The Humanization of Social Media
And the Re-Humanization of Ourselves
What is your identity?
If your first answer to that is to categorize yourself into one or more groups, you’re wrong. You are not a category. You are not a group. You are an individual — a person, not a nameless member of a class, race, species, gender, etc. Internalize that. Believe that. Hold onto that.
Making one’s identity into this or that group membership is precisely the problem with so much that passes for contemporary thought and expression and, inevitably, politics. We look at ourselves; we look at each other, and we don’t see persons. We see a representative of a group, and not only that, but we seem hell bent on classifying all the groups we imagine as good or bad and, consequently, each person we assign to this or that group as implicitly good or bad, friend or enemy — often before we know much of anything about the living, breathing human person before us.
I’ll say it plainly. This is just wrong. It’s evil, and it’s tearing us apart, even while have so much going for us. We are exponentially the most technologically advanced that humanity has ever been. We are more connected. We have more knowledge readily available to us than ever before (and yes, more lies). And yet despite all these awesome advances, we are perhaps more at each others’ collective throats than ever.
How did we get here? Well, it’s not possible to definitively lay the blame at the feet of any one thing, person, institution, etc. But I will call out one thing in particular — it’s social media. And I use that term broadly to include more or less any high technology that enables instant mass communication (or at least perceived mass communication — we often imagine we have far, far more reach than we actually do).
The problems that social media presents are many, so of necessity, I can only grapple with a few issues here. First, there is the cheapening of relationships. Nowadays, you’re thinking, it is downright quaint for someone to point out how cheaply we use words like “friend” and “family.” But I’m doing it! Think about it. Facebook has, possibly singlehandedly, obliterated any meaning from the word “friend.” Go ahead. Review your “Friends” list on Facebook. No seriously. I’ll wait.
Back? If you’re anything like I was a few days ago, you’ll probably have hundreds of people. Depending on your Facebook “philosophy,” you may not even recognize many of the names. I know I didn’t. How can someone be a friend whose name we don’t even recognize?! And even for those that we do recognize, how many of those would you honestly want to hang out with IRL? How many have you actually hung out with IRL? Trust me, I’m not opposed to online-only friends at all, but there is still a lot to be said for that embodied connection.
So what’s the big deal? Words change their meaning over time, you say. It’s the normal evolution of language. Or maybe you agree that it’s sad that “friend” has been so eviscerated of meaning, but “it is what it is.” We all look the other way and shrug. “That’s life.”
Maybe, just maybe, you recognize the cheapening for what it is — a purely utilitarian mechanism to superficially connect with people you share at least some vague personal association with, if only a common interest. For a long time, that’s the boat I was in. I winked at the verbal vacuity because it got me something I felt I needed. And after all, “everybody does it.”
So again, what the heck is the big deal? I asked myself just that question; I asked if this even matters. Certainly the changing of the meaning of a symbol, a word, in a particular context doesn’t amount to much. I am anything but a prescriptivist, so that couldn’t be what was eating at me. What was it?
I think I finally landed on it. And it is tied up in the bigger question of what is wrong with us today? Why are we so polarized? Why do people who don’t know InsertNameHere at all readily and viciously attack and demonize that person?
As I said, social media. It starts with this implicit voiding of relational words. Friend no longer means a person that I actually know as a person, someone that I’ve spent extensive time with, and someone that I am fond of and actually want to spend more time with.
Friend no longer means a person that I actually know as a person, someone that I’ve spent extensive time with, and someone that I am fond of and actually want to spend more time with.
Nope. “Friend” is now someone who:
- Posts things that I’m interested in, and/or
- Might be interested in something I share (and ideally will Like it!).
In short, a “Friend” is someone I hope will share something that I can Like or who will Like what I share. It is a utilitarian supplier-consumer relationship, not an authentic relationship between persons. And what do we want from these relationships? Largely it is to have our worldview validated. To feel good about ourselves. We want to know that other people think like we do, and we want to have people appreciate how we think. We want to construct an identity based solely upon what we Share and what we Like.
Much ink has been spilled, and even movies and series made, about how wonky the social pressures are with social media. Fictional dystopian futures based on the theme are not rare, and I would say that we are already living in a kind of dystopia with this stuff — it’s just that fiction exaggerates what is already here. We event get a physiological rush when we see that others Like what we share (even more for Hearts, right?).
But I’m not focusing on that aspect here. That’s the superficial exchange mechanics of the social media economy. If that were all there is to it, we could just laugh at ourselves and how silly we are. The deeper problem seems to me to be in how thoroughly it warps how we think about ourselves and how we think about ourselves in relation to other people.
The persons we know online through social media, apart from the few who would actually qualify as friends in the traditional sense of the word, tend to be those who share some kind of group identity based on things we care about — or think we ought to care about.
And so we’re back at the beginning. Our constructed identities, apart from being stereotypically vain by presenting those aspects of our lives we feel are Share-worthy, are largely about these very loose associations. This person agrees with my views on climate/environmental issues. That person agrees with my views on gender/sexuality/marriage issues. This person agrees with my views on economic issues. That person agrees (or at least largely shares) my views on religion. This person agrees with my choice of political candidate or party. Virtually everyone today agrees that racism is bad, but that person shares my additional beliefs about what constitutes racism. And so on.
Thus our headspace is consumed by where we stand on issues, and finding people who agree with us on those things — and being outraged by every single last person and post/article/video that remotely disagrees with us on these things.
Thus our headspace is consumed by where we stand on issues, and finding people who agree with us on those things — and being outraged by every single last person and post/article/video that remotely disagrees with us on these things. I don’t actually know that person, but they Liked (or worse, Shared!) a post that I am outraged by, so they must be a Bad Person. They are not like this person who Liked and Shared what I posted — this person whom I barely know from Eve is obviously a Good Person.
This is why people are so quick to viciously attack others online in these fora. When their perspectives are challenged, it not only means that there are in fact views that differ from their own (which is tough enough to come to terms with in itself), but it also challenges their very “identity,” this identity that was so painstakingly constructed and cultivated through long hours of Liking, Sharing, Friending, Commenting, and Blocking.
And it doesn’t help that it is remarkably rare for someone to articulate a position without being implicitly or explicitly demeaning of those with whom they disagree, much less presenting a position in a rarified rational manner. No, the typical blather that is shared is just so much grandstanding and mud slinging.
Can you believe that anyone in their right mind would vote for Trump?!? For the record, I did not vote for him. Not only that, I probably lost a good few “Friends” in my avid anti-Trump posting leading up to the 2016 election. And yet I have many actual friends who did vote for him. Not only that, nearly half of the country did! Is every other person we meet truly mad?? I suggest that cannot be the case. And yet the utter disbelief voiced by many belies some underlying prejudice that yes, roughly half of Americans are idiots, boondoggled, brainwashed, etc. Those poor morons. Right?
Wrong. And this is just one datum upon which hinges many people’s judgments about other persons. Forget everything else about a person. That they voted for Trump is sufficient to categorize them as a Bad Person.
Why is it so easy to do this? Why is it so easy for so many of us to belittle, dismiss, and vilify other persons that we know virtually nothing about? I submit it is because of how warped we have become by social media with regards to basic human relationships. Not only has “friend” lost its meaning but so also has “enemy.” Just as something as little as sharing, retweeting, etc. something we Like enough to earn “Friend” status, so is it equally easy to earn the “Enemy” status.
And if this evil in itself were not enough — that is, the severe reduction of our ability to see and personally connect with each other as human beings, apart from whatever views we might hold on this or that subject — this disability leads to other evils. In a perverse and twisted way, it is precisely a sense of social justice as expressed through social media that leads to great social injustice.
Now that we have dehumanized each other and cheapened our relationships to transactional physiological highs we get and give each other through Liking and being self-righteously outraged, it is so simple and easy to turn this behemoth apparatus against each other, quite literally destroying lives in the process. It is mob justice in its most distilled form. The victims are (as far as we are concerned) more or less anonymous, distant —they are ideas more than people — and it doesn’t even require the least bit of effort. In many cases we can simply retweet something sanctimonious or vicious and be done with it. And so our collective, thoughtless, emotional, knee-jerk regurgitations drag down reputations, destroy careers, tear apart families. It feels so good to be so right, especially when it calls for zero consequences, zero sacrifice, and zero effort for us to feel that way.
It feels so good to be so right, especially when it calls for zero consequences, zero sacrifice, and zero effort for us to feel that way.
A Path Forward?
All right then. Is there any way out of this morass? Yes, but it will take actual discipline and actual sacrifice and actual moral action. It will take effort to relearn how to truly connect with people, how to treat others as real, full-fledged persons.
Some suggestions. All of these require introspection, to listen and try to honestly evaluate yourself in terms of social media use.
1. Curate Your Feeds
This was my first step that I started to take a year or so ago, and I think it does help.
- Unfollow or unlike or unsubscribe (or whatever the corresponding action is on your network of choice) any person/org/channel/etc. that regularly feeds your sense of self-righteousness and outrage. On Facebook, for example, you can remain friends with someone but just unfollow them so that their posts don’t show up. To do this, you just have to consciously watch yourself. Usually these can be identified by sources that you Like or Heart or Share with great sense of righteousness, or those on which you feel compelled to regularly comment on to debate.
- Evaluate what’s left. For each, ask yourself if what is being shared is actually helping you or prompting you to real action (i.e., not just resharing) or really challenging you to think critically or in a way different from your wont. For me, I kept mostly spiritual/religious sources that provided content without regard to current events (because those are typically the most controversial ones). I kept a few of what I regard as more fair and balanced news sources (and no, I don’t mean Fox, nor any number of left-wing pubs like HuffPo for that matter).
- Be very selective about engaging in arguments on social media. This is a good general rule, but especially if you’re trying to be more self aware about this stuff. Despite feelings to the contrary, it is rare for such debates to go much anywhere fruitful. Prefer 1–1 conversations over “public” debates. Offer to take things “offline” to continue. People are typically amazingly far more reasonable when they don’t feel they have an audience, and you can have really beneficial dialogues and learn from each other. Plus, you just might get to know the person for realz, as a person, and not just The Enemy.
- Be more thoughtful about Liking. I don’t mean your niece’s birthday photo. I mean those things that are more ideological and less personal. Remember that part of this problem is how the Liking (and desiring to be Liked) warps our relationships. This can also help you to see some sources for what they are — drug dealers. If Liking something is your way of virtue signaling, then that’s part of the problem. (Virtue signaling itself is indeed core to the problem.)
- Don’t be afraid to Block. There really are people who have exactly zero interest in productive dialogue. Call them trolls, if you will. I found certain people seemed to just watch for my posts and then harass me, without really wanting to engage in meaningful conversation. I unfollowed them; sometimes unfriended. But they still jumped on my public posts. So, Block. Don’t worry, you’re not being a “censor.” You’re not shutting yourself off to new ideas. You’re just effectively dealing with assholes. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
I found the above to be an ongoing process. I would iteratively identify problem sources and remove them. It made my experience of my social media much more enjoyable, and much less of a waste of time (in retrospect).
You’re maybe worried about creating a bubble with such curation, but don’t forget that the first suggestion includes those sources with which you vehemently agree but who, on the whole, simply feed your sense of outrage and self-righteousness. You can identify these because they’re almost always talking about how bad those people are. With some effort, you can find sources of information that are reliable and even challenge your way of thinking — without all the negative baggage. And truly, taking this path is a far more effective way to pierce the bubble, because the other outrage-inducing way tends to just ossify you in your existing presuppositions. Anger is a great way to block rational thought and fosters the opposite of open-mindedness.
2. Stop Playing the Game
Don’t get ahead of me. I don’t mean you have to completely delete your social media accounts and disappear into a hermitage. (Though for some that might be best.) No, I mean to take this to the next level. The first level is to be much more thoughtful about how you select your “feeds” and how you engage.
The next step is to stop playing the game entirely. I only recently came to this myself. Once I realized just how much I’d succumbed to the machine, I decided I needed to do something about it. And let’s not forget that while the bigger issue I’m addressing here is the warping of relationships, there is a real corporate machine behind this, too, that is playing off our all-too-human weaknesses to amass information and, yes, real money, from all our shenanigans.
I’m not being cynical, just realistic. It can be okay to recognize this and consciously participate in the game. I no longer think so. And I’m not privacy zealot or conspiracy theorist. I just work in software, and I have some notion of how money is made off these tools and, to some degree, what drives the purveyors of the tools — what they concretely gain and what they hope to gain in the future.
But this is not about that. It’s about the more important social stake — this ongoing warping of our relationships.
I finally realized that I was using people as sources. Sure, we all consent to it, but as I described above, so much of what goes on in social media boils down to minimal human connection and maximal utilitarianism. We “Friend” people we don’t even know — just so we can get what they might share. I told myself that it was good to get all these “Friends” from all over the world, in the belief that it would broaden my perspective, but the reality was that it rarely did, probably because we’re all mostly doing the same thing, and largely “Friend” those with whom we already share many of the same perspectives with (and share things along those lines).
Again, I do think this can be managed (as noted with the curation above) and still be less harmful and even beneficial in some ways. But I also think there is a better way. In short, that way is to unfriend/follow anyone that is not an actual, honest-to-goodness friend. Stop using each other for information and for dopamine hits and to foster our collective sense of outrage. If there’s a “Page” or channel or site that provides useful info, that’s one thing. Those are not about personal connections but explicitly about sharing information. I’m talking about the personal connections here (that’s “Friends” in Facebook-speak).
And note that this still has to be practiced with the above curation. You can have real friends who are just not a good influence (in terms of social media). You can still be friends — just unfollow and minimize engagement in social media.
The focus in doing this is to reinvigorate our sense of real human relationships, to reimagine our online connectedness as a way to truly connect with persons, rather than to use each other as tools in some imagined social justice war.
If you want to be an activist, be an activist — in real life! Be very reticent, however, in how you leverage social media. The ends do not justify the means.
I am convinced if we can start backing away from imagining our identities as admixtures of different pieces of ideology and memberships in various groups and classes that we express via a (largely unconsciously) fabricated social media presence, and concordantly stop treating each other as supporting cast members in that fabricated identity, we can get to a truly human way of being and of treating each other — as individual human persons who have innate dignity, who are much more rich and varied and wonderful than this or that opinion, however closely held.
This is adamantly not a Luddite withdrawal from new technology. This is a maturation and learning how to responsibly use our newfound powers of communication and connectedness. It is an effort to humanize and re-humanize our ways of being and interacting along with these new, amazing tools, rather than letting those tools use us and continue to dehumanize us and take advantage of all that is worst about us. We can be better if we try.