Returning to Twitter after taking a year off (14 months, to be precise) was an eye-opening experience. Within an hour of returning, I already felt the toxic cocktail mixture of malaise and fear and disgust that chased me away in the first place. Except this time it felt stronger, like its anger-laser had been more focused, more refined. Perhaps even turned into an orbital ion cannon of societal destruction.
I’m not sure if it actually got worse in the year I was gone, or if I’d just forgotten how awful it was when I left. But I stuck with it, to see if I could figure out why it bothered me so much, and in the ensuing two weeks I discovered something terrible:
Social media is killing us.
Not literally. At least not yet. But as a society, it is tearing us apart. It’s forcing us into ever more extreme viewpoints and dogmatic tribes, and I’m pretty sure we’re past the point of no return when it comes to reconciliation. Not everyone’s in one of these two tribes–there are a lot of micro tribes in the middle where I live, for example–but if you’re not in one of the two major ones you’ll absolutely feel the pressure to join one. “You will be made to care”, I quipped, in my “why I’m abandoning Twitter” post from last year. And it’s true–one way or another, you will be made to care. You will either be recruited into the ranks of one of the two megatribes, or you will be shamed by both of them for not joining either. An interesting side effect of tribalism is that one major tribe will assume you’re with the other if you’re not with them. “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” How’d that go over the last time some major political leader of the United States blurted it out? Not so well. Because it’s a false dichotomy.
And false dichotomies are at the root of the terrible destructive power social media is unleashing on our society. I’m going to show two examples, one from each of the megatribes, to help illustrate. Both of these are from Twitter, and both are making the rounds garnering massive numbers of retweets within their respective corners. I’m not going to link to the tweets themselves, because I don’t want to shine a light on what I perceive is part of the problem, and I also don’t want to encourage any sort of witch hunts. But it wouldn’t take long for you to find them–you’ve probably seen them already and made snap judgments based on which megatribe you associate with.
“The same people who said it was okay for Roy Moore to date teenagers are now saying that teenagers shouldn’t have any say in gun laws.”
“The same people saying we are being ruled by a tyrannous dictator in DC and that we must resist at all costs are now saying we have to give up all of our guns.”
These are both false. I have never seen anyone make both assertions in either of these tweets. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but if they do, they’re a very small minority.
But these tweets are going gangbusters on twitter because they confirm the existing bias that one megatribe has against the other. But it’s more harmful than that–it doesn’t just make the rounds as a sermon to the choir. It doesn’t just result in everyone in Megatribe One high fiving each other and smirking at how much better they are than Megatribe Two: it also widens the window of aspersions cast against their opposing tribe.
Because now, everyone in Megatribe One assumes everyone in Megatribe Two feels this way. And every time we retweet something like this, something that applies to only a fringe minority of some larger group, we widen the window of “insanity” through which we see that entire group. It’s not only perpetuating a faulty stereotype, it’s adding more baggage to it.
The speed at which social media enables this kind of runaway stereotyping to run rampant is nauseating.
As someone who grew up in Alabama, I’ve got a lot of friends there still. Family, too. I know and am in constant contact with lots of people back home. I’ve also lived on three continents, and in diverse areas of the US all the way from Florida to Utah to Washington State and a few places in-between. I don’t live in the same bubble most people in Seattle or Alabama live in. Maybe that lets me see the weirdness coming from both megatribes because I live outside of them. I don’t know.
I also don’t know what the solution is.
I *do* know that the 14 months I was away from Twitter were some of the happiest months in my life. I *do* know that the two weeks I’ve been back on Twitter were some of the unhappiest weeks of my life.
I *do* know that Facebook’s “see fewer posts like these” setting has worked wonders for my perspective on the good in humanity on that platform, though I mostly stuck with it because it’s how I share pictures of my kids with my family back home.
Why do we post things on social media? Why do some people spend what appears to be every waking hour complaining about things? Do they realize that’s how they appear to the rest of the world? We all know that our social media presence is not a full picture of our lives. It’s whatever small slice we allow people to see. If your timeline is filled with complaints about the president/the patriarchy/those damned feminists/everyone’s a nazi/everyone’s a socialist/dogs are superior/stfu cats rule then guess what? That’s all anyone thinks you are. That’s all anyone looking at just your social media profile think you are about.
I know many people just like that. Some I consider my best friends, and I know they’re so much more than an endless litany of complaints against the Other Megatribe. But since that’s all the less-informed people see, that’s what they think. And if they see that “Bob Loblaw” is that radical in his/her beliefs, then maybe they should be too.
So not only does social media perpetuate and radicalize stereotypes against other tribes, it also radicalizes us in ways we don’t even perceive at the time. It’s a slow burn, albeit one that’s speeding up.
I don’t have a solution. I hope you weren’t waiting for me to offer one. But I can say that turning off social media (which I’m doing for Lent, but may continue doing for much longer) has worked miracles for my outlook on society.
Give it a shot. Just one month. See how you feel.
I bet you’ll feel better, after the withdrawal jitters pass.