Following my brief synopsis of Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, my intent with this post is to extrapolate some of his thinking into modern media practices, specifically social media within the internet age. These thoughts are reflective, not researched, so I certainly welcome any feedback.
The nature of social media, though often utilizing the written word, metastasizes the concerns Postman raises about television. Problematically, the written word as well as the image have become drastically cheapened and democratized in social media contexts. In short, everyone with a smartphone has the ability to write or take photos and post them on the internet. The goal is recognition, and following that, approval. Persons long to be known; and social media sells this. The sensationalist battles of the newspaper are now spread to every individual. While this has some obviously good implications (the casting off of a media monopoly), the apparent poor implications are that people will not be drawn to the best of social media, but find their sensuous comforts in the worst aspects of social media for many of the same reasons television has been successful: simple, passionate, authentic media gain followers and sway the popular nerve. Statuses, tweets, or any other update tends to be short and designed to entertain or provoke, with the goal of gaining attention. It trains the mind to associate thought with entertainment and emotional incitement, much in line with Postman’s critique.
In much the way television utilizes commercials to sell products by at once selling identity, social media communities do much of the same. With the democratization of information comes the rise of the pseudo-community: the like-minded find each other and create their enclaves. Again, this is not necessarily bad, except that these communities can become highly specified and totalizing, resulting in group-think, specialized language-games, and a spiral of self-congratulation. Unfortunately, due to the self-perpetuating and semi-religious nature possible in certain niche communities, they cannot bear the holistic individual if revealed. Persons are too complex for highly focused online communities. If someone asserts other aspects of their thought and experience in perceived challenge to the group, they may be cast as irrelevant or anathematized. If the individual values the community more deeply than their own thought or experience, it is to their advantage to detach themselves from their own thought and experience, or at least offer it to the group for their reinterpretation. All this leads to a tendency toward shallow group-think and pseudo-community posturing. Their inability to transcend their narrow interests is what makes them less than true communities. Pseudo-communities can be created around any number of narrow ideals, good, bad, or neutral. Anonymity and ease of posting reduce the social cost of aligning oneself with anything socially unacceptable or reprobate, or latching on to other such commentators, thus creating a true anarchy of information, thought, and communities, unleashed with little pushback. Not only are narrow, totalizing communities formed, but they are not held responsible to any standard of acceptability. When they are, it seems to be to the whims of someone like a Mark Zuckerberg, which raises a whole other thread of concerns.
Significantly, in the communal anarchy of the internet, people become less than people, and then equate themselves with these static, virulent online identities in their internal world. Social media does not naturally appreciate deep, reflective, or drawn-out thought since such thought requires taking seriously dissent and internal conflict, which can feel like betrayal of the self or the alleged community. Furthermore, such complex thought takes time, and social media values brevity. Nuanced, even-handed criticisms are discouraged, since demonization and banishment are easily accomplished and more rewarding if the goal is to maintain a simplistic identity and communal haven of non-critical acceptance. I think the primary tendency of social media is actually the elimination of true conversation in trade for the comfort of self-created identity. It shears away the relevance of judging one thought, idea, or image as more worthwhile than any other, except in so far as they appeal to the emotive self. It is the replacement of steady reason by impulsive expressivism; authentic conversation by communal navel-gazing. I think clearly something is lost the further we remove ourselves from face-to-face contact and complex community situations where persons do not share all our thoughts, feelings, and opinions and cannot be so easily removed from our context. In this world, people become abstractions; worse than that, flat abstractions, missing the complex dynamism of a human being. Aggression and abstraction are rewarded in the limiting world of social media. The meme is the modern apotheosis of these tendencies: The meme applies all Postman’s criticisms by utilizing the image and a necessarily limited word count to create a sensational argument, story, or statement. When used controversially, memes often hide behind the shield of irony or sarcasm, a humoristic style which is at once aggressive and personally distancing. While I enjoy memes as much as the next guy, the point is to analyze what these mediums encourage, and how they reshape our modes of thinking, especially if unaware. Journalism and television maintained some comparative level of responsibility because they were professions with professional standards, if not always in practice, at least in word. There were ideals still for responsible media use, if not the same ideals as the intellectual or the citizen. The ideal of social media in my summation is always narcissism: self-significance and self-congratulation made possible in selective communities that appease and perpetuate this longing.
The narcissistic tendency of social media also applies to time, in reflecting the arrogance of the moment. It does not appreciate much more than the “now;” simply extrapolate Postman’s point about redefining “news” to the concept of the “news feed.” News is now not even a daily event, but constant and instantaneous and constituted by every last commentary that anyone finds important. Historical records of Facebook and Twitter posts do not constitute worthwhile literature except in the most unique circumstances. That which is significant is that which is now; the promoted thought tendency is painfully ahistorical and thus limits thought from being contextualized in the humbling narrative of historical humanity. Furthermore, the attention span is rewarded for scrolling, moving from update to update, not for wrestling with a difficult concept or idea. Reflecting on this media evolution, I am dismayed when I feel myself pulled to the newsfeed on my phone even when watching television or a movie.
Though brief, my quick analysis here based on Postman’s insights is that social media promotes the atomization of thought because it promotes the atomization of people. Feeding into a circular narcissistic cycle of thinking eliminates the recognition of any values by which to judge good thinking across conflictual boundaries. Pseudo-communities challenge the underpinnings of true communities. Like Postman, I would not advocate for anything as reactionary or impossible as the elimination of social media, nor would I defend anything more than that social media encourages tendencies, or habits of thinking. Most of us are fortunately only moderately effected. In fact, I would probably encourage some level of social media use (to be fair, this is a blog). One of my intellectual inspirations, Peter Lawler, was a staunch advocate for engagement with popular media forms. However, the distinction must be that one engages, not be possessed by. True engagement requires deliberate work; it requires pitting self against the media form, whatever it may be, at once learning, filtering, and critiquing. It requires first self-knowledge and self-formation. So when considering media engagement, I would advocate strongly for both limitation and variety. I would argue that if one is to engage in social media, that time spent there should be limited and should be balanced with time reading books, encountering art in its variety of forms, and in-person conversation. Social media and the internet are tools that possess incredible potential for expanding awareness, knowledge, and genuine intellectual conversation, but that potential depends first on the people who utilize the tool, not inherently on the tool itself. Concomitantly, the danger is not the tool, but in being shaped by the tool.