The great promise of social media was that by giving voice to ordinary people all across the world, their collective experiences and expertise would help society reach a higher consciousness. Much as the web was bringing together the world of knowledge, social media would bring together our diverse perspectives and especially the vast wealth of uncodified human knowledge. The reality, as we all know, has been quite the opposite: a toxic cesspool of hate and stupidity, where the loudest and most obnoxious one wins and enlightened insight is overwhelmed by emotional sarcasm and toxicity. Is there any hope for a social future?
Part of growing up from childhood into functional adulthood is learning patience. A child wants everything instantly, while adults learn the hard truth that sometimes things take time.
Social media is reverting us back to our childhood demand for instantaneous gratification.
Adulthood is about spending the time to think before talking. Sadly, we are no longer content with spending even a few moments researching a question or verifying a fact. Instead, we click on the first link that comes back from a web search and retweet every interesting headline without even bothering to read the first paragraph of the article.
Adulthood is about putting work first. Yet, as any corporate IT department knows, the web is a vast entertainment wasteland and companies that don’t require their employees to check their phones at the door can find that their employees spend a surprising amount of their workday glued to non-work phone content. Parents with small children are quick to realize just how strong their phone addictions are as their children go so far as to hide their cellphones to try and win back a bit more attention from the object that seems to draw more of their parents’ attention and affection than they do.
Adulthood is about making rational decisions about what is socially appropriate to communicate to others and what should be kept to oneself. Social media platforms have reprogrammed an entire generation to no longer make such distinctions: just put every thought that pops into your mind on the web for all to see, ridicule, endorse or despise. Worse, rather than a jury of geographically proximate peers evaluating one’s ideas, today those thoughts are judged by the entire planet. Trolls whose sole purpose for online existence is to toxify conversations and drag others down are quick to attack the vulnerable, placing children at especial risk in our rule-free digital Wild West.
Adulthood is about controlling our emotions, learning to take a deep breath and modulating our moments of anger or frustration. Social media teaches us to do precisely the opposite: vent the full fury of our unvarnished emotions at anyone within listening distance. The more emotion, snark, sarcasm and vitriol we can work into our posts, the more likely we are to go viral. Make the other person cry or even withdraw from social media and you might achieve internet fame.
Adulthood is about prioritizing informed discourse over emotional diatribes and learning what we know and don’t know. Once again, social media’s relentless prioritization of speed over accuracy means we are encouraged to express our opinion on every issue in existence, regardless of whether we have the slightest bit of knowledge regarding the topic. In fact, if we scream loudly enough and sufficiently bully anyone who questions us, our wildest fiction can become internet fact.
Social media has steadily eroded all of these basic components of functional adulthood.
Even professional scholars with advanced degrees and teaching at our most prestigious universities have become transformed by social media into dualities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. By day they are rational educated adults, focusing on evidentiary expression of their area of expertise. By evening they become raving schoolyard bullies screaming forth their opinion on every divisive issue of the moment, pouring forth snark, sarcasm, vitriol and hate at anyone who dares to disagree with them. Scholarly disagreements traditionally adjudicated through fact-laden emails are instead breaking forth into the no-holds-barred world of social media where the aggrieved can call forth mob justice upon those they dislike.
Putting this all together, social media is in many respects causing a regression of society, deemphasizing the traits we have historically associated with adulthood and restoring us to a state of perpetual infancy. Rather than evolve society into a higher level of collective consciousness that brings forth the best in ourselves, social media has devolved us into toxic schoolyard bullies clamoring for attention and petty victory.
In the end, our modern online world that began as a means of sharing knowledge has become a place ruled by emotion over enlightenment. Perhaps this is the first step in the machines’ great plan for the singularity.