social media: not that bad


I don’t really have time to respond properly to two thoughtful essays from Ryan Avent and Ezra Klein, which makes it very tempting to instead dash off a sketch of a response on Twitter. But since these essays are about the perniciousness of social media, that would be antagonistic. I can at least shove these into RSS for appearances’ sake.

A few points to begin. First, I agree to some extent with both writers. I use social media too much and I think it’s made my thinking worse. I also dislike some of the cultural and political changes that might reasonably be attributed to the rise of social media. Most of all, I empathize with Ezra’s disappointment at the gap between the internet’s promise and reality. I wrote this in a different context:

[It’s] a tragedy. You could not find many people more enthusiastic than my younger self about the cathartic deliverance that perfect communication would provide. I ran a BBS as a kid; I built grandiose, essay-filled websites; I was consumed by technology and absolutely convinced that millennia-old liberal ideals about knowledge and deliberation would finally reach their apotheosis now that an age of universal democratic access was dawning. I count the failure of this vision as one of the great disappointments of my life.

With all that said, I think there are some reasons to be less gloomy than they are about the effects and future of social media.

First: it’s early. One of my favorite aphorisms belongs to Max Planck, who said (approximately) that “science progresses one funeral at a time.” We should all aspire to flexibility in the ways we think and believe, but we should also be realistic about our capacity to do so. Measured in years, social media seems mature enough to be tried as an adult. Measured in generations, it’s just gotten started. And, encouragingly, younger generations seem to be eschewing the services that hooked us old timers. Whether that’s to escape us or to embrace ephemeral messaging, video, group chats, or just some novel and more-addictive brand, I couldn’t say. But they are at least not following us into precisely the same trap.

Second: there are some signs that our civilization is, finally, mounting an immune response to some of social media’s pathologies . “Never tweet”; scorn for “dunks”; popularization of arch sociological observations like the idea of “getting ratio’d”; Republicans’ distaste, expressed consistently in polls, for Donald Trump’s Twitter habit; even parts of the (intensely fraught and complicated!) cancel culture debate itself: all of these point toward a nascent understanding that there is something wrong, something that can sweep us up, some newly obvious kind of human failing that it will take time to name and learn how to struggle against.

I am hopeful that we can meet that challenge by being abstemious rather than abstinent. It might help to teach more people the word narcissism. It wouldn’t hurt to keep children off these services. And I’d be happy to find a way to fracture the strangely static competitive landscape back toward the early web’s foment and intimacy.

But at their best, these services give us a way to see and understand ideas and people with the speed that society now demands. At its peak, this was an incredible benefit–I say was, because I think social media’s contradictions and pathologies have hollowed it out to a degree that’s not reflected in the stats, chasing away many interesting people (and many remaining dead-enders’ interesting thoughts).

And at their worst these services may simply reflect a democratization of discourse that’s homogenizing and alarming but surely also more equitable. I am more comfortable with paternalism and noblesse oblige than many, but pining for a return to the days when political ideas were formed amidst morning tableau of broadsheet, pipe, and pocketwatch seems necessarily elitist (and also quite silly given the historic venality of the media business).

Besides–if I can be silly for a moment–are we really sure there are no returns to making composition a required component of social interaction? To participate in society or even just to find a mate now means reading critically, considering authorial voice, understanding cliche, employing allusions. It’s happening a few dozen characters at a time. But it is happening, and it’s kind of amazing. I say we give it a sec.

About the author

Tom Lee
By Tom Lee