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Is it time to quit social media?

Social Media

Arguing Yes is Michael Harris, the author of two national bestsellers, Solitude and The End of Absence. Harris lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his husband and their Instagram-ready goldendoodle.

Making the case for No is Charlotte Lydia Riley, a historian of 20th-century Britain at the University of Southampton. Charlotte spends far too much of her time on Twitter complaining about her commute, arguing about her pop-culture and despairing about politics. (She is also a fan of selfies.) 

Michael: I’d never argue for the prohibition of social media; after all, it’s been with us for thousands of years. Before posting on Facebook walls we were scribbling on the walls of ancient Rome; well before that, we made our mark on the walls of caves. We use each technology to extend ourselves into larger and larger social groups and that’s a perfectly healthy impulse – it’s social grooming writ large. However, just as our primal desires for sugar and fat were hijacked by fast-food corporations in the 20th century, our desire for social grooming was hijacked by tech corporations in the 21st. And, just as we’d never imagine that McDonald’s has had a positive effect on global waistlines, we cannot now pretend that Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make our social lives healthier.

We should critically examine our media diets. I may crave social connectivity from the moment my eyes open but succumbing to that urge deprives me of needful solitude. And why should solitude be in the mix? If we don’t sometimes ‘turn off’ from the overwhelming come-ons issued from our devices, we’ll fail to develop rich interior lives. And, if that happens, we won’t be much good to all those friends and followers.

Charlotte: As you say, social media is just a communication tool. Panics about ‘unhealthy’ social media are actually more about who we are as humans: our tendencies to show off and compare ourselves to other people, our need for stimulation and short attention spans. None of this is new.

The idea that social media prevents us from developing a rich interior life is intriguing. I’ve never heard that said about someone who always has their nose in a book. But surely reading literature is more passive than connecting with people across continents? Our lives are enriched by the people and ideas we encounter online and our interactions with them.

Needful solitude is a lovely poetic term for isolation and boredom. Sure, sometimes we all need to switch off, but the idea that we can only develop our identities – or our thinking, or our art – in solitude has always been used to elevate certain thinkers: serious men who don’t have lives filled with the ordinary bustle of daily life. Ask the mother of young children how much needful solitude she has to develop her rich interior life, and then consider that maybe social media can be a lifeline – an escape in itself.

Michael: In my experience, reading a book is dramatically different from engaging online. Book reading diminishes the ego as we take on the experience of characters. The self quiets down. By contrast, the self is powerfully engaged on social media; we each signal our own virtue, score points for pithiest take etc. So calling social media platforms ‘just’ a set of communication tools might be misleading – it matters a great deal what those tools are designed to do. Social media is designed to capture and monetize attention by proffering an endless cycle of ludic loops – it is not designed to make anyone a better person or improve their relationships. In fact, positive social encounters are bad business for social platforms. Angry, toxic talk is far more appealing to Silicon Valley.

You called needful solitude a term for isolation and boredom but I disagree. Solitude is, as you say, often a privileged state of being, and one where we can develop that rich interior life I was praising. I think it’s loneliness, rather than solitude, that leads to isolation and boredom. And we can certainly disconnect without becoming lonely – it just takes practice.

Charlotte: Whether or not social media was designed to make anyone a better person, it clearly has tangible positive effects for society and individuals. Different platforms perform different functions. Facebook might be a space for keeping in touch with far-flung family members. Instagram is a soothing litany of images of breakfast, sunsets, dogs and outfits. And Twitter has – honestly – revolutionized academia.

Because Twitter is a space where you can find people talking about anything. And academics love to talk like it’s our job. On Twitter, you can find a community of people who really, really care about 18th-century religious orders, gendered themes in the novels of James Joyce or string theory. It is a space without gatekeepers: the amateur enthusiast can chat with the eminent professor. It is a forum for questions, advice and generosity: sharing lecture notes, checking page references, recommending cafés near archives or fixes to programming bugs. And it is, fundamentally, an arena where academic hierarchies get left behind. Academia can be a conservative, stifling, formal space, but Twitter doesn’t care if you have tenure or a big office or a fancy post-doc, and it has become a forum for building solidarity, community and friendship.

Michael: I wonder if ‘academic Twitter’ is a special case: the threat of professional consequences maintains civil discourse and genial behaviour. Most academics I know (particularly those just starting out) are keenly aware that a rude comment or off-colour remark could damage their career. You end up with a self-regulating community – one that’s just as sweet and cordial as any other – but bolstered (as you point out) by the power of connective tech. However, most of Twitter is not governed by a similar level of threat; with the exception of a few mob-justice cases, there are no lasting consequences for poor behaviour.

The egalitarian Twitter you’re describing does sound enviable but I don’t think it’s a common experience. Blue checkmarks [for ‘verified’ individuals] and million-follower tallies tend to reaffirm class and power distinctions, even if we can potentially communicate with experts and celebrities. The more powerful person may even have a team of followers that gangs up on dissenters. This may be a social exchange – but it’s not amicable or humane.

Charlotte: Oh, believe me – academic Twitter has the potential to be as cut-throat as any other online community. Academics can be ruthless and, although academia runs on real-life social networks, it also valorizes reputation and performance. Of course the collegial atmosphere is not always sustained. People patronize, dismiss and ridicule. More troublingly, academics can be thrown to the mob by institutions who are unwilling to support their freedom of expression against online hordes, or who push them into public engagement but refuse to recognize the possible negative consequences.

Of course, Twitter and other forms of social media operate on hierarchies. But so does the world – and at least this is an alternative space, in which the world is presented in a different order. Ultimately, the fact that Twitter is still, for many people, a supportive and consoling space is down to human kindness and generosity. Social media might expose us to the awful: the bores, the show-offs, those who want to use it as a forum for harassment or threats. But it also helps us make and sustain connections with people all across the world: to organize, to agitate, to educate, to entertain or just be friends.

New Internationalist issue 519 magazine cover This article is from the May-June 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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