What happened to our love affair with social media? Contrary to much of what has been written, the story of the last decade of social media isn’t a tale of Russian-driven misinformation but of a misunderstanding of human nature. We have not taken the full measure of the kinds of problematic behaviors we know these platforms reward. We are confused about how to respond to their power to amplify and accelerate scandals and call-out culture. And we are at a loss about how to address their parlous effects not only on citizens but on the politicians we expect to lead us.
Way back when we were kids, most of us, I assume, played some version of the telephone game (I understand some of you may have known it as “Chinese whispers,” and I trust you have already reported yourselves to the relevant authorities for sensitivity training). But for those who didn’t, the idea was: a group of kids would sit in a circle. The teacher, or whoever was leading the fun, would start by whispering a brief phrase to the person beside them. Without pausing to clarify or consider, the second person would immediately relay the message to the third, and so on down the line. When the message reached the end of the circle, it would be spoken aloud, and of course, it had gotten so garbled in the course of its travels as to be unrecognizable. Oh, how we laughed at how easy it is to misunderstand each other.
Way back in the day, there was a blog called Busy, Busy, Busy, by a guy named Elton Beard. He didn’t invent the “Shorter…” template of blog post (for that he always credited Daniel Davies), but he certainly perfected it and made it “viral” before we called it such. As you can see, the idea was: you link to an article or column by the target of your mockery and attempt to summarize his or her point in the most pithy and sarcastic way possible, preferably with a one-liner. “Shorter So-and-So: Everyone who disagrees with me is a Nazi.” Yes, technically, a link was provided for anyone who wanted to read the entire article for accuracy’s sake, but in practice, no one ever did that. It would spoil the fun to bring nuance or balance into it. Intellectual property rights aside, the idea soon transcended its origin and became like the air we breathed, among bloggers and commenters alike. We already knew we were right about everything. All that was left to do was have fun with the stupidity of our opponents. Oh, how we laughed at our cleverness.
Oh, how little did we suspect what a basilisk’s egg we were hatching. How many countless dead conversations litter the social media landscape today, having fallen prey to its malevolent gaze. Those practices are so common as to be the rule now. We are indeed too busy, busy, busy to communicate clearly. Rather than engage with someone’s words at face value, we’d rather assume the presence of subtext and engage with that instead. Rather than proceed through a conversation carefully, one point at a time, we’d rather attempt to anticipate our partner’s next several rhetorical steps and call checkmate as quickly as possible. The Calvinist conception of conversation prevails today. Social media has become the telephone game on steroids, and it typically ends with roid rage instead of laughter. But what mirror exists that would allow us to turn the basilisk’s gaze back upon itself?