I remember the first time I was old enough to understand what a U.S. presidential election is. I think I was in the first grade. People talked to us about it in school and I asked my parents about it or otherwise obtained enough information about the election to know that the ballots were being counted overnight and that the winner of the election would be revealed in the morning news.
I remember I woke up a little bit early in the morning as if for a holiday, and, eager to feel like a participant in the world, I went and slid down the stairs to the kitchen. Literally slid down, whee bump-bump, in something of a celebratory fashion; I was excited to go to the kitchen and look at the newspaper and see who the headline said had won.
Can you imagine that today; waiting overnight as if for Christmas for news? Waking up in the morning and rushing to your doorstep to check the newspaper? Whenever anything happens now you learn about it through your phone. I saw pictures online of a baseball stadium full of people staring at their phones all at the same time because they were learning about the death of Osama bin Laden on Twitter and getting and sending texts from their friends about it.
But then you might think it’s kind of awesome that humanity owns a communal ‘bulletin board’ that can be the house of communal thought and blah blah instantaneous connectivity. Which, like, yeah, that’s good.
Think of it this way, though; I’m not the only person typing shit on the internet right now. Millions of people are typing stuff, they are typing about what they did in Sonoma or they are having karaoke with people you may or may not know or you are learning about world issues ‘firsthand’ via Twitter. The fact such a platform exists inherently shifts the culture from observant participation to ‘lean-forward’ engagement, which on a micro- level is pretty rad but on a macro-level is having a disturbing transformative effect on the way human beings conceptualize social behavior.
Part of you is reading this article and part of you is wondering whether you want to type a comment and what you will type or whether you will switch to another browser tab. You are thinking about how you are going to react to this article and you’re not even finished with it yet. What the fuck is wrong with you; social media is what is wrong with you.
We have all shifted from being observers to being reporters. When something cool is happening we are not looking at or listening to it, we are tweeting about it or taking pictures of it for our Facebook or texting people who are not there. This is like a blah blah participatory shared whatever but it also means that we operate in a perpetual state of divided attention. The beautiful moment where you read a headline all by yourself, watch a broadcast with a loved one and absorb it together – no more. Now that you have the opportunity to wonder what everyone else is doing and saying around an event and the urge to add your own ‘two cents’ lest be excluded from the momentous group accounting of whatever it is that is happening. Even among your own social circle, your ‘small news’ – someone says something funny and before you are even done laughing you are reaching for the phone, going ‘I want to tweet this, can I tweet this.’
Also, incidentally, you’re not a fucking reporter. There are people who’s job that is. People seem to get really pissed whenever anyone suggests that the idea of a ‘democracy of content’ is not really the best thing ever, because of course it, like has to be the best thing ever! You said ‘democracy’! You said ‘equal opportunity platform’! We’re destroying the elitist old media hierarchy blah blah blah, everyone with access to the platform is equally qualified to inform et cetera we are disarming the power centers, possibly ‘saving Iran’ or whatever people are telling college students in their ‘new media studies’ courses.
Maybe you would feel slightly less pissed off if ‘using the platform doesn’t automatically qualify the voice’ were suggested to you in a different context. Back to the death of Osama bin Laden; you all passed around that fake MLK quote like contagious disease. You did that because you got it from a trusted source, like a friend in your Facebook newsfeed, even though you didn’t know where they got it and you didn’t even think to double-check. And now you look stupid. This is what social media is doing to you.
If you want to get depressed about humanity click on any one of Twitter’s trending ‘theme’ hashtags at any given time and learn about people who freely discuss ‘gay shit’ and ‘U Fuken My Homegurl’, as well as men who distinctly prefer women who are ‘light skinneded, with a whole lotta ass and get right wit it [sic].’
But that Twitter or any internet platform exposes any given user to the worst of the rest of its users is not a particularly new or exciting principle; like dealing with anyone and anything on the internet, a nebulous sea of assholes is a customary hazard of going online. And the major hazard of social media is not even that it empowers unqualified opinions or occasionally causes people to spread false information [as, admittedly, its facility for rapidly disseminating grassroots or ‘guerilla’ information is estimable].
It’s that although human beings are encouraged to self-identify in ways that can sort of float independently of external validation, most of us define ourselves at least in part by our relationships to other people; if you want to get mad Freudian you can talk about the ego and how one’s self-image is created by reflecting oneself off of other people and blah blah blah. This primordial mode of human self-identification never accounted for the internet and now shit is all going to hell. I am, you are, the internet is just ass murdering our entire psychic whatever.
When everything you say is subject to instantaneous feedback from hundreds, potentially thousands of people, your ability to assemble a healthful concept of who you are degrades. When you aren’t able to meaningfully elect or control the audience to whom you’re speaking, you’re forced to neutralize your self-expression until it’s so tepid it’s no longer you, just to ensure you are appropriately tailored toward all of the individuals to whom you may or may not be speaking. And if you don’t, you risk being subject to instantaneous reactionary censure. From people you hardly know; from strangers who would like to edit your textual output. You shout into the abyss; the abyss fucking shouts back.
Wait a minute, you’re saying, this doesn’t happen, it’s only an issue for people who have moderate or large Twitter followings. I lately wrote somewhere about how I felt overwhelmed by the internet’s opportunity to say whatever it wanted to me whenever it wanted; I said that sometimes I despised comments, because I hit a ‘publish’ button because it’s part of my job, not because I want everyone to say nice shit about what I write or because I am ‘soliciting feedback’ or am in the mood to have a big fucking discussion on it; the very idea that everything I make is automatically inviting response is sometimes bothersome.
And someone commented on that thing I wrote, saying it sounded like I was complaining about being popular, and that they’d totally love to have a lot more commenters or a bigger Twitter following if they were me. That person was one of hundreds of thousands of people actively trying to drum up a larger internet presence, actively throwing themselves into the oncoming bus of other people’s ‘feedback.’
All people are defined by the approval, response and input of others in their society, but thanks to social media, individuals can beg to be defined by the digital screams of strangers, of nobodies. They do; they want to. Developing an ‘internet presence’ is part of teenage self-actualization and independence-assertion now. It’s fucked.
I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is reach for my phone; I sift through the notifications; who ‘Likes’ my pictures? Who has replied to me, mentioned me? I am hooked on the feedback drip. Increasingly I feel less sure of myself in real conversations; I can’t read faces. Real people are a blank mirror. I clutch the cold glass brick of my hand in my palm to feel better. I look at Twitter as if I want to make sure I am still ‘there.’ I mean, I’m being a little melodramatic. But only a little.
Sometimes late at night when I’m drinking something in me rejects this. It screams out like a performing zoo animal that has suddenly remembered it’s feral. I type something into Twitter and delete it; I type things into Facebook and re-read them and delete them. It feels insane, these stark, aggressive things I type, this rebellious jerking of the head.
And even though I always delete the things right away it’s never fast enough. I ask a complex, sensitive question about something that requires specific knowledge and I can never get rid of it before I have 10 people giving tentative half-answer suggestions followed by ‘…?’. I don’t know if they hope they are right so they can help me or if they just want to be heard so badly they don’t care. Or even worse than people who rush to answer a question without knowing the answer: authoritative statements, confident advice, overtly wrong. Seas of it.
Anger escalates. You shout manic abuse into the aether and someone answers, ‘You’re amazing, love you.’ You don’t know who; no idea in the world.