The highest ideal of Chinese thought is therefore a man who does not have to escape from human society and human life in order to preserve his original, happy nature. He is only a second-rate recluse, still slave to his environment, who has to escape from the cities and live away in the mountains in solitude. “The Great Recluse is the city recluse,” because he has sufficient mastery over himself not to be afraid of his surroundings. He is therefore the Great Monk (the kaoseng) who returns to human society and eats pork and drinks wine and mixes with women, without detriment to his own soul.
— Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
For many users, informational exchange is only the incidental pretext to more important things like self-aggrandisement, covert attacks on imagined enemies, and consolidation of social power. In terms of psychological richness, then, Twitter-watching offers a panoply of fascinating characters to rival anything Dickens, Austen, or Eliot could come up with. There are aggressors advertising victimhood; grifters advertising blogs about anti-grifting; fragile souls being grandiose; cruel people preaching kindness. There is also an absolute tsunami of empty sentimentality over other people’s pets, partners, and kids — dead, nearly dead, or just plain cute. The Taoist-style challenge for the observer is simply to notice these things as they are, rather than to get caught up emotionally or wilfully in any of them. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. It’s also pointless judging anybody else for what, after all, are just human traits to which we are nearly all subject. And that’s hard too.
John Gray said, in reference to Richard Dawkins-style evangelical atheism, that it is a curious sort of “humanist” who disdains one of the most enduring and important activities in human life. That sort of “humanism” is more like idealism and its Janus-face misanthropy, the latter of which is revealed when the masses fail to live up to the standards you’ve set for them. As an armchair foolosopher, I’ve always been concerned with the corrosive effects of social media, but I also recognize the futility of wishing that human beings would renounce the petty pleasures of gossiping, boasting, bullying, and attention-seeking in favor of quiet contemplation. And so, like Yutang and Stock, I aim to simply notice the great human drama without getting caught up in it. Perhaps even now, the Henry James of the social media age is compiling notes for his masterpiece, only after which will people say, ah, so there was art to be found there after all.