figure out what we are trying to communicate when we post our thoughts on social media and why.

If we assume that that brain works by firing patterns in our neurons and synapses as we explored in PART 1 then it should be safe to assume that whether the idea is simple like sharing a location or complex like "art" a person seems to be attempting to get patterns to repeat in the synapses of another person's brain. In short, we are trying to get someone else to think like us. Otherwise, what would be the point of communicating? We want each other to understand each other. The only way we can do this is with empathy. If we simply observe what someone is saying with no brain activity of our own then we are not interacting with that information and therefore not communication. If we understand an idea that someone is telling us then we are mimicking their brain pattern by caring about what they are trying to communicate. In short, we are trying to get others to mirror our own thoughts because we are trying to connect with them for good or ill.

This is where social media comes in. It functions as a utilitarian connection tool. Instead of getting one person to mirror our synapses we can throw our ideas out to tens, hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people at a time. Why? In the hopes that they will mirror our thoughts and empathize with us. Now, why do we need and/or want so many people to mirror us?

At some level I think we have to admit to the "look at me" factor. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if we don't count the posting of news, PSAs, or entertainment (since we covered those in PART 2) and only focus on what would normally be either internal or external thoughts (depending on your personality type) then I think you have to ask yourself: why do I feel the need to tell people this?  I think, again, its for the validation. If I post what I made for dinner, what I think of a politician, or a question I have about the sky being blue and I get a lot of "likes" then I can feel legitimized in my opinion because people have empathized with me. They have felt enjoyment, puzzlement, or wonder the same way I have. I have succeeded in connecting with them.

The "likes", hearts, +1s and all the other designations of validation and approval are also interesting because they seem to function as the great democratizer of content in the Network. Traditionally (in the post-industrial west at least), popularity has been based on how much money an idea or product could generate. Whether it be newspapers, books, songs, elections, or even ideas themselves they were propagated based on their ability to generate revenue. Outlandish products and ideas such as x-ray vision spectacles or the idea that dinosaurs were human pets have been lost to obscurity because they were irrelevant to people's lives and therefore people had no reason to buy the glasses or the books espousing the theories. With the advent of social media this changed for better or for worse.

No longer does a product or idea need to be bought in order to be culturally relevant. Things can go viral these days based on the number of interactions they generate. Social media companies know this and have tailored their algorithms to post more prominently those things that get more attention. Case in point: trending topics.

There are positive and negative repercussions to the great democratization of information. In election years social media is fantastic for pointing out what issues or politicians people are talking about (let me for the sake of this particular conversation set aside the fact that the digital space these politicians are occupying was bought by the corporate interest). However, it also makes it possible for ridiculous and irrelevant stories such as Justin Bieber's DUI arrest to become national news at the expense of real news. The fact that I (your author) even know about that story when I couldn't give two shits about Bieber is a testament to the power of the great democratization.

Externalizing thoughts can be powerful because social media can reach far many more people with an idea or a product for free than a person could manage on their own, but it also allows for the great dilution of content because the popular becomes the meaningful. Also, with the advent of ads on the pages of "free" social media sites (for you younger folks: this was not always the case) those who have the money can pay for their content to be sponsored and prioritized. Whoever has the gold makes the rules, even in a digital democracy.

At the end of the day I think we post our ideas, work, products, and any other personal information because we want it (or us) to get noticed. We (signifier) ball up big piles of information and complex ideas (signified) and toss it out into the vast Network in the hopes that folks will gravitate toward it, like it, and democratically make it relevant (or trending or viral). The problem is that when you remove the personal touch (or nonverbal communication signs) then some of the complexity of certain ideas can be lost. Sure, "I had Grandma's Best Apple Pie and it was the best" isn't going to lose a lot in translation, but "Abortion is wrong! Outlaw it!" is definitely going to be misheard, misinterpreted, and misappropriated. Instead of creating the potential for democratizing the idea the POSTer of the latter will have guaranteed nothing but the coddling affirmation of those whom agree with them and have instantly destroyed the potential for dialogue before it has begun. Throw on top of that paid-for algorithms and social media creates more clubs than conversations.

Is this process inherently good or bad? No, but it—like everything—comes at a cost. The great democratization of external thoughts comes with the price tag of the private. For those with the gold it is an easy process: capitalize on the fame and no matter the value of your content it will be shared, democratized, popularized, and made relevant. For the rest of us we end up sharing far more of our private thoughts than we may otherwise be inclined to do in the search for validation. POSTs do not exist in a void. Each one is a point in a timeline of POSTs that is aimed at maximum exposure. If a person POSTs once every six months their audience will not be inclined to pay attention. Therefore, the avid Node will POST far more often in order to develop a regular audience so that their content will be more likely to be democratically raised in relevance and therefore their ideas more validated and therefore they themselves more connected and empathized with.

We externalize on social media because we want to be heard and since all the parks are being paved into parking lots it seems like our only avenue.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Social Media PART II: The Opiate Of The Masses

In PART I of my five part series on social media I explored a possible end of social media (SM) that may have sounded a bit like science fiction. In PARTs 2-4 I want to explore the process instead of the product.

PART 1: The Matrix :: PARTs 2-4 : The "Real World"

Social media has such a broad based appeal from the middle school student to the older generations in large part because of its entertainment value. Who among us who is plugged into the Network has not been bored and instinctually reached for their nearest SM app or website? It's nothing new. We have had similar screened interventions into our boredom for decades. Before the TV and the Internet we had radio. Before that we had books. Humans seemed to be hard-wired to distract ourselves from the world around us. However, books and radio never seemed quite as addictive as TV and TV not as much as SM. SM it seems to me is like digital nicotine. Why? PART 2 is about its entertainment value.

If you have ever been addicted to cigarettes as I once was then you know the insatiable longing or draw to satisfy your lusts. It is as if a void exists within you that can only be filled with your vice. SM seems to work the same way. For some reason we cannot seem to pick up the ol' digital mainframe for a scheduled and limited amount of time. Whenever we sign out or close the tab there is a nagging feeling like we are missing something. It's like FOMO (fear of missing out) to the nth degree. Why? The attainment and illusion of enrichment.

There used to be this concept in society known as a secret. For those of you who aren't familiar these secrets were bits (no pun intended) of information that only you and sometimes those closest to you were privy to. For example, if you knew how to make Grandma's secret World's Best Apple Pie then you kept it to yourself. Only you and a select few others knew how to make the best pie in town. Now, if Grandma gives you that recipe would you not be inclined to share it with everyone else? Why does Joe Met-At-A-Party-Once deserve to know your family's time tested tradition? For the "likes"? Another example of a secret is when you found that hole in the wall restaurant that had the best happy hour that quickly became your favorite restaurant. These days, it quickly becomes everybody's favorite. Such experiences are not secrets anymore because they are instantly shared and consequently instantly diluted.

Is all of this sharing bad? Not necessarily. Most of our mamas and papas told us that sharing was good. C.S. Lewis once said that praise not merely expresses, but completes enjoyment. Though it comes with a cost, by sharing we are fulfilling our enjoyment of the pie and the restaurant by giving it to our Network and consequently the world.

The flip side is true too. How many times have we made Grandma's World's Best Apple Pie or visited Jody's new favorite hole in the wall only to find them to be our new favorite pie and restaurant? How many new artists have we found that we had never heard of before? How many of our days have been brightened by Colonel Meow or the endless list of other cat memes? The list of enriching experiences goes on and on. But what has been shared with your network becomes the property of The Network.

For the avid social media enthusiast their network is earned by the quality of their posts. Some are judged by their "likes" and others by their frequency. Either way information is popularized based on algorithms of engagement. However, the "look at me" factor always exists. It is as if we molded a digital ball of information and tossed it into the ether to be suspended, viewed, and reviewed at the leisure of our "friends" while we wait around to be validated for our work. However, sometimes we want a return on our investment.

 In my time as a Node[1] I have noticed that folks tend to throw information out into the Network that they hope will yield a return. Social media is a great outlet for public service announcements. I have seen individuals post "missing bills" for children and pets, weather advisories, school closings, environmental impact studies, and a host of other informational material that the poster is hoping that other Nodes in their Network will connect to. I have often wondered why there has been such a spike in this use of SM as a bulletin board for PSAs. Has online posting become a substitute for civic engagement? No doubt one could just turn on the TV for dire public information, but it seems that SM has democratized what is viewed as important. No longer does the Corporation or newsroom producers decide what is put before your eyes. You decide based on who is in your Network. I don't know whether posting has become a substitute for other forms of sharing information that the public needs to know, but it is certainly an easy way to do it. However, this ease comes at a cost. When information is democratized then the floodgates are broken and critical information gets garbled in with the white noise. The missing child is just another post below the cat video and the recipe for Grandma's pie.

Lastly, I would not be doing the entertainment aspect of SM justice if I did not include a few words on conflict. The great democratization of public information comes with a blessing and a curse. The blessing is access. Any person within a certain network can access a treasure trove of information that has been posted in that network. However, everyone that can view a post can comment on it and there is no cauldron for anger, tirades, and trolling like SM. We are all different people with different political and social views. As a matter of fact these views are often so complex that it would take several conversations with another person just to figure out what their views are, but the Network is structured such that a) you are put into a few boxes by certain categories and b) are given an impetus, incentive, and the freedom to comment on someone's views at face (or screen) value. You do not have to look someone in the face; You do not have to read their body language; And you can assume whatever you want about a person (often the worse given the volatile political climates we live in) without risking anything.[2] How many times have we seen someone lambast another person for their political views? How many names have you seen someone call someone else from behind the safety of their computer screens? How much pain has been caused from ex-lovers who take their revenge out on digital walls instead of confronting their emotions like real world adults? I have not even been privy to the SM profiles of younger kids. I can only imagine the cruelty. Bullying was bad enough when there was one bully in school because he was bigger than everybody else. When the Network levels the bullying playing field… God(s) have mercy. Our avatars are a lot more comfortable expressing their ids than our real world counterparts.

I began PART 2 by talking about cat pics, apple pie, and restaurant ratings before moving on to more sanguine topics like missing children, angry tirades of ex-lovers, and cyber bullying. You may ask: "Why? I thought this PART was about entertainment." It is—entertainment comes at a cost. While we may appreciate recipes, restaurants, and cute animals we are forgetting about the time in between. How many posts do you scroll through before you find that nugget of gold? How much time elapses before you cling on long enough to someone's post for it to enrich your life? How many posts do you make a day? Why? What are you gaining by it? My argument is distraction. Life is so hard and so complicated that we will jump at any opportunity to enrich our lives and/or forget about the days troubles. The problem is that enrichment is few and far in between. The rest of the time is spent in a mind-numbing brave new world of searching. We are spending our lives online waiting for a real world experience that will never come and parading our passions in the meantime.

Then there are the interactions. As a tool SM is one of the greatest inventions humanity has devised. It is the great flattener of personal access, but like entertainment access comes at a cost. We do not talk to people; we talk to Nodes. We do not look into someone's eyes; we look at their profile pics. And we do not treat them as complex individuals full of hopes, dreams, and fears; we treat them as another set of blinking lights to be liked or ignored. The results of these interactions can vary from respectful philosophical debate to downright hatred and vilification. And no matter the outcome the possibilities are addictive.

In PART 1 I argued that SM is creating a parallel world where we create ghosts or idealized avatars of ourselves that interact with each other in a web of connections that mimics a community. When we post a recipe, a review, or a tirade we are creating patterns (if not the neural pathways) of our digital selves in the hopes that they will be received and validated. When we review the posts of our "friends" I find that we are often absent-minded and scrolling. SM—it seems to me—is the 21st Century opiate of the masses. When we do engage on an open topic it is often with blind eyes and a mute heart. Whether our reactions are positive or negative they are not the full story. Like our ghosts our posts, "likes", and comments are mere shades of our inclinations and affections. Rarely do we engage in open and honest philosophical debate with those whom we disagree in the hopes of rounding out our perspectives with new information. Like the "real world" we mostly herd ourselves with like minds. Such is the very nature of Network building. SM is simply a way to quantify our experiences for our and others entertainment.

[1] By “Node” I mean a fixed point of origin in the Network that is defined by a personality. In short, it is a persons’ online self.
[2] I do want to acknowledge that there are extraordinary situations out there that I cannot know, understand, or empathize with that require special treatment and real world intervention, but for the purposes of this piece I am referring to those commonplace interactions between Nodes.