The art of Mike Campau (used without permission) helped me make peace with Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I still don’t particularly enjoy being active on those places, but I can finally let go of my disgust for what they’ve largely become. This might seem paradoxical since we’re now in a time of high anti-social media sentiment. It was revealed just recently, for example, that Facebook may have given sensitive profile data of 50 million users to a conservative political organization and then lied about it afterward.
Social media is, obviously, a medium like film or prose. Each social media platform, then, operates in a kind of genre in that medium. People participate in the genre of Twitter when they want to experience moral outrage just as they participate in the genre of horror when they want to feel terror or the genre of trashy romance when they want to feel sexy and dirty. Facebook might be closer to soap opera or sitcom, but honestly I’ve never been very active there, so you’ll have to tell me what you think.
Logging on to Twitter to shake your fist at the evils of the world is cathartic, which is really only a problem if, in doing that, you expect anything to change, which I’m not sure most people do. However, everyone participating in the moral outrage of Twitter has to pretend like it matters, even when they know it doesn’t, because to do otherwise is to break the fourth wall, to reveal the fiction, which destroys the catharsis. (Breaking the fourth wall really only works well in comedy, where it enhances the emotion the audience is there to experience — namely, absurdity.)
All instances of self are “socially constructed,” but that doesn’t mean they are complete fictions because the human mind experiences more than two simple categories: the fully objective and the fully subjective. When people laugh at a joke, for example, or turn away from a scary movie or cry over the death of a fictional character or mourn the cancellation of a TV show, they are responding to a known fiction as if it were real because the emotion is real. People half-believe social media in the same way they half-believe Star Wars, or their favorite book.
That’s not to say social media has no negative consequences for society or democracy. At a minimum, any new medium will change the landscape of our socially constructed reality in unexpected ways, some good, some bad. For every “Arab spring,” there’s a 2016 election.
Television offers the easy lesson. People used to have similar worries, especially after the first televised presidential debate in 1960, when, for the first time, how the candidates appeared seemed to be more important than what they said.
Some of those fears have turned out to be valid. Others were fantasy. We’ve since wrung our hands over the potential ill effects of comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, pornography, and violent video games, to name just a few. In each case, it was never possible to put the genie back in the bottle.
Just as an emotionally stable person is capable of leaving the violence in the console when they exit the genre of the video game, so too we leave the fantasy of Facebook, the moral outrage of Twitter, when we exit that genre of social media.
But of course, like nervous backseat drivers, we’re all convinced that no one else is as capable of experiencing the genre naively (and responsibly) as we do, just as we never see ourselves as part of the traffic we’re stuck in.