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Against Social Media

The Tyee
Shannon Rupp

Twittering is just frittering as we amuse ourselves to death.

The news-breaking e-mails come fast and furious some days. So-and-so has written on my wall. Someone else has poked me. And my acquaintances are off together having sushi.

I'm in Facebook hell.

Ask me if I care about the trivial pursuits of these people or, indeed, any of the army of companies, products and politicians all desperate to socialize with me.

I do care in one way: I suspect we can blame Facebooking for the radical decline in voter turnout for May's provincial election. While everyone talks of the "disengagement" voters feel, no one explains why voters are disengaged. Voters themselves can't explain it, other than to say they "don't like" politicians.

Well really, did anyone ever "like" politicians? Certainly not if you read the citizens of any given era.

It used to be a rule of thumb that disgust with politicians increased voter turnout -- a "throw the bastards out" sentiment. Clearly contempt for the would-be-elected isn't the real problem, although a lack of meaningful information about politicians and the nature of government in general might well be it crux of the crisis. (Before that people despised the monarchy and other despots, which led to revolution not hanging about playing pinochle.)

My theory for explaining the decline is that voters were all busy checking their Facebook pages. Meanwhile reporters, who should have been doing real research and hard interviews, were merely reviewing the candidates' Facebook pages.

Ersatz info

I'd say Facebook is this week's symbol of social breakdown. Ironically, it reduces access to the wider world, while creating the illusion of expanding it.

Flooded with trivia and distracted with ersatz information, it has become almost impossible for us to get the facts or see the implications of... well, anything. Things were bad enough when infotainment media like Access Hollywood forced us all to contemplate whether Kate (of John and... fame) should be wearing a bikini -- and offered us a voting option. But as passive viewers we could ignore this nonsense.

Due to its interactive nature, Facebook is right in my face, wasting my time with a flood of announcements. (Most recently they include ones begging me to check in.)

When it comes to information, I'm inclined to favour content that meets the definition of news I used to hear from a grizzled old editor with a drinking problem: "News is what they don't want you to know. Everything else is publicity."

A twit is now a good thing?

Self-promotion covers most of the crap I encounter under the rubric of social media. Like PR, it serves the needs of the teller not the told. Messages run the gamut from vanity press to political agendas, to advertising. As such, these people suck up my time while offering little or nothing in return.

Even worse, the more of this drivel I receive the less I actually know. (And for the definition of knowledge see the term "epistemology.")

Personal relationships grow increasingly superficial as we spend more and more time handing out karma to entities about whom we know little more than a name.

Speaking of karma, I'd like to think there's payback coming for those who notify me of their "poke wars," which I gather is the virtual equivalent of punching the kid you like in the arm. You're a grown-up: It's bad enough you do it, must you announce it?

As an aside, don't get me started on Twitter. They chose a name that means the happy babbling of birds. One associated with the terms like "twit" and "bird-brained." Do we live in a world so steeped in propaganda that words have lost all meaning?

"Are you twitting?" I asked a greying professional acquaintance, who pompously informed me the verb is "tweet."

"Are you sure?" I asked. He looked confused. But then, he often does. (That's why he's in management.)

A dying fad already?

Last winter, Twitter founders told Britain's Marketing mag that they planned to charge commercial users to deliver marketing messages, although it's still not clear if or when they'll implement the changes. And, frankly, if they're selling, let's say Dunkin' Donuts, access to my valuable attention, I want a piece of that action.

They won't pay me you say? So I'm trading my immediate attention in exchange for access to all the insights to be gleaned from twits of 140 characters or less? Along with those disconcerting e-mails I receive announcing that I'm being "followed."

And why am I volunteering my address for this again?

On the plus side, my suspicion that Twitter is this era's pet rock is confirmed by a Harvard Business study that shows that the churn rate on users is so high that more than half tweet only once and leave. About 10 per cent of the users are responsible for 90 per cent of the tweets.

I was almost grateful for the arrival of Plurk, if only for the name. But then, as I was signing up (it's my job) I got a message indicating there was some sort of error in the info: "Whoopsie, there seems to be sadness here. Please try fixing the error(s)..."

Baby steps

They speak to us as if we're in kindergarten because, in a way, we are. Social media are just the next stage in the trend towards the infantilizing of the society that began with television. My antisocial views on social media made me recall the late Neil Postman's brilliant book about the pacifying (and anti-democratic) effect of television, Amusing Ourselves to Death, which is coming up for its 25th anniversary. (And is still the single best book on the cultural impact of television.)

Postman, then a professor at New York University, drew on two of speculative fiction's most famous books for his analogy. He acknowledges that George Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four, a dark vision of a Soviet Union-style state in which people are oppressed and ground into submission by a political elite, outlined a plausible future from the perspective of 1948. But he thought Aldous Huxley's less popular work from 1932, Brave New World, described the future that had come to pass in America. A society dominated by sex, technology and cheery consumerism that was all the more successful because individuals enjoyed it and believed it was their choice to participate. When, in fact, they are seduced and brainwashed into oppressing themselves (not unlike cult members).

"As [Huxley] saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think," Postman wrote in the foreword to his book.

According to Postman, that addiction to trivia has us "amusing ourselves to death" and giving up our power as citizens. Imagine what he'd have to say about the distracting demands of Facebook and Twitter? Incidentally, Postman died the same year Facebook was born, 2003. Coincidence? I think not. (Say, there's a twit-able factoid.)

I'll give TV this: at least it's passive. Generally speaking, one can ignore the boob-tube with impunity. Unlike Facebook, it doesn't get in your face and demand you participate in mass time-wasting. (And worse, get your acquaintances to nag you.)

Twitters and clucks

So to recap on the impact of social media: We now have the attention span of gnats; we spend our days distracted by silly games and trivial messages; and fewer and fewer of us take responsibility for educating ourselves as citizens and voting? That sounds like a nation of children to me.

But hey, at least social media create the illusion we're players in the greater world. They allow us to do things like go on the virtual equivalent of protests by signing up for the causes our friends support. Oh, what's the latest one I received? Ah yes: chickens in the city.

Hang on! Living cheek by beak with filthy fowl? Have these people never heard of bird flu? Living with barnyard animals is a well-documented health hazard.

On second thought, maybe it's better if Facebookers and the other social butterflies don't vote.

22 Jun 2009