December 29, 2013

We Are What We Post

We write. We post. We share. We comment.


To think. To participate. To support. To remember. To smile together. To laugh. To interact. To discover. To forge connections. To share ideas. And ideals. To collect little tidbits of truth in our search for meaning. To take someone’s thought, and twist it a bit, layer something new on top of it, and cross-apply it to another thing. To synthesize. To build bonds. To create something from the nothing.

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We live in an unprecedented era of communication. The Internet and social media have given each of us the ability not only to consume massive swaths of information but also to actively and interactively participate in the dialogue ourselves. We have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips– history, music, science, movies, literature, the best drinking spots in Playa del Carmen. And we can share the moments of our own lives and peer through a window into those of our friends far and wide – in pictures, in videos, in thoughts and ideas – all with the click of a button.

My Twitter feed embodies this. At any time of day or night, you can scroll through this ever-changing up-to-the-millisecond list of thousands upon thousands of people’s thoughts, blog posts, articles, and videos. Consume to your hearts content. Share other people’s thoughts. Add your own voice. Spread ideas. Connect with people you know. Or don’t know.

But the promise of the Internet to raise us all up, to be the great unifier, flattener, democratizer, and educator has fallen short. In retrospect, the reason for this is simple:

The Internet is a network of us.

It is limited by us; by who we are.

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And just who are we?

Well, its not all that pretty, my friends.

For starters, we are the people whose top most searched items in 2013 included “twerking,” “Miley Cyrus,” and the Kardashians.  So while all of civilization’s knowledge is there to be had, we’re generally not looking for it.

We often emphasize our differences rather than our commonalities. The proliferation of news channels and Internet sources has not led to a more open world, but a narrower one. We self-select the news and feeds that most align with our point of view. On Facebook, on Twitter, on the cable news shows we watch. With no need to provide a balanced point of view and with ratings fueled by the opposite, Fox News and CNBC each cater to their own. The result is a world that is more politically polarized than ever.

As a corollary, we also are engaging in less dialogue than ever. A recent Atlantic Monthly Magazine article, entitled Saving the Lost Art of Conversation, lamented that all this technology has created much talking – we are all talking at each other – but what we are losing is the art of conversation, of true dialogue: “We’re talking all the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than it’s ever been. The problem . . . is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. We’re talking at each other rather than with each other.”

And we can be mean and nasty and spiteful. Every time I walk through Penn Station at rush hour, I become more and more convinced that people intend to, choose to, and in fact enjoy dropping that shoulder into a passerby in the crowded station. It’s a purposeful taking out of some aggression and angst.

And this mean streak is even more pronounced online. We have a tendency to be snippy and snarky. There is an odd thrill and energy from expressing aggressive outrage in clever little bit sized bits. I’m guilty of it myself.  You probably are too. That feeling you get after concocting a clever bit of snarkyness is undeniably satisfying. And the scratch-the-itch feeling grows as the Likes and ReTweets accumulate.

All over, the tone of posts and comments and interactions often tends towards one of snarkyness more so than civilized discourse. Discourse is boring. It requires a deeper look and an attention span than runs contrary to the way that we are interacting online.

Even worse, anonymous Internet message-boards and the comment spaces after articles brim with vitriolic speech. There is a virtual piling on in response to behaviors or thoughts or politics with which one disagrees. Twitter can be a launching pad for broadcasting hateful small-minded attacks, which sometimes cascade into what feels like the digital equivalent of an angry lynch mob. (“The immediacy and fast pace of the Internet can be magical. But when someone makes a comment that the masses disagree with, a mob with 140-character pitchforks can develop in seconds and the Internet can become terrifyingly bellicose.”)  Case in point, the “Justine Sacco Twitter Incident” and the “reporting” of it by the Internet “news” outlets.

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Are we so base, so ugly, so mean, and so cruel? Or is it the medium itself; some network effect where giving everyone a voice and the ability to quickly spread messages sends us racing to the bottom?

Can we blame the medium? When the Internet is merely a network made up of all of us, it seems tough to do. But today’s technologies do provide a platform for publication and dissemination of ideas that can accelerate and magnify our behaviors, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.

The Internet as a prism for focusing mob tendencies and rapidly spreading their virulence is a scary thing. The Internet as a snark amplifier – elevating the art of the clever takedown over dialogue – is a sad thing.

It’s a glimpse of the monster. And it is us.
It should take us aback and give us pause.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Part of my intention for this year is to be less angry, but a microcosm of that is to be less reactive -- especially on the internet.