~pb

Nov 04, 2014

Why do I even Social Media?

I've been thinking more about my fragmented social media self and tugging on any of the threads there feels like pulling apart a giant sweater. The way I gather and share information online has been knit together with years of conscious and unconscious choices. Have they been good choices? That question is hard to answer so I skip ahead to the next question and I begin to question the entire enterprise. Does participating in Social Media make sense? In other words, do I really need this sweater or can I get by with a light jacket?

That's also difficult to answer and I start to think back to when I was in college and Very Serious™. I read a bunch of humanist junk and came away with a question that I still keep in mind today: If everyone behaved the way I do would the world be better or worse? Because if I'm not living an example of the best way I can think to live then what am I doing? Those questions are even harder to answer so I'll go read Twitter for a while.

I'm back. Like many in the Web Nerd tribe, I'm introverted and prefer mediated social interaction. I'd rather send an email than talk on the phone. I'd rather talk on the phone than meet in person. I like to get together with people in real life but it doesn't feel like the most natural way to socialize. This does not pass the if everyone behaved like me test. Humans evolved to communicate with each other in the same space using sounds, gestures, facial expressions, and body movements. The fact that we can learn to read and write with a phonetic alphabet is a neat trick, but it doesn't make much sense. Hell, agriculture doesn't make much sense. (Where is my sharpened rock?) What about Science, you say? What about laws? What about that humanist junk from the 40s that you read in the 90s? What about art and literature? Isn't text and media how we preserve and extend and protect and time-travel and empathize and build and understand and enjoy ourselves and educate? Well, yes.

I grew up addicted to TV. I watched TV as I went to sleep and then turned it on when I woke up. If I walked into a quiet room I turned on the TV. This changed for me somewhere in the Very Serious™ years as I nodded along with media critics like Neil Postman when he said:

"When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."

I nodded along with Debord, Boorstin, Baudrillard, and Bagdikian who all warned about the dangers of mass media to society. Not only trivialization, but corporate control, advertising, maximized conflict, passivity, monoculture, fear, and more! So intellectually I was on board the TV-is-bad-for-society train.

The whole time I was nodding along about TV I had this other medium to turn to that was kind of like TV and kind of like books but more interactive. You could connect directly with other people; no corporate gatekeepers. Substance! Nuance! Context! Gift economy! Sharing! Direct sources of information! The perfect counter to the trivializing machine! I put up a website. I helped build tools to help other people put up websites. I felt like this was our chance to build something better than TV.

In practice, argh! Many of the same problems with TV plague the Web today. Social Media spaces are controlled by corporations, include advertising, thrive on conflict, trivialize. Social Media spaces also help us share knowledge, build empathy, preserve history, and entertain. So is it bad-for-society like I believe TV is? Social Media is now my proverbial TV when I wake up and go to sleep. It's the constant background hum of life. Am I living a bad example by consuming and feeding it regularly? Or can my participation help move it toward its best possible form?

Any sort of human interaction has the potential to cause harm. It seems like a good idea to try to minimize that harm where we can. I often picture my interaction with the world like dropping a pebble into a calm lake. If I'm thoughtful about how I do it I can get nice concentric circles on the surface of the water. If I just chuck the rock in I get a more haphazard pattern. To me, Social Media feels like we're all chucking rocks into the water and I'm not sure we can move to something more thoughtful.

Something Justin Hall said at the end of his XOXO talk a while ago makes me optimistic. He said we're all scientists of our own lives and the Web allows us to share our data and learn from each other. Even with its faults, Social Media is a place where sharing our data can happen.

In conclusion, I'll keep knitting the best sweater I can.