Social media is a middle school cafeteria.
It's got the same focus, the same range of maturity, and the same level of applied, thorough attention, which is to say none. A piece of gossip or trivia enters the arena and, under the guise of something between good fun and dignified dialog, we all start cheering with regard for nothing other than being heard.
Is a post on NFL protests a good use of anyone's time? 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 the latter, and we're all agreed 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, not having even identified, let alone found consensus on, any foundational issue.
When there isn't a shared narrative, when there isn't a personal sense of contribution toward a unified, meaningful, dawn-till-dusk goal, then sensationalism rules and one spectacle bows to the next. The cycle continues and the feedback loop intensifies.
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. But now we 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 drowning ourselves, constantly submerged in our own mental excrement, hunched over, bloodshot and exhausted, aimless.
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 focused follow-through. Now we restlessly thrash.
Forget television for a second, social media is especially festered.
The term has become vulgar. I deflate every time I hear that stupid, two-word phrase, prepared to listen to some regurgitated impotent analysis about filter bubbles, fake news, or superficiality. The worst cliche: a wide-eyed pitch for the next dumbest startup.
We're going to do Tinder but limited to 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?
Sure, let me call Mark Cuban and also kill myself real quick.
Facebook, et al., is a cigarette without the movie cool or the headrush. It's cultural cancer. Coincidentally, nowadays we use both outside of bars and after sex, albeit to a different effect. 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 an all-in-one personalized information buffet worth the subscription fee?
There are other problems with this stuff, too, like:
To watch and to play are not the same thing. There's a difference between cultural participation and observation.
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 his entire life? Why go to the coffee shop, or open mic, or say hello to a stranger on the street if you've got the zeitgeist's cliffnotes delivered continuously via Reddit or The Drudge Report or your Newsfeed? Why have an opinion at all when canon is just a Google search away? Think of all the potentially unpleasant, uncomfortable situations that can be avoided! With social experience, on tap, in your pocket, there's no need to risk it. Sit back and watch, effortlessly, anxiety-free.
Well, maybe that anxiety had a purpose. Maybe it let you know the situation was risky, but also that it had the potential to pay out. Maybe experiencing both bad and good is what prunes life from something raw and harsh into something beautiful, into something worth suffering to experience. Instead, now, we've already seen everything that's ever been and will be beautiful, and we already know what most people are about before meeting them. 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. These machines make the world less serious, less intense.
Another problem: stories and information are not the same thing. Stories have trajectory, they contain 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 ex-girlfriend are now all in the same room, at the same time, all and every day; and they're yelling their disjointed opinions, into the void, 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, and your little cousin's football games. New arbitrary information gets seeded into this mess daily, and it's like watching a dozen cats fall into a locked bathroom's brimming bathtub. Is the outcome of any interaction in such a setting likely to be productive or interesting? Can anyone pull a meaningful story -- i.e. accurately and comprehensively describe a conflict and present a practical solution -- out this rat's nest? 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, and American Beauty rose bushes declaring, "my life is going great, thanks for (not) asking". But it's lonelier. More disconnected. Back then you got a fruit cake when you moved in. Now our greatest moments, big and small, are sugar coated and sold to one another as postcards. Our collective conscious is starved for depth, blistered and withered as the habit slowly boils on and intensifies.
Or otherwise still, there's Twitter, which has never been anything but a stupid idea.
I'm incontrovertibly 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 like. I post all kinds of vain nonsense. I meticulously prune photos, mentally weighing all the permutations of how they might be interpreted, how they might benefit my reputation. I'm a sycophant, desperate for celebrity-like recognition and obsessed with the plastic. I judge and criticize topics I know nothing about. I need help, and so this essay is as much reflection as observation.
Here it is in summary: social media is part of, if not the vanguard of, a long-in-the-making insidious retreat from hot-blooded, nuanced, mutually-lived culture; into a cynical, simplified world of information, incohesive-in-the-aggregate, homogenized-in-the-specific. And we make this sacrifice of soul for simulation, voluntarily, in ignorance, walking away with some dopey, voyeuristic well of entertainment; and an illusory, shallow, 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.
We can move on from this decadence back to substance and to depth and to vivid existence; to talking about the great questions of livelihood and purpose, and to acting out the answers; to having communal, spiritual fulfillment and going to the goddamn moon. Imagine being Neil Armstrong. What kind of structures, world-wide down to the familial, had to exist, all at once, to produce an opportunity like Apollo 11 and a guy willing to take it? Amelia Earhart also comes to mind. They 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 manners of scale. We can start small, in our individual lives and neighborhoods, and incrementally 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 I believe that group includes more than just me.
Imagine if this gained momentum, even in a minority. If instead of the one friend having a tantrum, quitting and burning out into obscurity or eventual relapse -- like I'm likely perceived to be doing now, and perhaps rightfully so -- if instead it was a movement. If we came together, luddites in arms, compelled to find responsible ways to use technology and to prioritize information by its utility, rather than its ability to stimulate, but in the meantime dedicated to the cutting out of what's already been proven corrupt.
Does your dream of the future include all these screens? Don't we all 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 watch YouTube and its more obscene siblings? Don't we want that for ourselves? Don't we imagine maturing past this fashion? 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.