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: none at all. Back then, between panhandling for snacks and choking on cheap molten mozzarella, we'd ramble on about who had more hair on their legs and what was cool. Somehow, now, as adults, we're doing the same thing. A piece of trivia walks onto this new, massive stage and under the excuse of something between good fun and dignified dialog we all start yelling, subconsciously concerned with nothing other than being heard and the applause of our tribe.
Is a post on NFL protests a good use of anyone's time? Here are the 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 all end up thinking 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 or gape at. Keep it rolling and pass the popcorn, please.
When there isn't a shared narrative, when there isn't a 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 constantly face down in the gutter, drowning in our own mental dumpster-water, hunched over, bloodshot and exhausted, aimless. A break to sleep, then back to being insect-eyed.
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 disgusting. It's that sticky feeling in your mouth after too much sugar.
I get heart burn every time I hear the stupid, two-word phrase -- social media -- prepared to listen to some regurgitated analysis about filter bubbles, fake news, or superficiality. The worst trope: 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 and the rest of 'em are cigarettes without the movie cool or the headrush. They're cultural cancer. Coincidentally, nowadays, we use both outside of bars and after sex, but 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 this 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 observing culture and participating in it.
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 her entire life? Or better, if you already know exactly what category of person he is? Why go to the coffee shop or open mic, or say hello to a stranger on the street if you've already got the zeitgeist's cliffnotes from Reddit or The Drudge Report or your Newsfeed? Why have an opinion at all when gospel is just a Google search away? Think of all the potentially uncomfortable situations and all the wasted time that can be avoided! With a curated social experience on tap, in your pocket, there's no need to risk it. Sit back and watch, effortlessly. All the more opportunity for work, netflix, and wondering why you're awake staring at the ceiling at 4:17 in the morning. But at least I didn't have to sit through a (potentially) awkward date!
Well, maybe the anxiety felt over these foregone face-to-face moments had a purpose. Maybe it let you know a situation was risky, but also that it had the potential to pay out. Maybe bad and good are what orient us, maybe they're what prune life from something raw and harsh into something beautiful, into something worth suffering to feel. Instead, now, we've already seen everything that's ever been and will be awesome, and so nothing is awesome; and we already know what most people are about before meeting them, and so no one is worth meeting. 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 opinions, into the void, all at once 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, your little cousin's football games, and the occasional high score on Candy Crush. Fresh, arbitrary information gets thrown on top of this mess daily, and it's like watching a dozen cats fall into a locked bathroom's brimming bathtub. Or better, it's like watching your house burn down: you can't look away -- the fire is mesmerizing -- but your life is being fucked up right in front of you. Is any of this productive? Can this process ever be productive? Can it remain interesting for long? Can anyone pull a meaningful story -- i.e. accurately and fully 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, the American Beauty rose bushes declaring, "my life is going great, thanks for (not) asking". But it's lonelier. More disconnected. Back then when you moved in you got a fruit cake delivered by a flesh-and-blood neighbor. Now our greatest moments, big and small, are sugar coated and sold to one another as postcards, shallowly and anonymously confirmed by a double-tap, view count, or smiling emoji. Compare that to tens of thousands of years of evolution-honed body language, etc.. The result is that our collective conscious is starved for depth, blistered and withered as our habit slowly boils on and intensifies.
Or otherwise still, there's Twitter, which has never been anything but a stupid idea. "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." Email, forums, and AOL chat rooms were all better than Twitter, but, in more ways than one, Twitter threw out Paul Rand's solutions for Web 2.0 iterations. Move fast and break things. It's a Brave New World. Game over, we win. That's 21st Century progress.
Critics of the above mention that these new technologies allow us to stay in touch with people when they're far away or constrained by time. Two points to make: (1) does that have anything to do with what I've said here? Does "keeping in touch" mean we have to be vain, shallow, shortsighted, and constantly, mindlessly engaged with everyone we know, about every topic that happens to be in fashion that week? And (2) do these tools even do what the they're claiming: solve the unavoidable problem of being apart from some of the people we care about? Does a lover living an ocean away become easier to deal with now that I can see a picture of her morning croissant while swiping through every other yahoo's mindless publications? Saying you're closer -- more accurately, close enough -- because of Facebook is like saying a drugstore-printed Christmas card of your dog dressed as an elf is as good as a Thanksgiving dinner at a full table. Duct-tape didn't help the Titanic. Stop making excuses.
Speaking of excuses, I'm 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 Thumbs Up. I post all kinds of vain nonsense. I meticulously prune photos, mentally weighing all the ways they might be interpreted, how they might benefit my reputation. I'm a sycophant, desperate for celebrity-like recognition and obsessed with plastic. I judge and criticize topics I know nothing about. In other words, this essay is as much reflection as observation. I need help.
Here it is in summary: social media is part of an insidious retreat from hot-blooded, nuanced, mutually-lived culture into a cynical, simplified world of information; information that's jarringly incohesive when looked at all together and cookie-cutter when looked at through any one tunnel-visioned lens. We make this sacrifice of soul for simulation in ignorance, walking away with some dopey, voyeuristic well of entertainment, and an 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 what it is to live, why it is we do it and to acting out the answers; to having communal, spiritual fulfillment and making actual progress. We went to the moon once. Has that become such a cliche that we can't take it seriously? People flew through space for three days on an over sized tea-kettle powered by a bomb controlled by a t1-83 calculator so that they could walk on an airless grey rock... for the hell of it? To throw shade on the Russians? To do something amazing and great. Imagine being Neil Armstrong. Amelia Earhart also comes to mind. Really. Actually imagine it.
(Don't keep reading, use your imagination, Christopher Robin. Come back in 5 minutes. Tomorrow you take off into the unknown wearing a pressurized diaper, helmet, and obviously giant jock strap. What got you to that point? What are you thinking now?)
What kind of social structures -- world-wide right down to the family -- had to exist, all at once, to produce an opportunity like Apollo 11 and a guy willing to take it? These people 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 different scales. We can start small, in our individual lives and neighborhoods, and 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 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, driven to find meaningful uses for technology, driven to prioritize information by its utility rather than how good it feels, and, while we did that, dedicated to cutting out of our lives what's already been proven corrupt. Matter of fact, I think this is already happening. We're beginning to realize, connecting previously transparent dots.
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 era? 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.