I want to return to that Alan Jacobs post I linked to yesterday:
Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace. We’ve moved a long way from Tim Carmody’s planetary metaphor, which, as I say, I feel the force of, but whether what I’m doing ultimately matters or not, I’m finding it helpful to work away in this little highland garden, above the turmoil of the social-media sea, finding small beautiful things and caring for them and sharing them with a few friends. One could do worse.
I wholeheartedly concur, of course. I’ve been amused for almost a decade now by the insistence that blogs are passé, and I’ve championed the idea of unambitious, self-contained satisfaction within a writing practice for even longer. I realized while reading this, though, that for all the true and necessary complaints about Facebook and Twitter, you rarely see anyone include Reddit in the pantheon of online deities. Doing so would complicate the picture somewhat, I think. (The rise of podcasting and YouTube channels complicates the declinist view of social media even more, given that huge numbers of people are eager to absorb hours of lectures and discussions about weighty topics, but I’m sticking to the mostly-text-based platforms here.)
Let me be fair: there are genuine positives about any media platform. I don’t belong to any of them, but I’m aware that they can be used intelligently. As much as I would love to see Facebook and Twitter disappear, I worry that it’s starting to become a reverse-status symbol, a new countercultural badge, to say so. The negative narrative crystallizing around social media resonates because most people think of pop culture and current events as the cultural center of gravity, the place where all the important action and discussion is. On Facebook, this means seeing your relatives and friends argue vehemently about politics. On Twitter, this means seeing increasingly-unhinged media figures incite mobs to savage the reputations and livelihoods of thought-criminals. On Reddit, though, things can’t be summarized so neatly.
Reddit is somewhat the black sheep of the social media family, referred to obliquely as a cautionary tale about the dangers of too much free speech. Years ago, as the Great Awokening was taking shape, one would easily get the impression from the chattering classes that Reddit was the seedy downtown of the Internet where all the lowlifes lurked, waiting to prey on passers-by. The pseudonymity of the platform played a significant part in that perception, as did the fact that interests are followed on Reddit, not individuals. If Facebook increasingly resembles the Party of 1984, Reddit might represent the proles of Winston Smith’s fantasy, “those swarming disregarded masses” whose anarchic energy could bring the whole dystopian edifice down. (Twitter is just where journalists and other media figures conduct a perpetual Maoist struggle session in sentence fragments.) But as I said at the time, being leery of Reddit is like being agoraphobic — it’s far too diverse and eclectic. For every subreddit devoted to radical politics or porn, there’s the structured format of r/changemyview, which strikes even this jaded observer as a laudable attempt to make online debate constructive and informative, or there’s the general interest of r/askhistorians. If there’s an interest, there’s probably a subreddit devoted to it, and even as the web devolves toward communicating through memes, gifs and emoticons, there are still plenty of people who write well and at length to be found on Reddit. It’s like the entire human pageant in miniature, both good and bad.
If we do include Reddit alongside its social media brethren, one thing we can say in general about all of them is that they represent not the death of blogging so much as the expansion of the comment section. Few people have the discipline or depth to sustain a writing practice of any substance. The model of online discussion now is a crowded pub, where anyone who isn’t shouting or gesturing excitedly will struggle to be heard. I don’t see any point in bemoaning this, unless people are nostalgic for the attention that blogs used to command. As far as technological evolution is concerned, the comment section is perfectly adapted to our new digital environment; the blog was just a necessary link in the ancestral chain. Like the great apes, those of us who prefer to reflect and write at moderate length for a devoted, small audience will have to find our niche in remote forests and jungles, hoping that our descendants don’t completely despoil our habitat or start hunting us for sport.