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 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. 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.
 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.
 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.