Copyright © by Leslye Joy Allen
I freely admit I enjoy social media. We social media denizens trade ideas, photos, debate politics, say prayers for people in need, raise money, promote good causes, advertise our own enterprises, post recipes and witty sayings, talk about art, film, theatre, and occasionally go on rants. I try to keep rants to a bare minimum. But hey, if ranting on social media is what keeps you from going out and shooting people at the mall, then rant away. Now with all that’s good about social media, I’ve also experienced what I now call “social media overload.” I thought I would share some of my opinions because occasionally I get messages from people asking me why I don’t comment on posts as much as I used to. Well, I know I’ve lost time in the past by spending too much time posting, commenting, clicking and tweeting.
I primarily use my laptop much more than I use my smartphone for any form of social media; and I always log out when I’m done, so I don’t hear those dings you hear on a smartphone when someone posts or tweets something new. Plus, with a sporadic and highly irregular work schedule while I also try to write and edit and finish a dissertation is hard enough. I can typically write a blog in less than 30 minutes, but writing and editing a dissertation in squirts is a slow and agonizing process, so staying online isn’t possible anyway. I now deliberately and regularly go a minimum of 24 to 48 hours (often longer) without checking in on social media. The first time I did this several months ago, I discovered something about these 24 to 48 hour cycles. My first full day away, I found myself severely missing posting and commenting on other people’s posts.
If you stay away from all social media for roughly 24 to 48 hours and then return, you will probably notice one or two (or maybe three) subjects trending. There will be one post after another about essentially the same thing. Let’s say it’s something that everyone seems to like; so everyone is super happy about an event, a film, you name it. When that happens I can almost guarantee that if you sign off again and then revisit after the next 24 to 48 hours, whatever was trending that everyone liked a few days ago will now have its critics. So then there will be a series of comments or a few articles telling you that what you initially liked 24 to 48 hours ago is no longer something that you should like, but something you should question or at least greet with some suspicion. Some of these fresh critiques often have some value and tend to make good reading. Yet, I noticed that a lot of these articles and comments read like the pseudo-intellectual hogwash they are; and often the real tragedy is that these articles are penned by perfectly good writers who seem to be having a hard time finding something to write about and have simply jumped on the bandwagon with the rest of the cynics. Then if you sign off and stay gone for yet another couple of days, something even more curious will have probably happened. Within that next 24 to 48-hour cycle—this is our third cycle, now—you will have another set of reverse critics who will critique those initial critics who dared criticize what you and everyone else liked in the first place. If you have a headache reading this, don’t feel bad. I have one too! However, I didn’t see these patterns until I let a few days go by without visiting social media.
I had an interesting conversation recently with a Personal Development Counselor. He was a charismatic young man who looked to be in his late twenties to early thirties. He told me something that I found quite troubling. Most of his work, he said, was with young male Internet Technology professionals, commonly called ITs. He stated that almost all of the young male ITs he meets have problems talking to women because they spend all day staring at a computer screen. He bluntly told me that most of them don’t know how to make small talk. Almost all of the questions they ask him are about how they might best find the right words to approach a woman to date via some online service. Simple things like having a conversation with a woman and then asking her out for a simple cup of coffee is totally foreign to many of these guys. His job as a Personal Development Counselor is to give these young men some kind of road map to use to help them create a satisfying personal life because they do not know how to do it by themselves.
Now, before every Internet Technology professional sends me personal denials of such behavior and/or hate comments, hold your horses and slow your roll. I know plenty of well-rounded IT professionals and I know that the majority of folks in this profession do not have the problems identified by this Personal Development Counselor. I do suspect that youth plays a factor in these problems. Those of us who are now in our AARP years remember a time when you didn’t need a computer or a smartphone to do anything and everything. You had to go out and meet people, make eye contact, have conversations, and you did not have a smartphone as a constant distraction. Younger men and women have no such memories. What this young Personal Development Councilor shared with me made me take a good hard look at how much, how long and what content I place on social media and why I do it.
A while back I made a personal commitment to not post the news on my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts. What appears on MSNBC or CNN or FOX is almost always bad news anyway. I’ve managed to stick with this formula about 98 percent of the time. On those days when something tragic has happened yet again to another Black person, to another woman, another LGBTQ person, another child, and etcetera, you can expect the threads on most social media to be filled to the brim with this bad news, tragic news, and horrible news, along with their shock and hurt about these tragedies. All of it would be easier to stomach if there wasn’t so much of it. It’s not that racists and sexists and misogynists and homophobes and rapists and murderers don’t do ugly, horrible mess to people with great regularity; it’s that this ugliness is not happening to me or you every single minute of the day because if it were happening to all of us 24/7, none of us would have the time or the luxury to post about it and debate about it on social media. It is not that bad things don’t happen, but rather that good things happen as well. Now before you say that we all need to talk about these problems and vent about these tragedies, consider this: If you do not post or comment about some major issue or problem, what exactly is going to happen or not happen if you don’t post or if you are absent for a few days? What exactly would you be doing if you were not posting and commenting on your own or someone else’s posts? This leads me to what I call the “Instant Gratification Trap.” I’m as guilty of being caught by it and in it as anyone.
The “Instant Gratification Trap” is when you discover that your posts are rather popular and/or make people feel better and/or make people think deeply. Suddenly you feel important and admired. When I simply stopped posting anything negative and made it a point to post something positive, I found nothing wrong with basking in the warmth of compliments generated by folks who pressed the “Like” button and “Share” button and those who “Re-Tweeted” my posts. All of this makes for good feelings all around. However, the next thing I felt was obligated to continue making these kinds of intellectually stimulating posts. “Obligated” is actually the wrong word here. I felt compelled to post more positive posts because I ENJOYED and DESIRED the affirmative reactions of my real friends and my “cyberspace associates.” Even further, I started to believe that what I had to say was so very important that I better hurry up and post something else that was wise and wonderful because, hey, what’s going to happen to all of those people who rely on my posts and my comments if I’m not there to post or comment?! Let me say this as plainly as possible: This is some ego tripping of the highest order. All of us, hopefully, get to help people out, give some good advice and feel a little extra special, which is healthy. We should feel confident about our work and our words and our contributions. But exactly where do we draw the line?
Now, I read a lot of writing by my own real personal friends and many of my cyberspace associates; and there are some seriously talented writers and thinkers among them. Many of us are quite bright and we might say a lot of things that need to be said, but we’re not the only crayons in the box. The problem with Instant Gratification is that it is short-lived because you haven’t worked that hard for it; it’s fleeting. So, like a drug addict in search of another high, you post more and more to get more and more validation. That validation strokes the ego; at least I know it stroked mine. However, here’s how I’ve decided to use my ego. I have enough of an ego to not want my very best writing to be on some social media site because once it’s posted there, it belongs to the site. You can always lay claim to what you wrote, but the jury is still out as to whether any social media site needs your permission to reproduce what you’ve written somewhere else for the site’s own purposes. When I feel the need to say something really serious, I put it in my blog or in my notes for some future essay.
Now, here’s an aspect of social media that is more delicate. On most social media sites you can “unfollow” or “block” people. On Facebook you can “unfriend and block” people. Every person I know has had that moment when they suddenly discover that “friend” or what I call a “cyberspace associate” who disagrees with them on every moral or ethical question out there. Their contradictory opinions seem to come out of nowhere, but they really don’t come out of nowhere. Remember, you don’t actually personally know a lot of these people who make it to your friend list; and they typically made it to your list because they know about thirty people that you actually know or they seem to be natural allies due to their posts and comments. Then one day they comment on some thread of yours and manage to annoy everyone with their narrowmindedness or their determination to ram their opinions down everyone’s throat and by their unwillingness to respect the opinions of others. So after a few acrimonious comments and a variety of pithy rebuttals to their opinion, you get angry as hell and you click that “Unfriend” button so you don’t have to hear from them again. Now, there are some good reasons for unfriending these creeps. I got rid of one that was running for public office and who also turned out to be damned near a stalker. (I also blocked him and thank God he lost his election.)
Now, I don’t blame folks for not wanting to be bothered with internet trolls or real life ass holes who spend the better part of their days trying to start arguments and foment dissension among groups of people who might be having a stimulating and insightful discussion. Yet, the problem with unfriending people with opposing views is that’s not how it works in the real world. As I have encouraged healthy debates among my former History students, they know like I do that you don’t learn as much from the people with whom you agree, but from those people with whom you disagree. It might make you feel better to “unfriend” someone. I know it made me feel better. Yet, when met with opposition face-to-face instead of in cyberspace, you have to monitor your anger to prevent a debate from turning into a full-fledged argument or worse. You have to think with more precision because you are in the physical presence of someone who disagrees with you and who has also pushed your buttons. I often think we argue on social media because it’s physically safer to do so; and there is nothing wrong with that. However, you might discover in face-to-face communications that your adversary has a point worth listening to. And the key word here is “listen.” Unless you’re communicating via FaceTime, most communication on social media is written. I have read (and learned to stay the hell off of) some threads where someone’s words were misconstrued precisely because no one on the thread could see that person’s body language or hear the natural inflections in that person’s voice that give additional meanings and depth to the point they were trying to make. And this leads me to something the Personal Development Counselor said about empathy.
The last thing he told me was that he thought too much consumption of social media led a lot of folks to believe that they were highly informed and highly sympathetic to people with problems when they were not. Reading a book or a story, he said, created empathy. He’s right. You identify with the protagonist or some character in the book. After you’ve finished reading the book, you continue thinking about the characters, the themes, what did it all mean, and why you enjoyed it, etcetera. The brevity of posts on social media, he said, doesn’t require this kind of investment. You read a few lines of a post, and think about it for a few minutes, and then you move on to the next post or the next thread. There isn’t much time to ponder and process what you just read if you’re suddenly distracted by something else that is more provocative.
I met a couple of young people recently who have deleted several of their social media accounts, including this Personal Development Counselor. I probably will continue to enjoy social media for all the reasons I listed at the beginning of this blog. I personally know plenty of people on social media who are caring, thoughtful people who genuinely want everyone they know to be informed about some serious problems going on in the world or about the good that’s out there; but there’s a creeping shallowness on social media that I’ve noticed in recent years. It is no accident that the rapper Kanye West thinks “slavery was a choice,” if we consider that his exposure to the subject and its history has obviously been through imbibing short blurbs, 30 second soundbites, memes and slogans designed more to catch the ear and eye than to honestly analyze and inform anyone about what was a highly complex and brutally oppressive institution.
The fact that West and others think you can explain and reduce Chattel Slavery in the Americas—a 400-plus year old institution—to something as simple and singular as “choice” not only speaks volumes about what books they haven’t read, but also how their brains are now wired to believe that their ability to understand complex subjects can be accomplished via tweets, short articles, and a few posts. West is not unusual nor is he an anomaly. Kanye West is the results. It’s hard to invest in people and consider their feelings when empathy with other people and their history is short term because the next post or thread about someone or something else is so much more exciting. It’s easy to dismiss what is not provocative or catchy; after all, most of these posts are designed to draw people to them. I don’t know what the long term repercussions of this type of media saturation will mean to everyone, but for me it means I’m going to be taking regular breaks from all forms of it from now on. Peace.
Copyright © by Leslye Joy Allen.
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