Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Social Media is Not the New Public Square

I guess I can't force people to see things my way - although if you spend too much time on Facebook or don't curate it well, you're going to see lots of people trying real hard. That's my point in this post, though - that people approach Facebook the wrong way. Social media in general has allowed famous people to reach audiences directly; it's spawned careers for people really funny or good at writing or both. It has a certain value.

That value, though, is not in its ability to foster dialogue. Social media can certainly foster dialogue, but usually its only healthy if its with people you know outside of the internet. When we treat Facebook like the public square, a place for open debate, we ruin it.

You have to look at social media as the bulletin board at the coffee shop - people plaster it with ideas, events, and advertisements in the hope someone will notice - but you don't see people furiously scribbling opinions onto those bulletin boards, because that is the act of a crazy person.

We have (and I say this knowing you don't "have" to do anything) to look at it more like a diary without a lock, one that someone leaves on a public park bench, but returns to update every five minutes. Social media is an outlet for crazy weirdos (of whom I am the worst) to express themselves. It's not a forum for conversation - at least not generally.

The most successful and famous internet site is Reddit, an odd mix between message board and social media, but it continues to exist because it creates community. Each board is moderated under its own agreed upon rules (with a few, general, overarching commandments in place to govern semi-civility). People can talk about things in their own way because they've built relationships, no matter how tenuous, with those with whom they interact.

Otherwise, it's not really designed for conversation. Communication, maybe, but not conversation.

The quicker we can agree on this, the quicker we'll be able to harness its real potential in the world. People who do social media well - people who becomes famous for it - don't generally respond. Their posts might spawn other conversations, but they generally stay out of them. You have "arrived" on Twitter when not only can't you keep up with your mentions, but you just don't look at them at all (secretly, though, I think everyone cares; some just have more discipline than others... cough, cough, @RealDonaldTrump).

Just because we can engage with total strangers in unimportant arguments with almost no repercussions, might be a therapeutic shortcut of dubious health, but it's not great for society at large. Social media functions well to keep communities connected, perhaps even to launch them, but it can't exist in a vacuum. Nothing without actual personal buy-in can really be societally beneficial, because it lacks even basic accountability. Milo Wassisname didn't fall out of public consciousness because he got kicked off twitter or nearly burned at the stake - he took a header from the top of Mount Pop Culture when he had an editor's salary and a book deal that meant something to his actual life.

We have to keep that connection of accountability and it has to go both ways. People get fired for things they write on the internet, but we've got to make sure they're getting fired for what they said and not for what other people thought of it. Creating outrage is not a crime, but if you hate it and want to end it, you have to ignore it.

Going back to the coffee shop bulletin board - if someone puts up a flyer that's downright offensive, you just tear it down and throw it away. On the internet you block people. "Yeah, but others can still see it." Good for them - God forbid our brilliant little castle is stormed by the reality that some people believe and say offensive things - or that we're the ones saying and believing them.

Maybe the downfall of social media is that it's just 1s and 0s on a screen - as much as we personalize everything, we're still not people to each other. Of course that's a total cop out. We are people and that's the point. Pretending we're not just because we're connected through beams of light in tiny tubes is no real excuse. My four year old know the people on TV are representative of real people who exist somewhere. She even knows the difference between animated ones and real ones. She's four. None of us capable of typing has an excuse.

Maybe I'm strange, because, in general, I'm a strange person, but I've always treated social media as an extension of me. I can post on my Facebook wall and you can't, because you're not me. Yeah, I might be "breaking convention" and "being anti-social," but I think it keeps things in perspective. You're welcome to comment and disagree in the comments, but know I might delete some of them if I don't think they reflect the spirit I want to convey (or if your argument lacks logic or merit). It might be posted by you, but it's still ultimately under my name.

I don't see any of this as mere words. I like the transparency of people knowing what I'm thinking, but I also like the accountability of people knowing what I'm thinking. It doesn't cause me to edit myself, it causes me to reflect on what I think and likely evaluate and change those thoughts if, for some reason, it seems problematic to post them publicly.

Social media is NOT the new public square. Ideas are not disembodied; they can't be divorced from context - a context comprised largely of the people and experiences that birth them. We want to believe that, but now we've got billions upon billions of megabytes to the contrary.

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