[Originally published Jun. 14, 2016.]
The immediacy and excitement of social media and online journalism have encouraged people to ignore this and hold forth on everything. Mouthing off with insufficient knowledge of one’s subject can entail devising and promoting arrant nonsense. What it also does, however, which is far less acknowledged, is make it more difficult to stop promoting nonsense as having publically endorsed a particular opinion one has made a personal investment in its success, integrating the idea into one’s identity and gambling one’s social status on it being impressive.
In the depths of an old-growth forest, a tree falls. In a study, a blogger glances over the headlines and trending topics in his feed reader and rolls his eyes in disdain before closing the laptop and picking up a book. Do either of them make a sound? It depends, of course, on how you define the term. Are the soundwaves that ripple out from the tree’s crash into the undergrowth significant if they’re only registered by the ears of forest creatures incapable of recursively reflecting on them? Is the blogger’s weariness with the fatuity of social media meaningful if it isn’t publicly performed in that same venue in return for validation by clicks, likes and retweets?
It’s no fun ignoring people if they don’t know they’re being ignored, is it? How are people to know that the weeklong lapse between posts is due to my principled rejection of the popular topics and viral essays on offer, rather than my being occupied with work or other hobbies, if I don’t say so? However, conspicuous disdain, the kind that wants to make sure the audience knows just how unworthy of your attention you find the current object of your attention, should be beneath us. It’s akin to the fraudulent spectacle of a football player peeking through his fingers to see if the referee has taken note of his simulation of mortal injury. In the social media marketplace, sense and nonsense are not polar opposites, however invested consumers might be in believing otherwise; they’re competing products, like Coke and Pepsi. Performance, signaling, and seeking validation — these are the currency, the bills and coins which dirty the hands of the enlightened and benighted alike.