My recoil from social media save in their most marginal form (a very spare LinkedIn account and a membership in Schoolmates.com) is probably understood by younger generations and most of my contemporaries as the kind of cantankerous Luddism associated with the elderly. But my objection to these programs is not mere nostalgia, like preferring radio to television; it is instinctually moral. All moral intuitions do not deserve credence as if divinely inspired, yet I note that many others of my own generation who have adapted contentedly to all the other technologies of modernity seem to share my discomfort with one or both of these otherwise ubiquitous programs.
Facebook and Twitter are very different from more traditional modes of Internet communication. A Facebook account reflects the drift of the word face, which originally designated the facial features of college students, in particular, those of female students whose attractiveness could be judged by this means, to a public face or persona that the user is invited to create for the consumption of his group of “friends” and, at a lesser level of intimacy, others interested in knowing about the individual in question and possibly in becoming “friends” in their turn.
My visceral objection to this is as a presumptuous dictation of the way I am to present myself to others. Facebook, unlike an email program or a WordPress template for a webpage, is not a mere neutral platform; its structure and above all the conventions that have grown up around it dictate certain behaviors. One is expected to update one’s site regularly with photographs of one’s activities, another artifact of the omnipresence of screens and cameras to supply them with images. To participate fully in Facebook, unlike LinkedIn, a business tool that allows for any level of presence or neglect, one is expected to share the details of one’s personal life, as though declaring the minutiae of one’s dinner or trip to the beach as being of universal interest. I resist this imposed pretentiousness in chronicling my own life in a way that in the past was reserved for celebrities of one kind or another—a chronicling performed then and now by gossip columnists, not by the celebrities themselves.
And although the quasi-universalization of Facebook membership reduces the differential arrogance of the individual user to near zero, that one is following the crowd makes the presumption no less real. This is a higher level form of conformist nonconformity than, for example, the fashion of wearing “informal” clothing at public events. Here what one does similarly to others is to define one’s unique self. No one’s Facebook page is a direct imitation of anyone else’s; it is the act itself of posting on Facebook that is uncomfortably mimetic.
But of far more interest than my personal choice to participate or not in Facebook is the fact that this is the kind of choice that individuals never had to make in the past on anything like this scale. One could decide to join a club, or contribute to a charity, or do volunteer work of some kind, in the context of “civil society,” and one’s choices would be variously subject to the judgment of “one’s peers.” This universe in which one is free to make social choices but must face the consequences of such judgment is roughly that of the novel, where unlike in tragedy, the characters have no socially dictated destiny as kings or warriors but must nevertheless acknowledge the reality of “public opinion.” But now instead of or perhaps on top of a variety of local social arrangements dependent on voluntary associations, one is faced with a monolithic social choice: social media or anonymity.
The idea that social conformity might become so to speak informally formalized via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a few other popular applications requires us to reflect on the status of “civil society” in the Internet age. These applications have no official status, yet the presence of their logos on nearly every public webpage gives them a formidable presence on the public scene. That Donald Trump as president-elect or as a candidate or even as a TV celebrity might use Twitter is quite comprehensible; but that myriad others from celebrities to ordinary citizens use Twitter regularly as both followers and tweeters creates a situation that even more urgently than Facebook demands critical examination.
Whereas the choice to “follow” these Chronicles is separate from any other, to subscribe to Twitter is to join a service that solicits its members to follow popular tweeters and whose members customarily “retweet” tweets they find interesting to their own circle of followers, creating “viral” crowd-storms of communication. Thus although Twitter’s organization of the space of public discourse is voluntarily chosen by its clients, its cumulative effect is to solicit unanimity, and on many occasions to direct this unanimity in the form of lynch-mob-like swarming (“shaming”) at a particular victim.
Even more than Facebook, the very existence of such a service is coercive in a new way, forcing a choice between participating in the public debate in what is after all a commercial rather than a truly public format or remaining on its periphery. We cannot fail to note the mimetic structure of these behaviors, which however “free” are nonetheless greatly constraining. Not to have a Facebook page is seen in many contexts as a kind of anti-social “statement,” one that employers, for example, are likely to interpret as the sign of a less than appropriately interactive personality. Yet participation on Facebook and all the more on Twitter involves by its very nature an artificial form of self-presentation that contrasts with those modes that possess the Burkean quality of tradition.
We see here once more the consequences of the Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft replacement of traditional religious sociability as a source of social norms by an implicit collectivity all the more subject to mimetic “bubbles” in that its norms are generated ad hoc and founded on only the vaguest criteria of appropriate interpersonal behavior. The vastly increased use of four-letter words in the social media era is one symptom of this; the facile cynicism of the ubiquitous expression WTF, cleverly turned into a recent movie title using the ICAO alphabet (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot), reflects the immature bravado that the unsolicited publication of one’s opinion without argument that we call tweeting necessarily involves.
We tend to take the raison d’être, or what one might call the enabling situation of these new forms of “public” communication for granted. Public communications in the past were sharply restricted by the nature of the media available for their transmission. But since the advent of the Internet, anyone with a minimum of literacy and financial resources is enabled to offer up his opinions for the world to see. Twitter is the most extreme of these new forms of communication because, given the minimal length of a tweet, its posts cannot rely on the strength of their arguments or on the evidence other than visual (via linked photographs or video) they bring to bear; a tweet’s interest is either the revelation of something shocking or the expression of an opinion whose value is measured by the prestige of its holder and/or the degree to which it confirms the prejudices of its reader.
Yet to emit a judgment about the social media in one of these Chronicles is to raise the possibility of reflection on the medium I myself am using. The newfound importance of the social media sites I have mentioned is surely not without effect on the growth of a category of writing that might be called Internet punditry, which marginally includes essays like this one.
I may disdain to express my thoughts on social media, but I have surely been among the most assiduous users of the Internet to disseminate my ideas. My material on the web includes over five hundred of these Chronicles, something like a million words. All of this material, however, is composed in traditional formats only superficially modified by their digital presentation. The Chronicles, which preceded and are not quite the equivalent of “blogs,” are online essays. Like Anthropoetics itself, one of the first of subsequently many e-journals, they follow old conventions which have merely been “ported” to the web. As opposed to Facebook and Twitter, we use the Internet as though it were merely a new medium, as though texts from the old media could be transported as is to the screenic world of the internet, ignoring McLuhan’s admonition that the medium is its own message.
And the reason I was at first happy and even enthusiastic about doing so (believing, as some of the early Chronicles demonstrate, that the Internet was a means of liberating the intellectual life from the narrowness of an increasingly compartmentalized professional world) was that I had not anticipated the degree to which the One Medium would force the traditional genres of intellectual communication even farther into a specialized set of pigeonholes. Thus the “learned essay” would increasingly become the exclusive province of domain specialists in the various university departments, whereas essays of more general interest would remain that of high-circulation middlebrow publications (e.g., The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker). Meanwhile, the kind of serious exploration of non-specialized ideas that these Chronicles represent would find its way to “blogs,” where even when on a high intellectual plane, these ideas tend to be expressed in subjective terms for narrow groups of partisans rather than as attempts at persuading an a priori neutral audience.
The message of these Chronicles could not be stated either in the hortatory terms of Twitter or in those of “professional” Internet punditry, like the little essays on National Review Online or Steyn’s or Spengler’s occasional pieces, along with similar writings on the Left, directed to well-defined and interlocking audiences among whom authors of opposite political persuasions often cite each other. That there is little audience for the Chronicles suggests rather that their role is to remain outside the “public” debate and to comment on it.
For although there is no inherent limit to the layers of dialogue, there remains always that provided by the actual interaction of its participants. Human language, as Chomsky likes to say, is defined by its capacity for recursion, or in more philosophical terms, for self-inclusion. But just as grammatical recursion as a practical matter is limited to two or three levels, so does the number of levels in which it is useful to distinguish commentaries from commentaries on commentaries choke off equally quickly.
The freedom of the outsider, even if most often an empty one, like that of the homeless man screaming expletives in the street, remains a value in itself, one that readers of these Chronicles should more than most appreciate. And as the recent election so dramatically demonstrated, those outside the normal channels of communication can on occasion profit from their freedom to transform not only these channels but the larger society itself. It is this faith that provides me with the impetus to continue producing these essays in the age of the social media.