Since Sasha Baron Cohen in a recent public speech (here) dragged Mark Zuckerberg over live coals I figure I have the green light to let rip about my own stance toward social media. If Borat is getting in on the act, then nothing should hold me back from doing the same. So here goes with the “Old But Gold” take on social media.
I have one advantage particular to people my age: I was here before the whole business started and I remember quite well what life was like before social media hit the scene. I also watched the whole affair develop from the ground up, a perspective nobody in Gen Z will ever have. I consider that Big Picture element a major plus. So I’m gonna shoot my mouth off.
With the “OK, Boomer” thing going great guns at the moment, my timing may not be the best. But set aside ageist arguments and consider nothing but the brute facts. That’s all I ask — which is a lot, I know, in the Era of Gaslighting we’re living through. Facts themselves in the age of social media have morphed into a commodity and communication has become an instrument of ideological strike force rather than a tool for the construction of shared reality. What, indeed, has happened to the very idea of shared reality? It has lost its societal connotation and shrunk to the size of whatever content silo you happen to inhabit. That’s the fly in our collective ointment. I could easily launch into a litany of personal discontents with what social media has done to daily life — hardly salutory IMHO — but that’s not germane to my topic. I’m concerned about the erosive and difiguring effects of social media on collective reality. That’s the vampire at whom I want to shoot my silver bullet.
If you want to know what life was like before social media existed, you may be surprised to learn that it wasn’t all that bad. People managed to communicate. News got reported. Newspapers, radio and television were going strong. There was such a thing as “The National Dialogue.” But things weren’t siloed into oblivion. You didn’t curate your information bubble in the same way you do now. There was a much smaller range of information resources available. The individual was considered the legitimate arbiter of what streams he or she consumed. Nobody worried about the NBC Evening News being hijacked surreptitiously by a hostile foreign power to turn all our brains to mush and make us vote for failed real estate developers with a long history of criminal behavior. If we got crooks in high office, we had other ways of going about it. 🙂
True, things could be a bit cumbersome at times and access to the full range of resources available was a difficult trick to pull off. It wasn’t just a matter of doing a Google search or looking at the notifications on your phone. On the other hand, the reality split we now have going on was not the major hallmark of the public forum. I still don’t believe that the silos we have in place are a function of things going awry in the information environment itself, the silos are created and driven by intent on the part of particular groups of people. The intent to silo would dissipate into nothingness if there were no receptive hook in the audience that consumes siloed information. So it’s a matter of the chicken or the egg, really, with regard to the underlying causation — it looks top-down but if there were no receptive bottoms-up the whole business would go nowhere fast. The problem is primarily to be found in the unholy alignment of nefarious intent and a receptive substrate that found in social media a new tool for mutual satisfaction. As someone brought up to feel responsible for deciding myself what’s legitimate and illegitimate no matter what Walter Cronkite may say, the buck still stops with me at the end of the day. But that’s a squarely old-fashioned idea in our current environment. Supposedly we’ve all become little more than lambs being led to information slaughter.
Let me point out something of critical importance to remember: people my age (think the first 10 years of the Boomers) are the ones most susceptible to manipulation by social media. Why? I think that comes from an assumption my age cohort made in the Good Old Days that no longer applies, that indeed has become dangerous: whatever was public information in our young days was generally assumed to be credible. Sure, there was always the National Enquirer, but anyone who wasn’t a complete basket case knew that you never believed the Enquirer. As for major network news, it was considered gold standard, no matter what network it came from. If you take that base assumption into today’s information ecosystem you’re in BIG trouble. Diving into the current information environment is like swimming in shark-infested waters. You may get lucky, have a lovely swim and emerge with all your limbs intact. On the other hand, you might have a bad day and find yourself chomped by something called “information” that is anything but. Consequently, to the responsibility for assessing basic legitimacy must now be added the responsibility for vigilance against information streams that are nefarious and toxic. Gone forever are the days when it was just a matter of turning on the evening news with Tom Brokaw.
To that disagreeable reality must be added the risk of exposure simply by being online. There’s no way to firewall yourself off from all the bad stuff. If you’re on social media, you’re vulnerable to the nefarious goings on that happen in that space. Coming as I do from the Old But Gold School, I assume that responsibility for dealing with that vulnerability is mine, not lodged with the platform I happen to be using. It’s only now, at this point when the train has long been out of the station, that public voices (like that of Sasha Baron Cohen) are putting the screws to Big Tech to assume some of the responsibility the press has always assumed for accuracy and truthfulness in public information. But it’s a day late and more than a dollar short. And so it shall remain forevermore, forevermore.
In the beginning of social media it was the banality that put me off. From my dips into social media content I gauged that about 99.9% of it is crap that does absolutely nothing to expand my universe. What it does instead is eat up time and energy I could well be investing in that very expansion. As the Buddha said, “Work out your own salvation with diligence.” Facebook, Twitter or Instagram isn’t going to help get me any farther down that road and time’s a-wastin’, so why should I bother myself? I decided at the dawn of the social media age that in point of fact I would not bother myself and I’ve never regretted my decision. The quality of the content I put into my head is extremely important to me. I’m not looking to be entertained. I want to be enriched. Social media is absolutely the wrong thing to turn to for that purpose.
Nowadays it’s above all the toxicity of social media environments that turns me off. I hear about all the nefarious goings-on that happen on social media platforms and raise my eyebrows in horror. It sounds like swimming in a cesspool. Why would anybody want to do it? But I’m definitely odd man out in that opinion, I know — it’s all the rage, everybody does it, and apparently once you’re in it’s like joining the Mob: you never get to leave. Good thing I just said no at the beginning of all the hoorah. I’m free as a bird.
As someone who has stood aside from social media all these years let me recount the benefits of that stance. The first and most important is invulnerability to all the crap that goes on in the platforms. The Russian disinformation services funded by the GRU can’t make mush out of my brain because their content doesn’t reach me. I’m protected by my simple refusal to use the only means they have of pushing their nonsense into my awareness. They may well be thought-beaming those of us who eschew social media with a building full of former Soviet psychics, but they’re definitely not showing up in my phone notifications. So as I read about the crisis in modern reality as society struggles to come to terms with social media I think to myself, “Just turn the effing thing off. Done and dusted.” That’s what I did and it works just fine. If somebody wants to communicate with me there are plenty of ways to do it, just as there always have been. Doesn’t anybody remember the old saying, “Better safe than sorry”? It has a point, no doubt about that.
The second advantage is insulation from mind-rot. The old adage “You’re only as good as the people you hang out with” has some truth to it. The content I engage is usually a few rungs above my own position on the ladder of intelligence. There is method to that madness: it makes me stretch my mind. Forwards of funny cat pics have never managed to do that. Reading a real book on my Kindle, however, does the trick. Fancy that. So I’ve continued along my merry path toward higher things of all sorts — literature, politics, history, the list is long. I feel edified by the content I engage, not encumbered by banality. In fact, it makes the banality of my own existence — inescapable in the course of human life, apparently, however much one may lament it — seem less burdensome. That’s a trick worth a doff of the hat IMHO. I am also spurred on to formulate my own thoughts. Indeed, I am motivated on occasion to express those thoughts through composing my own sentences in the hope that they will be one-quarter as good as the ones I read. Again, such influence has never communicated itself to me from pictures of somebody’s dog wearing a bandana and sunglasses or from watching little kids lip-synch to a song by Lady Gaga.
For the course my daily life the most important benefit is a tranquil mental landscape, a product of the two advantages given above. I know I needn’t worry about having untoward content shoved my way. I can certainly seek it out if I feel the need for a bit of risky business, but to be honest, I never do. The products of Russian propaganda factories are as stupid as pics of dogs wearing sunglasses. Why should I allow myself to be bored silly when there are so many engaging and charming things to claim one’s attention? I’d never forgive myself if I allowed myself to misuse my time and energy in such a foolish business. It costs me no effort whatever to exclude it from my experience.
It would be quite another matter if the content of social media were like the proverbial Great Conversation. If things worthy of being etched onto people’s gravestones moved through the airwaves like fish in shoals then the temptation to tune in would be much greater. But exactly the opposite is the case. Every time I come into contact with social media content I’m confirmed in the decision I made lo these many years ago. I want none of it, thank you very much. Homey don’t play that.
So what exactly is the “Old But Gold” approach to social media? It’s all about selectivity and the exercise of personal control. You use what you want to use for your own purposes and let the devil take the rest of it. Of course that puts the kibosh on any plans to monetize content on a particular platform — no PewDeePie for you (don’t get me started …). If that’s your dream then you can certainly create a partitioned virtual space in which all hell can break loose in hopes of making cash. I was astonished to find when I began planning this blog to have people start jabbering at me about advertising and monetizing and the like. It would have been foolish to think seriously of such things given the nature of this blog’s content — hardly the type of thing to draw the masses — but even if that were the case, I’m Old But Gold and don’t need the money. How about them apples? I don’t need the platform. I use it as a tool for a particular purpose, just as you pick up a screwdriver when you need to tighten a screw. Beyond that it has no intersection with my life. Life is about a whole bunch of other things. Fun things, good things, things I enjoy. That’s the way it should be.
I used to have comments active in the blog so that readers could leave their remarks. I turned that function off after finding that comments are used by nefarious cyberspace creatures who scour the internet looking for blogs with sctive comment fields so they can use bots to post “link-backs” to stupid things like online casinos, thereby using your online resource to promote their content and generate statistics. After one such bot posted over 30 comments with a URL to some online game nonsense, that was the end of that. I deleted all comments and turned off the comment function. Since that day things have been blissfully quiet. That’s exactly the way I intend to keep it. The result was that the toxicity of cyberspace thwarted my intent to engage dialogue with readers of my content. It was good confirmation of my decision to stay out of social media. Cyberspace is just too toxic for my taste.
The sad thing about all of this is the waste of the enormous potential that social media offers for doing really useful and exciting things. But we’ve seen it all before, haven’t we — radio and television went through the same trajectory. Television was supposed to be a new tool for the raising of human consciousness, more important even than the invention of printing. And look where we’ve ended up. You flip through over 100 channels and can’t find anything to watch. The process of degenerating into a cesspool didn’t take 20 years with social media, it happened much faster, but the end result is the same. What could have been a tool for all kinds of positive and wonderful things has become a cesspit that one enters at one’s peril. Why? Because people are crap at realizing the potentials of life, that’s why. Total crap. That fact fairly jumps out on any reading of human history. The history of our go at civilization — if one may still use that word to characterize our enterprise — is no different. We failed to realize the potential inherent in the medium. Another one for the away team. They seem to be getting all the points these days.
So for my part Sasha Baron Cohen gets two thumbs up and Zuckerberg can eat moss. I don’t care what Facebook does, and if Twitter were reduced to a four letter word I’m sure it would be among those that moms tell us not to use. If all of this makes me sound like a complete dinosaur, then so be it. But I’m not yet extinct. And my brain has not turned to mush. So there’s something to be said for inhabiting an evolutionary backwater.
To people who are embedded in social media up to their eyeballs, I have no advice to give. Work out your own salvation with diligence. 🙂