It’s easy to put people in boxes. Well, ok, not literally, but metaphorically. It’s something we learned in jr. high, and rebelled against in high school. There are deep parts of human psychology that both desire to be part of a group, and to categorize other people into groups. Us vs. Them. We get a sense of self and place in this world by the people we surround ourselves with and the groups we are a part of. This is how society works… and partially why it’s not working so well right now.
I first noticed a problem years ago when I’d heard people referring to themselves as “citizens of the Internet”. Not claiming citizenship of their native country, but instead belonging to some global idea of a people group. At the time it was an interesting concept, something new that I’d not thought of before, but quickly dismissed. I dismissed the idea too soon. It was a seed of an idea that mutated and grew like a cancer, and like any cancer, it is killing it’s host.
Social groups, healthy, real social groups, have a moderating function. The more extreme or unwelcome behaviors are discouraged because members of the group can see how they damage the collective community. There are no moderating abilities with online social groups though, in fact, quite the opposite has proven to be true. No matter what your personal opinions are, online you’ll find a group to belong to that will not only condone and accept the beliefs and behavior, but amplify it. People will type things online that they’d never say in person. Online, one group will verbally attack another with juvenile name-calling and insults, but in person I’ve found that most people are more than willing to have reasonable conversations.
You and I might have different opinions on how involved the government should be in our personal lives, what, if any restrictions we should have on guns, how, if at all, the government should be involved in healthcare, and what, if anything, to do about climate change. In fact, I’d say with all the people reading this, I’d find something to disagree on with everyone. That’s ok. It’s good to have different viewpoints, different ways of looking at an issue or a problem. 1 One person can’t see all sides of the issue, and likewise one person in an insular echo chamber of similar views is in danger of never exposing themselves to voices that don’t mimic their own. Healthy debate is good. It helps separate the wheat from the chaff.
Unhealthy debate though, is not good. Calling names, insulting the intelligence of the opponent, assigning evil intent where none exists, all serve to further divide us into these imaginary groups. These interactions do not serve to help foster an understanding of the problem being discussed, they simply provide an avenue for reinforcement of a preconceived notion without the troublesome burden of independent thought. It’s easy to assume that all liberals are evil baby-killing socialists who want to destroy America. It’s similarly easy to assume all conservatives are backwards, idiotic, racists hicks who don’t know what’s good for them. Neither is true.
The past fifteen years of technical advancement have culminated in a perfect storm that none of us were prepared for. It started with the citizens of the Internet, went mainstream with Facebook, and nuclear with the iPhone. From finding your social group online instead of with real people, to accepting and amplifying your own insular beliefs in these groups, to bringing your group with you everywhere, every waking moment of the day. The iPhone is the delivery mechanism for the Internet, and the applications we have all been drawn into are designed by teams of PhDs to be as addictive as possible. Like cocaine in Coca-Cola.
Perhaps in fifty years we’ll look back on this time and collectively say “what were we thinking?” If we are still capable of rational thought.
I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Kill Your Television” 2. I had it on there because I wanted to experience life first-hand, not second or third-hand through the tv, as I sat like a slug on the couch. For a long time, I did. But then I was caught up in the Internet and technology, entranced by the possibilities and the seemingly limitless ability to know everything that was knowable. I built a career on it, and now I support my family by staring at a screen for twelve to thirteen hours a day. Familiarity breeds contempt.
I think about that bumper sticker and what I’ve learned about social media when I read about internet addiction in teenagers. It’s not uncommon to see kids who are never without the phone in their hand, staring at the screen, oblivious to their surroundings or what is really going on. Kids have literally walked into walls and fallen down stairs because they couldn’t put the phone down. We haven’t built up the social norms to handle always being connected. Instead of being a boon to our children’s education, we have introduced a monster that we don’t know how to deal with.
That old bumper sticker is on my mind now more than ever as I seek to recapture some of that desire to live what life I have in the moment, experience by experience. I’m trying to get outside more, learn new skills, and pick up new hobbies. To move my mind away from the mindless, toxic, rage-inducing thing we know as social media.
Not all online communities are bad. Not all politics are divisive. The world is a vast and complicated place. Every person I’ve met has their own desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. We each want safety and some level of comfort. We each want to belong to a group that accepts us. What I’ve learned is that the online groups are virtual… they’re not real. They don’t last. Only the friends and family you make in real life are real life.
It’s well past time we reevaluate our use of the technology pulling us apart, when our desire is to be together.