Social Media and the Erosion of Values

Reading Time: 16 minutes

Flattened Preferences and Decaying Judgment

Like it or not, many of us are spending non-trivial amounts of time on-line using social media, most likely Facebook, but whatever. I’ve decided the time’s long past due for having a way to choose with greater subtlety exactly what we get to look at once we log in, and for as long as we can tolerate being there. I think most of us are aware there are ways to control what we see and what we don’t, at least in crude ways. However, after that, sometimes using even these tools is a bit like learning how to use a new operating system without a manual or an instruction video.

Within the social media in general there have always been coarse means for filtering the continuous stream of data that reaches our information devices. Facebook, being the paradigm because of its size and ubiquity, provides a rough template for methods of distributing or disrupting any part of the flow. Other services may do it differently. We can “unfollow” this person or that (to use the no longer curious, but merely stubbornly ignorant usages of the semi-literate—if it makes you feel better, consider “unfollow” a term of art; in all events, to resist is futile). As a middle way, we can elect to receive messages in some hierarchy of alleged personal preference—like so much else, not only not very precise, but essentially not defined anywhere either—as to the significance of any sender’s declarations appearing on our feed: you can choose to receive “all” of them, “most” or “only important” ones. Who decides? Who knows? We can be sure there’s an algorithm for it. And that Zuck put his stamp of approval on it.

That sort of takes care of incoming. As far as outgoing content, in a drastic, but not extreme, step we can “block” undesirable correspondents (usually originally linked for political or social expediency), simply to prevent the temptation, theirs, to imagine they are chums, or, to avoid the embarrassment, ours, of saying something, anything, these not-quite-soul mates in an unwary and unknowing limbo might consider improper, imprudent or, simply, “fightin’ words.” And of course, there is the radical tactic, the social equivalent online of exercising extreme prejudice, the act of “unfriending.” This, however, is not sufficient to keep the barbarians on their side of the gate.

In one of the protocols of what must be a whole lexicon of obscure rules and terms of engagement, even if you “unfriend” an individual, they are automatically relegated to the status of “follower”—we may assume unbeknownst to either or both parties not paying attention—and they will still receive your wholly “public” utterances. Presumably, Zuckerberg has decided, with his genius for embracing a kind of nincompoop psychology, that having a lot of followers is akin, sort of like a first cousin once removed, to having a lot of friends. However, before I go too far in the gleeful enterprise of making fun of the current supreme idiot savant of technology, I’ll add simply that, despite his protestations that he’s not interested in the money, the Zuck always has his eye on the prize of as many eyeballs as he can sell to prospective advertisers.

Look. It’s clearly deliberately made hard to understand how to use Facebook, and it’s equally hard actually to break with anyone with whom you have even the most tenuous connection to begin with, because the more people who follow you (and you them, of course), the more opportunities there are to sell the myth of affinity. If it were easy to drop people, you’d do it. By the same strategy, this is why, if, for example, you made the mistake of giving Facebook your real baby boomer birthdate, let’s say, you’ll be seeing ads, offering dating opportunities with eligible “mature” women—even though you’re married, which they won’t actually know if you don’t tell them, perhaps out of a vestigial tender regard for your own privacy—and the ad is illustrated with a photo of a comely large-breasted woman whose maturity consists in being able to remember the most poignant moments of passing through puberty as if they occurred yesterday, because, in fact, they did. But, in that immemorial cliché, I digress. In fact, this is related to the dilemma of truly managing your cyber-social life, and so back to that. In the meantime, in your off-hours and I mean off the internet and with nothing better to do, convince yourself you’re not being manipulated.

Now, aside from somehow wanting the power instantaneously to render all of the arcana of Facebook, and of its myriad competitors, transparent, I have in mind something even more desirable. I find myself wishing that there were more precise ways of monitoring and, optionally, diverting the stream of messages so that even my most precious relations can be preserved while I am spared being exposed to every single atom of a personal datum they deem significant enough to mention it—every snapshot, every progressive development, sometimes hourly, of their baby (human or hamster; it really makes little difference, not to me, outside the immediate vicinity… cute is cute and love is love).

Currently, I have a very short friends list on each of the rivals, Facebook and Google+. I believe this microcosm is sufficient to form certain inferences. For one thing, even among a group of only 40 or 50 people, there is great individuality. Simply, we’re each of us different, and, of course, hooray for that. However, one result of our asynchronous traits is a divergence of interests. More critical than that is the way our differing values, however subtly we measure the distinctions, affect the course of daily life: what we think about, concentrate on, share with others. Naturally, we expect our values and preferences may differ. We forget that, until we’re reminded when a best and dearest friend talks our ears off about, say, their latest addition to a collection of antique quilted tea cozies. Yes, yes, I know. So what? If you collect antique quilted tea cozies, I apologize. In private and in person, I smile and listen myself. Online, of course, to paraphrase that famous “New Yorker” cartoon, no one knows you’re yawning uncontrollably. And no doubt there is in each of us the ability to evince the same degree of mute tolerance in others.

What’s trivial to you may be vital to me. What’s compelling to me may be inconsequential to you. What makes me laugh may leave you dumbfounded or nonplussed. We accept all this, usually without comment, especially as we tacitly accept the social contract revisions inherent in adopting the now incredibly expansive entitlement of “friendship.” Friends, after all, accept. They don’t judge. Judgments are frowned on. And we surely don’t comment, if we’re experiencing even the slightest pangs of disquiet. Even nay-saying might be seen as encouragement. Irony is completely out of the question.

All this makes for an interesting mix of exchanged content in a feed, as it develops organically on a web of usually spontaneous utterances. We tell ourselves we are merely sharing news, often personal. We’re letting a large set of people know what we’re up to, essentially that we’re all right, and all with greater ease than by meeting the burden of informing each and every person within the group directly and intimately with some other form of contact. We also use these forums as a means to convey the formalities that constitute vestigial social protocols, like invitations, pleas, and exhortations. As well we can make, with one click, a universal call for the requisite or tacitly expected acknowledgments, specifically, say, an rsvp or at least that diffuse and inarticulate form of encouragement or approbation, a “like.”

Indiscriminately, these generally ordinary, if not banal, and certainly almost all purely quotidian, messages and posts get broadcast, largely wholesale. As it’s simply not worth the effort—and what is these days, aside from signing that consent form agreeing to, oh, I don’t know, chemotherapy?—to spend the time deep in the weeds of deciding which group or list should get what message, we send every message to everyone. The bigger our friends list, the more recipients of the same messages. Concomitantly, with our precious time being a critical factor, and with a reciprocal and mutual number of messages being shot our way by that same mass of “friends,” we do take the trouble to exclude all but the slimmest stream of posts from people we are really interested in hearing from. What describes “really interested?” Likely an honest assessment of one’s gut; and an algorithm is not possible, not in the current state of the art—if you’ve ever had limited space for wedding guests, and you had to decide who you wanted there, you know what I’m talking about. So we have to screen, at least once, and in each direction: incoming and outgoing.

As I’ve pointed out, there are only the crudest tools for including this group or that in a communiqué. That sort of discrimination is only slightly more refined on Google+, with its adaptable taxonomy of self-defined circles. Facebook takes, as usual, a more authoritarian and controlling approach, defining the categories you may use: “best friends,” family, acquaintance, with all the apparatus of discrimination and class distinction inherent in the language–the objective, as everywhere else in almost all social media, seems to be some enforced (or possibly coercive) conformation to some kind of norm. Of course, in my cynical way, I have to note it’s also a gauge of your probable level of compulsion. Most people believe, for example, that blood is thicker than water. If you designate someone as family, it’s likely Facebook can get away with murder telling all your relatives about your sincere, warm and personal recommendations. Like for sources of antique quilted tea cozies.

Beyond that, there is always the danger of committing what has evolved in the second decade of the 21st century into the present-day blunder of making a message “public” that was really intended for that special group of three friends you formed, and which you have to remember to address each time you create a post. It’s all for the sake of getting warm and friendly with three by sending out only a single cozy, so to speak. You could send an email and copy all three at once—and thereby ensure you will get a private response, instead of the compound blunder of having yourself and your friends airing your cozies in public. But email is so 20th century, and it also requires you to get off Facebook. And that might take a whole minute.

What this all means, to me, is that we are bombarded on Facebook, say, (and even outside the confines of this blue zone, if we happen to allow notices to reach us on our phones and in email boxes, each and every time there is activity among our friends). We are cluster bombed with messages and hails sometimes terse, sometimes barely coherent, sometimes wholly pictorial, sometimes by way of linkage or transfer from yet other sources, making the locus of virtual affinity sometimes so wide as to encompass the globe. Notions like nearness, like neighborhood, like geography and boundaries lose all meaning. Next to an image of a squalling infant is a photo of flowers budding improbably in the Antarctic, and immediately next to these, yet another photo of an impossibly cute puppy, next to an endorsement for a brand of rare bicycle parts hand-crafted of military-grade titanium… It’s not only a triumph of mid-cult, as if suddenly a billion people were subscribers to the old Life magazine, or Reader’s Digest, wherein matters of life and death take on, or are reduced to, the same magnitude of importance as which stars of the original Star Trek are appearing at this year’s ComicCon. It also removes from our personal control the right to decide not to pay attention. It degrades the expectation that it’s all right to accept that some person, even among your nearest and dearest sometimes, at least to you, is a crashing bore. Or worse. But allow me to take you back a step or two from this bit of corrosive editorializing.

The inherent faux sociology at work behind these hypotheses aside, let me add, as a personal rationale, that I love my friends. Truly. That’s why the visible and publicly declared number of them is so small. To call each and every one friend is to say, at least, that I willingly give them tacitly and freely the time it takes to hear them out. I may be naive in assuming, as I do, that there’s also a tacit agreement that they will not waste that time unduly, with the constant mortar fire, say, of innumerable links they have uncovered online. I end up being dubious that there is equal significance to each link, each datum, each tidbit of information, each tweak, bon mot, and epigram (classic or contrived). But I pay heed, because they are friends, all of them, after all, and like a parent with a small child, I owe them that attention, and maybe even some interest, even if at times it’s feigned. Friendship, even consanguinity, is never an excuse not to be polite and mannerly. But then, I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.

Those who are sufficiently mindful that they are well aware that they are only one of many making the same regular broadcasts, including the status of their personal state of mind, and the rise and fall of their welfare along with that of their immediate families, must always be aware what the consequence of their flow is, added to the flow from other sources (some of which we share—and sharing of friends is encouraged; the next most used word on Facebook is the qualifier, “mutual” with the strong implication that you should also be friends with your friends’ friends), flow added to flow, until there is a veritable Mississippi River at full flood running down the middle of your news feed.

Every item calls out for your attention, even for the fraction of a moment it takes to decide to ignore the details. Time spent is a drum beat, a blunt blow to your consciousness. The very action of coalescence of all that data, post by post, from myriad sources, also necessarily levels the significance of any one datum. I propose to you, reader (friend or not), that whatever your resistance to the idea, everything becomes the same when it comes to importance. For starters, there’s just too much to take in. I have only 33 friends on Facebook and it’s too much. Perhaps it’s just me, and I wouldn’t deny it, but there’s enough of the everyman in each of us that leads me to feel it’s not. Water constantly flowing, or even continuously dripping, is eroding, if not actually corrosive. Witness the Grand Canyon: we should all live so long.

First consider that in addition to the license granted by Zuckerberg and his confréres to you to pop off, spout, or declare whatever happens to be on your mind at the moment, there is also the tacit invitation by you to each and every one of those individuals you have dubbed some species of “friend” to say whatever they please in response. Hence, there’s the potentiality that attached to your post will appear a spontaneous growing appendage of commentary. Often these addenda are from those who may feel either the pressure of declaring their feelings of affection and attachment, whether deep down through fear of alienation if they don’t say something, or perhaps merely because spending any significant amount of time within the blue zone, say more than five minutes a day, induces an uncontrollable reflexive response, the expression of which is not merely enabled, but facilitated by a whole new orthography of faux-expressive verbal gestures and symbols… LOL OMG ;-D, ad nauseam. Before asking the not-so-rhetorical question, “do we really universally care–even focused upon the corral of our ‘friends’–about each and every one of these matters?,” I’ll ask another question. Can we live with accepting some limits to our sense of closeness and intimacy with loved ones–family, or certain members thereof for sure, but the extended family of people we love for no other reason than some attachment has formed that we don’t question or analyze it?

There is a simple solution of course, even within the specialized context for conduct created by a social network, the blue zone of Facebook, the Googleverse, the Twitter-sphere, the Instagramathon, the Tumblrversity. Like life itself, each of us may exercise the easiest coping mechanism of all, especially in response to what are, after all, the most innocuous of effusions of the sort everyone on earth expresses during the course of a random day. That is, we can ignore any one, or all, of them. For sure. But, I wonder if I am alone–even with my collection of carefully selected cohorts, trivial in number, that, between Facebook and Google+, still falls way short of a hundred souls–if anyone else does not feel, even briefly and sporadically, overwhelmed by the aggregate effect of receiving messages, often, if not usually, accompanied by visual stimuli in the form of original and borrowed images, from every point of the compass.

It’s a rain, an unending relentless precipitation, of the mundane, particular and peculiar in each instance to the special and unique life attached to the name of the sender, but, taken together, coalescing into a thickening layer of the stuff of which each human on earth creates a buffer, insulation against the inescapable realities of existence. We bother with these things, no matter how small and insignificant, because they keep us from thinking about the existential dilemma. And, while trying sincerely to convince you I’m not being cute, I’ll say no more about what that dilemma is than to suggest to you that if you believe, in your quietest, deepest, darkest moments suffered in solitude that you yourself don’t have one, you might consider making a call to your physician to confirm that you still, in fact, exist.

We all, we each of us, are certainly entitled, as far as I’m concerned, to seek, to find or create, and, finding or creating, embrace anything and everything that fulfills our sense that some part of us finds pleasure and meaning in being alive. Moreover, we each are entitled to seek and tenderly clutch whoever and whatever there is in life that comforts us when that other, the inescapable depredations and deprivations that impoverish our experience of being alive, seems more than we have the capacity to bear.

I worry, and have done for some time since, even long before the universal emergence of Facebook in 2007, from its laboratory of usage among a highly circumscribed privileged set of users. What I worry about is that a false sense of homogeneity permeates a significant part of the developed world, like the artificial banding of commonality and amity fostered within the enclaves of Ivy League institutions where the blue zone was first formed and incubated–a way for those of like mind and interests, at least nominally so, could bond, commune, and manage their social engagements.

Each of us posts alone. Why not? For the few seconds it takes to compose and send a message, we lose all peripheral vision. May I not presume that if it’s a singular and concentrated thought for me on the sending end, it’s the same for you receiving it. It takes work after all to realize, and retain that insight for a bit, that for you—even as for me, when you come right down to it, even with my measly list of friends—it’s a pile of singularities arriving in a stream that never ends.

I began this extended contemplation with the simplest intent: to suggest, in what I originally and foolishly imagined would be a simple, brief “status update” (well, brief for me; a paragraph is as good as an emoticon) suggesting that we need better ways to filter posts from others, to avoid very fine categories: photos of cats, let’s say, or announcements of events taking place more than 10 miles from where we live. As so often happens, the thought grew wings, and took me to a much loftier place. That original idea remains buried somewhere in this essay, which, with a certain irony, reflects precisely the phenomenon I’ve decried. One thing just leads to another, and another, and another into a great mass that may seem to you like just another reason for a grouch like me to grouse. But I think there is something worse going on.

Take it all away. Shut down the internet. Turn off the servers at Facebook. Stop every feed. And we each of us, alone and collectively, will be left once more to ourselves. What I fear is that what may be required for us to regain a sense of being in a world where there’s a chance of remaining upright even as innumerable forces, chronicled in the news and demonstrated daily on every street in every city in the world, seem to conspire to efface any sense we have of any value, beyond the material. I am sure that one of the most insidious of the effects of so-called social media is that by the very mechanisms that make it attractive and easy to use, not merely as needed, but compulsively and reflexively is the numbing of our senses. The result is a slow, almost imperceptible, paralysis, a loss of sensation in a world that remains, even as polluted and altered as it has become after so many thousands of years of so-called civilization, one that cries out to be experienced with immediacy and mindfulness. The chief allure of Facebook is the simulation of immediacy. But is it not mediated, as every transmission and exchange passes through a network of such complexity and opacity, that any instant is a lifetime and every seeming touch is robotic, or like making love in oven mitts—not a real world, nor immediate, but a simulacrum?

Is it really a place to live? Game of Farmville anyone?

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