Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

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Why Facebook Won’t Just Go Away

Comparing your first profile picture to your current one is what Facebook does best.

Over the past several days I’ve seen many of my social media friends participate in what looks like a viral experiment: Post your first ever “profile picture,” no matter how old, alongside your current photo. The results are nostalgic and charming and quite fun. It’s warming to see faces, transformed (if even slightly) by time, amidst the political screeds and clickbait links. It’s a homely and encouraging way to experience social media.

It occurred to me that this is why Facebook won’t just go away, no matter how many sins it commits against privacy, our cognitive health, or politics. The one thing Facebook threatens us all with is the one very thing it’s good at: Keeping. Facebook has become a public repository of memory, a monument by which many of us can view and re-experience our past. Facebook keeps, and in keeping, it holds for users what many of us are too embarrassed to admit out loud that we want to keep: Memories, even of the mundane and routine.

There are, of course, other ways to build repositories of memory. But many of them have fallen out of fashion. Scrapbooking has lost to Instagram. Keeping a diary depends a lot on the desire and ability to write longhand, and few have either. Technological change has tethered the ability to capture life with the obligation to share and store it digitally. Outside of the social media platforms, how much physical record of their own past do most people really own? For millions, the only meaningful artifacts to their lives are on Facebook.

Almost everything Facebook does nowadays it does poorly. It is ad-infested, link-biased, creepily intelligent, and ugly to look at. It does, however, hold onto our posts, our photos, our statuses—our digital selves. Because of that, it holds onto a part of us that we know, trembling, can disappear forever with one emptying of a virtual trash bin. We signed up for Facebook because we thought it opened up our present and defined our future. Now that future is past, and we just want to go back, and can’t. And Facebook knows it.

You Are What You Click

I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:

It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.

All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.

This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click. 

This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?

For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?

Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.

Social Media Resolutions for 2017

  1. I will be less cynical. Sarcasm and withering criticism are to social media what static is to AM radio. There’s no need for one more person’s trying too hard to be funny.
  2. I won’t start or join a “pile-on.” If I wouldn’t publicly shame a person in real life, I shouldn’t do it online.
  3. I will tweet unto others as I would have others tweet unto me.
  4. I won’t be so preoccupied with my phone that I forget the people around me. If at any time I feel defensive when someone suggests I take a break, I should interpret my defensiveness as a sign they’re right.
  5. I will be more concerned with saying what is true and helpful than building my “brand.” If someone says something better than I said it, that’s not a problem.
  6. I won’t repost meanness or trollishness, not even to mock it.
  7. I will always feel free to not chime in.
  8. I won’t “hate-click” or “hate-share.” In the new writing economy, there is no such thing. (see resolution #6)
  9. I will actively seek out and share the wisdom of others, rather than see it as a threat.
  10. I won’t sneer at those who do the opposite of these resolutions, since I already know I myself will fail them.

Eaten By Lions, Facebook Style

What does Proverbs 22:13 have to do with social media, politics, and conservative evangelicals?

The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets!”

Now, you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in Old Testament to know that waking up near a lion was not an unheard of event in the life of an average ancient Israelite. David, the father of Solomon, lived among lions daily while tending sheep. So what the sluggard says in this Proverb isn’t far fetched. He’s not talking about Bigfoot or an asteroid.

What makes the sluggard’s trepidation laziness is the reason why he’s saying it. The sluggard is using the fear of a lion to justify his refusal to leave his tent or get out of bed. A lion could appear; but the actual probability, the reality or unreality of a lion, isn’t the point. The point is getting out of work. That’s what makes the sluggard a sluggard.

In other words, sometimes people will say things, and the things they say aren’t really the point. Whether something is true or untrue or half-true is immaterial. The point is what the suggestion of the Something means for the sayer. It creates noise and confusion that benefits the person saying it, and in the end, that’s what matters.

Over the past couple of years I have watched in frustration as evangelical friends, many of whom I respect a great deal, have trafficked in some of the most wild, ridiculous, and silly conspiracy theories that money can buy. Facebook seems to be our cultural HQ for conspiracyism. Many times I’ll see a Facebook friend post a link from a website and I don’t even have to click it to evaluate; the website will be a known fabricator, or even a self-described parody, and I’ll know without looking that this otherwise intelligent, reasonable person has been duped yet again. These links almost always purport to show something incredibly scandalous that the “mainstream media” (a term that usually applies to any source that doesn’t happen to back up this particular story) is suppressing.

Do major media outlets put lids on news stories that interfere with an ideological or political agenda? Absolutely, and Planned Parenthood is very thankful. But for the conspiracy circles of Facebook, this reality is used as a trump card to sell the most hallucinogenic fantasies that an over-politicized mind can dream up–hidden microphones, secret stepchildren, etc etc, ad nauseum.

A few days ago I happened to notice that a friend linked to a column by Ross Douthat. Douthat is one of the country’s most articulate and most intellectually sturdy political commentators, and he happens to be a well-known conservative. This column made some critical remarks about the Republican party and their candidate for president. They were criticisms made, of course, in a context of conservatism; whether one agrees with Douthat or not, it is an objective fact that his analysis comes from a worldview that is fundamentally conservative.

My friend’s post attracted some comments, and one in particular stood out. This commenter was offended by Douthat’s critiques, and offered his explanation of why the columnist must have made them: He was a liberal mole, hired by the New York Times to prop up the illusion of having a conservative op-ed writer.

I got a headache doing the mental gymnastics required to believe that this was a serious comment from a serious person. The suggestion runs afoul of virtually everything you can read from Mr. Douthat’s career. It is an assertion made in gross neglect of every objective fact and shred of evidence. It was, nonetheless, this brother’s chosen theory of why a conservative would choose to find any fault whatsoever in the Republican party.

This comment bothered me. How could this person, a Christian by all appearances, traffic in such delusions? How could a person who presumably believes in absolute truth be willing to contort the reality in front of him to fit his political narrative? That was when it dawned on me: This is a “Lion in the street!” moment. What matters right now is not the entirety of Douthat’s writing, nor the many evidences of his political philosophy. What matters is the mere possibility that a grand conspiracy could be afoot. What matters is the angst and dread that comes from the slightest chance that we are being played for fools by “media elites.”

The appeal of conspiracy theories is that they offer a counterintuitive kind of comfort: If the conspiracy is real and if the deck really is stacked against me, then that means that the world is fundamentally not my fault. I am right about the way things should be; in fact, that’s the way things really are! The problem is that these people in power over me are using every waking hour to keep me in the dark. Change is impossible because it’s not in my hands. Life can go on as normal.

That’s precisely what the sluggard does. It’s true that lions exist. It’s also true they can come up into the camp. But every available piece of evidence–every modicum of reality at the moment–says there’s no lion outside. The sluggard knows this. But he wants to stay in bed. If he stays in bed instead of going to work merely because he feels like it, then people will shame his sloth. If, on the other hand, he stays in bed because he doesn’t want to get eaten–well, that’s just choosing the lesser of two evils.