The story of social media isn’t over

Saturday I opened twitter and was immediately confronted with bad news that threatened to turn tragic.

This was horrible. “That’s horrible” I said. I spent a moment’s thought reflecting on what might have happened and then continued down my feed.

Within seconds of continued scrolling, I was confronted with this:

My mentality changed immediately. This was no longer a tragic event happening to an anonymous person in a context I had no capacity, nor obligation, to offer assistance. This was a problem and time was a factor. I started thinking about who I knew in Florida. Did I have any friends holding a position through which they could offer assistance? Was there a social cluster I was connected to I could reach out to through social media? Hospitals, law enforcement, travel. Who did I know? I became despondent when it became clear I had nothing to offer but a retweet.

After a few seconds I returned to reading what I realized was a thread of tweets only to be given the relief of wonderful news, a happy ending that was directly a product of sharing on twitter:

The arc of drama (from the privilege of my physical and personal distance from actual events) was over in less than 30 seconds. What I was left with was a simple truth: I was sympathetic, but comfortably detached from a tragic event actively unfolding. It wasn’t my problem nor was it something I could do anything about until I found out I knew someone involved.

Barely knew. I had exchanged a couple messages with Omar about a year ago. A handful of polite thoughts about something Omar tweeted that was of mutual interest. That’s it. That’s the totality of our interactions. But with it came a completely different framing, a level of connection that elevated an evocation of standard sympathy to a potential call to action.

Twitter, that engine of animosity and toothless rage, had made me care more about a stranger through the simplest of social connections.

Comedians and other entertainment professions often tell the same simple story about online trolls that goes something like this:

  1. Someone writes something mean about the entertainer on twitter
  2. The entertainer responds to the troll in a polite and controlled manner that invites them to more civil engagement or simply reveals that the trolls comments are hurtful.
  3. The troll evaporates, replaced by a person excited to re-acknowledge the basic humanity and worth of their previous target.

A moment of direct interaction transforms, in the eyes of the troll, a previously two-dimensional narrative prop into a flesh and bone person worthy of dignity. We’re awash in the denigration of targeted individuals by detached opportunists seeking status and approbation through targeted cruelty. What is underappreciated is the opportunity in this moment for the target to reach back and give the troll what they actual want: to be seen.

This next part is probably not the leap you are expecting, but there is a long history of media radically changing how we acknowledge and internalize the humanity of others. In this vein, there is arguably no more famous and impactful image than the seal of the The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1787), asking “Am I not a man and a brother?”

Not to be glib about such an important and horrifying part of our history, but this image blew people’s minds. In David Levy’s amazing history of how economics came to be referred to as “The Dismal Science”, he relates the efforts of Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and other figures in English literature to deny the basic humanity of non-White men and women, particularly those from Africa and Ireland. Key to their efforts were stories, particularly those coupled with drawings, that explicitly portrayed the targets of their denigration as something far removed from humanity as a species. It was to their chagrin that the “Man and Brother?” image went the 18th century equivalent of viral.

It not only shocked households all over England to learn that the victims of the slave trade were clearly human in every sense of the word, it sparked an undeniable chain of logic. If these are men and women, then they can learn to read. If they can read, then they can come to know the Bible and their souls can be saved. If they can be saved then we have an obligation to teach them to read, offer them a Bible, and welcome them as brothers and sisters.

This image forced the reconsidered worth of others and with that reconsideration a calling for their liberation and salvation. This image, and others like it, changed who was human.

Social media is currently how many of us stay on the bleeding edge of news. It’s a way for us to promote ourselves and our work. It’s also a hellscape of acrimony, bad faith arguments, bullying mobs, and malicious propaganda. That’s what it is today. But that doesn’t mean that’s all it can ever be. Film and television changed the world as entirely passive, one-directional media. Most of the downsides of social media are born of interactions that, by little more than the inertia of the mob, often behave as if it were a one-directional media, carrying the masses along in the tidal wave of an irresistible narrative. There remains the possibility, the hope, that the capacity to interact meaningfully will eventually reclaim it as a multi-directional discourse, where the people we interact with become more real. More human. Where calls to serve can overwhelm and displace calls to destroy.

The story of social media isn’t over. There is still time for it to become something more. Where the people on the other side of claims and jokes and accusations become more human, not less. Where we broaden the ranks of who we offer our best to and shrink those whom we condemn with our worst.

One thought on “The story of social media isn’t over

  1. StickerShockTrooper June 20, 2022 / 2:01 pm

    I think the biggest problem is that social media incentives push toward negative forms of engagement, rather than positive ones. Unless the economics change (government regulation? unlikely. Wholesale change in social norms? even more so) then I’m not optimistic.

    Newspapers in the 17th and 18th centuries were horribly partisan, and the current form of journalistic ethics took centuries to develop.


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