It’s about time we throw an icy cold bucket of water on our rutting love affair with social media. Why’s that? Well, for the same reasons we we’d like to throw an icy cold bucket of water on any of our love-sick friends in the grips of that sticky-sweet, incorrigible stage of the love affair when they can’t seem to think straight, when both sides believe the other is perfect in every way, beautiful beyond words, and that great suffering comes from their separation. In short, this is the part of the love affair when all rational thought takes a holiday, and, its the part of our love affair with social media that many of its users seem to be stuck in.
This is the sad truth. What is more, social media seems to be the very force prolonging this sorry state of affairs to the extent that participation in it seems to be the primary ingredient leading to the habituation of such vacuous behaviour. For the most part, social media asks its participants for decisions without reasons, opinions without explanations, assertions without support. In effect, it asks us to set aside reflection, contemplation, rationality, and critical thought under the false proposition that it’s our opinions, likes, and dislikes that define our characters, not how we arrive at them. Social media offers no books, just covers and judgements.
The scary fact of the matter is that we risk letting this false proposition come true if we allow our love affair to continue unchecked and without giving serious consideration to the impact its having on our cognitive habits.
I suppose the best example of what I’m talking about here is the recent #isupport and #idontsupport trend on twitter. These two hashtags have unspired (not a typo, “unspired” = the past tense of the verb “unspire” meaning to stimulate expression by sucking out the spirit) literally millions of empty slogans, affirmations and denials (even, I’m ashamed to say, a few of my own) offerred with absolutely no explanation or support whatsoever. Of course, the entire medium that is twitter is set up this way, after all what sort of defence of one’s views can one expect to offer in 140 characters or less? None, of course! Take a look for yourself, grand and presumably passionate expressions of support for issues like the education of women, the liberty of nations, and the political futures of all the world’s nations are juxtaposed in these ever-growing streams against shout-outs to friends, props for musicians, postering, and outright insults. For each and every tweet in the first group there’s half a dozen from the second group, reducing the lot of them to vacuous self-affirmation.
So I hear what you might be saying, “J.D., what’s wrong with a little self-affirmation? Why do I need to defend my views all the time?” Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little self-affirmation, positive self-esteem is important and we need to pat ourselves on the back every now and again. As for defending our views, here too, you would be right in suggesting that we shouldn’t have to defend ourselves all the time.
The problem, however, is this: social media (twitter and the like) are rapidly becoming our dominate means of communication. That being the case, these media are also and at the same time becoming the dominant influence on how we think and formulate the ideas we are communicating. What does that mean? Well, it means that we get used to framing our ideas in 140 characters or less; we get used to building sentences with words that are short and accessible rather than precise; we get used to being vague for fear we might offend; we get used to setting aside the premises of our arguments for the sake of the conclusions; we get used to instantly communicating every thought and feeling (no matter how trivial or important) to an unknown audience and we get used to doing so without reflection or restrain. These preferences shape our habits of communication but, what is more, they come to shape the way we think.
The same thing happens on Facebook and Google Plus and MySpace and every other social networking site out there. Whether you’re +1ing, liking, or digging, you’re training yourself to judge without without exercising the one thing that, at least used to, set you apart from the rest of the animals–namely, your reason. It’s true, we do need to toss a cold bucket of water on our love affair with social media because its causing us to become just like a lover trapped in the infatuation stage of an affair–that is, its causing us to become mindless simpletons.
Notice, however, that I did not say that it’s time for us to break-up with social media. I’m not suggesting that we unfriend Facebook, Google Plus, etc., etc. After all, many happy marriages have started out as mindless infatuation and evolved into long, admirable, productive, and intellectually stimulating partnerships. There’s no reason (yet) to believe that our love of social networking can’t blossom into one of those relationships. They key to bringing this sort of relationship to fruition is, however, recognizing the sorts of cognitive habits that we are prone to developing through the use of social media before we are too far gone to avoid or reverse them. The key, in other words, is to turn our reason and critical skills towards our consumption of social media before social media consumes our reason and critical skills.
I am very interested in your thoughts and habits when it comes to social media. Please take some time to complete a short survey concerning the “Like” and similar functions of social media.