Social media dominates life in the twenty-first century. Rich or poor, city-slicker or hillbilly, Left Coast dweller or red-state denizen of the heartland, each of us (or at least anyone who has not tried to remove himself from ‘the grid’) likely owns a smartphone or computer that can access news and information from a vast digital network connecting millions of users who communicate with each other on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. In a matter of seconds, we can plug into the grid and watch videos, comment on posts, follow trends in the news, or simply track the life and times of friends and family. It is a world in which information travels from screen to screen at the speed of a screen click, and seems to put the world at our finger clicks.
There are few things in our twenty-first century life more addictive than the urge to whip out a phone or power up a computer and start scrolling through feeds. Social media is pervasive and it is immensely influential as a means of disseminating news and information. It is also a clear boon to the democratization of information. One need only look around and observe the ubiquity of smartphones to discover that socioeconomic status is no impediment to Internet access in the digital age. The Internet is here to stay, and other than a few obligatory Neo-Luddites and desperados who truly lack the means or desire, it is supremely egalitarian. The Internet and social media are not privileges. They have become almost as integral to our lives as food, clothing, and shelter (and, one might impishly add, entertainment).
But this egalitarianism is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be. Commenting on newspapers, social media’s nineteenth-century equivalent, the French author Alexis de Tocqueville observed: ‘The more conditions become equal, and the less men are individually strong, the more they easily let themselves go with the current of the crowd and have trouble holding alone an opinion that it has abandoned. The newspaper represents the association; one can say that it speaks to each of its readers in the name of all the others, and it carries them along the more easily as individuals are weaker.’
‘Echo chamber’ was not a turn of phrase that made its way into de Tocqueville’s signature work Democracy in America, but it well illustrates the concept he put forth. In a democratic society, de Tocqueville wrote, ‘…many men who have the desire or the need to associate cannot do it, because all being very small and lost in the crowd, they do not see each other and do not know where to find each other. Up comes a newspaper that exposes to their view the sentiment or the idea that had been presented to each of them simultaneously but separately. All are immediately directed toward that light, and those wandering spirits who had long sought each other in the shadows finally meet each other and unite.’
He might as well have been talking about the Internet, and in 2017, the echo chambers in which people get their news on social media. Like print newspapers in the nineteenth century, social media has become a ubiquitous medium for distributing news and opinion in the twenty-first century. Sure, print newspapers still exist, and it is still the case that one can walk into a grocery store and buy a newspaper. But in the era of social media, it seems far more likely that people read a story linked on a feed in their social media accounts. Access to news is a matter of clicking on a screen rather than taking a trip to the corner store. In either case, however, the same herding tendency exhibits itself, but instead of people carrying a newspaper under their arm on a train or steamboat, they carry a smartphone in their pockets which they can whip out at any moment, whether they are waiting to cross a crosswalk, sitting at a bus stop, taking a break at work, or sitting in a cubicle or office.
In the nineteenth century, a newspaper could measure the extent to which its stories struck a public nerve by observing the volume of sales. In the twenty-first century, a news story can measure the extent to which it strikes a public nerve by observing the number of shares and likes on social media. Public esteem may be a function of many things, but likes on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms is one surefire way to get ‘noticed’. Generating sufficient likes and shares to get noticed, however, is a matter of reading public sentiment accurately. Whether by luck or design, the ‘success’ of your idea or story depends on the extent to which the personal interest you have in an idea or story coincides with public interest.
Oscar Wilde said that ‘to be popular one must be a mediocrity’. This is open to interpretation, but one implication is that there is nothing special about hype. Celebrities might deserve credit for mastering their line of work, but the buzz surrounding their public persona is a smokescreen that says more about their need for public validation, and maybe also their unwillingness to flout social mores in order to protect a public identity rather than promoting and defending a unique and authentic private identity, however much it may conflict with the mores and habits of the status quo.
In other words, you are what people say you are.
The same can be said for the identity we cultivate on social media. When we post pictures or stories, we share with the world a piece of our lives. We share clips of how we spend our time. We share stories and videos that interest us. We voice our opinions. We communicate. As the example of print newspapers demonstrates, it is not unique that information percolates through society via a third-party medium. What is unique about social media is the instantaneous nature by which information permeates the social ether. It is not entirely unlike word of mouth in the past. But social media makes it available anywhere, anyplace, anytime. Not just words, but pictures and videos. Our addiction to information can be sated whenever we feel the urge to pull out our phones and tune in. And what we eventually tune into are not only the posts of our friends on Facebook or Instagram, but news that is ‘trending’, which inevitably means news that is generating hype, or mass interest: likes, shares, and comments.
It is unstoppable, and it can happen in a matter of minutes and hours. But while this has its advantages, it has its drawbacks as well. When I saw a recent YouTube video of an aspiring model who risked her life dangling from a tower in Dubai with the help of a male friend with sufficient strength and control over his perspiration to ensure she did not fall or slip, apparently as a ploy to generate Instagram likes, I was mesmerized, knowing that one slip and she would fall to her death. It was hard to believe this was real. I was appalled, thinking, this is what ambition has come to in the twenty-first century of social media. It’s all about the likes, and the lengths to which one is willing to go to get them.
Not just likes. Followers on Twitter. Search results on Google. Shares on Facebook. Whatever the measure, the issue is to trend. And trend hard. This is not unlike when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro manipulated the medium of television in a time when everyone in a household gathered around the television to watch the news, or when Franklin Delano Roosevelt captivated a nation with his fireside chats on the radio during Depression and War, or when getting into a print newspaper was a big deal in a time when newspapers were the primary means of spreading news. But there is an organic quality to social media buzz that differs from the past. With television, radio, and newspapers, centralized authorities make decisions about what to cover. These decisions are inevitably informed by research and knowledge about what will ‘sell’. But on social media there is a sense that a video or post or story can erupt like wildfire without the intervention of decision-making authorities, and can be profitably manipulated by authorities only after the fact (which is not to ignore, for example, that Facebook has been accused of tilting its news coverage to cater to a progressive audience, or that foreign hackers allegedly planted ‘fake news’ stories during the 2016 American presidential election). This may allow for spontaneous mutiny against the titans of media who once, like Walter Cronkite, held total sway over what you saw and heard about the wider world. But it does nothing to undermine the human proclivity to organize into conformist herds.
Stories trend for a reason. People like them. They may like them for any number of reasons. Some good, some bad. But public interest is no guarantee of intrinsic worth. Hype is an over-hyped measure of success. There is, in my view, no necessary correlation between the quality of a story, picture, comment, or other post on social media and the interest generated by it. In the echo chambers of social media, there is a dearth of critical analysis and an abundance of confirmation bias. Intellectual rigor and honesty easily fall by the wayside. This is doubly unfortunate given how addictive social media can be. Maybe attention spans have been a casualty of the digital age, but stories nonetheless stick, especially when they feed a manic fascination with drama and intrigue, at the expense of sober analysis.
This herding tendency in human behavior is the primary reason I have chosen to disengage from social media. Maybe I am just an iconoclast by nature, but the notion that counting likes and shares to assess my own self-worth, or the worth of someone else, repels me. This is not to deny that buzz can be gratifying to the ego. Moreover, it is only human to wonder if personal achievements are worth the effort if they do not translate into cultural, political, or social influence, which, in the era of social media, means getting likes, shares, and followers. But given the often weak correlation between hype and value, I hope I can be forgiven for being among the skeptics, especially when one considers that a disgraceful personage like Donald Trump elevates himself to the highest position in the land by virtue of savvy manipulation of Twitter (and cable news). I’ll extend the same opinion to uncouth, distasteful rabble-rousers like Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor who are trading in low-ball trash talk that can be packaged into YouTube clips to be shared on social media, simply to sell a fight that will probably turn into a twelve-round boxing snooze fest. And why should I care about the number of Twitter followers of Al Sharpton, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and other political hacks?
None of this is to say that I have divorced myself from the world of social media. I am a creature of the age. I post my articles on Facebook and Twitter because that is part of the business of getting people to actually read what you write. I am flattered when an article gets some love. But in the end, I consider social media buzz to be of secondary importance when contemplating the nature of my own self-worth.
There are other reasons I have disengaged from social media. I do not appreciate how social media echo chambers deepen the profound partisanship of political discourse in recent years. I regret how easily people misconstrue what you’re trying to say. I eschew the nastiness stirred up by the anonymous comments of online trolls. I consider it unfortunate how social media conversations, devoid of the nuance and moderation of interpersonal communication, filter personality through the medium of thumbs punching lingo onto a screen. I am dismayed by how the speed with which information spreads on social media, and the manic quality of the discourse it stimulates, reflects the hustle and bustle of a society in which people have little time to engage in sustained discussion about substantive issues. None of it makes for an environment conducive to serious analysis and productive exchange.
All this, and you end up getting sucked into virtual realities that distract you from the things right in front of you that matter in life. How many times do you see families, friends, or people in relationships sitting together in a car or standing on the street and, instead of talking with each other, are plugged into their phones?
I thought so.
Oscar Wilde once said the cynic ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ I used to believe he might as well have been talking about economists. Now I also extend his observation to anyone inclined to associate hype on social media with the value of whatever is hyped. As for me, I prefer to focus on reading or writing a good article. If it gets a lot of shares or likes, great. If not, I don’t necessarily take it as an indication of the quality of the article. I do not confuse hype with quality.
Photo credit: Getty Images