Social media and the death of thoughtful discourse

Photo by Casey Gomez

Discussing problems with social media will always, 100 percent of the time, without fail, lead to someone stating that “Comparing yourself to others isn’t healthy.” That sentiment makes up the bulk of discourse regarding problematic social media usage, data security concerns notwithstanding. Not only is this a heinous oversimplification of the issue, but it also completely ignores the deeper implications of a culture built around sharing. Social media is the most dangerous force in our society right now, and it has nothing to do with feeling inferior to people that we see on Instagram.

When I was a kid, going online meant withstanding a barrage of strange beeps and a series of on-screen technical terms that I was too young to understand. America OnLine was connecting my parents’ computer to the world. As I matured, the web matured with me. By the time I was using computers regularly they were able to maintain a constant connection to the internet, putting the entire world onto a bulky white monitor in the Georgia suburbs.

As that massive screen grew smaller, the number of tasks it could accomplish doubled every day. MySpace hit the scene when I was just 12 years old, allowing me to transition from a consumer to a producer of digital information. I had previously only contacted friends when I had reason to, and the exchange happened directly over the phone, through email or, most often, through AOL Instant Messenger. With social media, I was able to share my day-to-day life with an ever-growing network of passive participants. Details that were once mundane had taken on a new significance. 

By the time Facebook rolled around, I had become accustomed to sharing simply for the sake of sharing. The paradigm of online communication had shifted and allowed us to remain tethered to the virtual world at all times. I didn’t have to wait until I got home to check my profile; The iPhone had allowed my digital presence to rest snugly at the hip of my physical one.

The small group of classmates that made up my digital network had ballooned into a list that included teammates, teachers and family members. Strangers and friends alike were able to access the content I shared, content that hadn’t adapted to an evolving audience. The internet was for sharing, to everyone and no one simultaneously.

All the while, we were becoming more and more accustomed to being fed information at, quite literally, lightspeed. Research was no longer constrained to library trips, and the news was no longer reserved to a particular television timeslot. People had the ability to become experts in things they would have otherwise never had a reason to think twice about. 

As consuming information moved from an active task to a passive one, we subconsciously yearned for a way to make use of it. The invention of the telegraph was followed closely by the invention of the crossword puzzle; when faced with an increase in useless information, we don’t discard it. We simply find ways make it useful.

News outlets took this overload of information and continually created new ways to tell us how we should feel about it. With more material to work with than ever — coupled with an unprecedented access to our attention — digital news outlets have become our de-facto guide to navigating this new landscape. Retirees in the Midwest were able to form opinions about immigration. College students could get outraged over corporate tax rates. Aspects of American society that had never interacted with one another were now next-door neighbors.

Immigration policy, the most complex geopolitical issue facing our country, can now be summed up in a hashtag. A subset of Americans can be labeled Nazis by another subset that has never even interacted with them. Strangers with no political or economic background debate the efficacy of Donald Trump’s trade policies, furiously typing out the talking points that their respective outlet of choice had served to the top of their news feed. The unending torrent of information, processed and synthesized by clickhungry news outlets, has effectively divided our country into two extremes.

When Facebook began, you had to navigate to the ‘About’ section of someone’s profile to see their political views, nestled somewhere between their birthday and their favorite band. Today, you rarely have to search at all.

People blaming this split on Donald Trump do so because they have fallen into this exact trap. It’s more convenient to blame the other side than it is to admit that you don’t know as much as you think you do. Political debate amongst everyday people doesn’t work to sway anyone’s opinion; Its purpose has all but been lost. Disregarding an entire half of the United States as either literal Nazis or an entitled snowflakes isn’t a valid political opinion, yet vilification and condescension have become our most common form of discourse. The population has been split into two teams and forced to play an imaginary game where the media and the government make the rules at our expense.

At the end of the day, if you want your political ideology to succeed, you need people to support it. If you want people to support it, you need them to understand its merits. By antagonizing the other side rather than engaging them in meaningful discussion, you further entrench them in their own beliefs and actively work against the growth of your own ideology.

Our sharing-based online culture has created a feedback loop, telling us that those who agree with us are good and that those who don’t are bad. We have become so comfortable surrounded by information that we subconsciously adopt sensational headlines into our ever-growing list of opinions, headlines that we will later use in arguments with other half-informed people. If everyone agreed that most political issues are out of our control and that we don’t know as much as we think we do, a lot of the political tension in this country would be diffused.

Unfortunately, society as a whole has developed to revel in controversy and political tribalism. Social media has placed a value on everyone’s opinion, so we feel encouraged to produce them. Our methods of debate have devolved into ill-informed mudslinging, making it harder and harder to bridge the gap. We haven’t even begun to understand the digital landscape that has fostered this rift, but I can say one thing with certainty: social media damages a lot more than just our self-image.