The Medium Is Not the Message

Are social media the problem? Or are we?

An old truism holds that to find out who rules you, “look for who you’re not allowed to criticize.” In a democratic society, however, I’d suggest a more accurate measure would be: Look for the person or thing that gets praised the least. One of the defining qualities of a free people, after all, is deep aversion to appearing on the side of power. Even the original quotation obviously exists to instigate criticism where a lack of it is presently perceived.

By this standard, social media is clearly our collective tyrant. We all understand ourselves to be ruled by it, and endless columns are churned out decrying this grim reality. Writers are ostentatiously quitting Twitter left and right — most recently the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman — or simply writing long essays about the neurotic hell it has made their lives.

Blame is heaped not only on endless hate tweets, preening status updates, curated echo chambers, and daily viral outrages, but also on the medium itself. Psychologically manipulative interfaces are accused of trapping us in addictive cycles of constant use. Character limits and anonymous accounts are turning us into snippy, cocksure jerks. Blocked and banned accounts are eroding free speech. Social-media CEOs are hauled before Congress to explain themselves.

Much of this hostility and skepticism is rationally grounded, but it’s also only one half of the story, and we’re not well served by ignoring the other half. It’s always easy, fun, and empowering to hate the tyrant of the moment, but vastly harder — socially, emotionally, and intellectually — to acknowledge its talents. And not just talents in the “it’s good at manipulating me” sense either, but genuinely attractive qualities worth praising on their own terms.

The hard fact is that social media remains popular despite its flaws because it is a tremendously useful, convenient, and enjoyable technology for the vast majority of users. It has made communication among friends, strangers, and mass audiences fast and easy. Distribution and dissemination of news — in the broadest sense of the word — has become effortlessly efficient. Social media has given us a clearer window into the minds of politicians, journalists, brands, entertainers, and celebrities of all sorts, and in doing so, helped us understand them, appreciate them, and hold them accountable. It has served as a useful forum for intellectual conversation, creative self-expression, and online commerce. It is mostly free to use.

This is not nothing. Indeed, it’s one of the defining achievements of early-21st-century America. Nevertheless, the case for social media has become an argument so unfashionable and marginalized that you might as well argue for more polarization in politics while you’re at it.

This style of performative pessimism is ancient. Every era finds a fresh embodiment of capitalist excess to denounce, and the narrative structure is always broadly similar.

It begins with a wave of deterministic conclusions that all the heightened social tensions of our age can be correlated to the rise of a cultural-technological phenomenon that either didn’t exist or wasn’t nearly so mainstream a decade or two ago. The shadowy corporations behind the phenomenon are then portrayed in an increasingly sinister light, motivated by little more than avarice and villainy. The journalists and politicians diagnose this new danger as having robbed man of his agency, and turned America into a society of grotesque drones. Eventually Hollywood starts making dystopian movies depicting the ‘“logical end point” of our current obsession, which is always physical slavery followed by torturous death.

We’ve been down this rhetorical road oh-so-many times. Fast food. Game shows. Video games. Reality TV. Personal computers. Test-tube babies. Antidepressants. Gene splicing. By my count, we should be living in at least nine or ten overlapping hellscapes by now, and yet it seems that mankind is surprisingly resilient in learning to tame and curb the potential dangers of fads that once seemed on the brink of a totalitarian takeover.

Mankind is surprisingly resilient in learning to tame and curb the potential dangers of fads that once seemed on the brink of a totalitarian takeover.

Fast food is still prevalent, but healthy options are now abundant. We play video games as much as ever, but their themes have become far more varied and non-violent since the days of the Mortal Kombat moral panic. Running Man predicted we’d all be watching escaped convicts murder each other on live TV by now, but instead our hottest reality shows center on baking.

In short, the more trendy and widespread the socia-media freakout becomes, the more cautiously we should react, and the more we should try to remind ourselves what we like about social media, and what about them is worth preserving. Recent history suggests that a balanced pro-and-con assessment of today’s frightening embodiment of the modern is usually more helpful in crafting long-term, reformist solutions than mere hysterics and self-pity.

Social media have become a growing source of personal anxiety in recent months, yet I try to remember that neither I nor the class of people I represent as a political journalist embody the entirety (or even a representative sample) of social-media users. Nor does my personal discomfort with some of the obnoxious uses of Facebook, Twitter, etc. I frequently encounter necessarily serve as sufficient proof that the medium itself is more flawed than the human user on the other end. Social media can inflame personal demons of sloth, anger, pride, and envy, but it cannot create them any more than McDonald’s created gluttony or Playboy created lust.

A capitalist society can be a delicate thing to sustain, because it’s prone to be spoiled and ungrateful. Even the market’s most successful, popular creations are constantly resented for their imperfections. Capitalism’s defenders should remember the wisdom of the larger system, however, and its successful track record of industries that adapt to changing cultural expectation, and not simply insist on viewing the world through the myopic perspective of a presently unsatisfied consumer.

J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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