Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unsocial Media

The internet is a strange place.

That's a statement we can all unite around, isn't it? Whether we hate it or we love it, we can recognize that the virtual connections we forge on the internet produce different experiences than real-life connections. Sometimes they are plain unusual. And yet, where else can you connect ideas so freely? We tolerate the oddity of web-connected gnostic relationships (read: "not in the flesh") because they bring us some value. Whether it's sharing something we love, exchanging fresh points of view, finding support through a hardship, or just helping us feel less lonely, our virtual connections serve us a worthy purpose.

On that last point, it's interesting to hop onto social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when something big is happening in the world. Instead of experiencing something alone you can feel like you're experiencing it right along with all your virtual friends. Watching a web-cast of some conference by yourself? Hop on Facebook chat & find out if anyone else is watching it. Or send out a Tweet with the appropriate hashtag. It's almost like a virtual town square where everyone can gather to share the experience together. Part of the attraction has to be the ease of access: instead of getting dressed up, climbing in your car, and going to an actual town square, you can just flip open your laptop.

And so that's what I found myself doing when the news starting buzzing on Sunday night May 1st that the President was requesting time from the major networks to make an announcement. I hopped on Twitter and Facebook to see what the world was saying. What I observed was fascinating. As the President was making his announcement, dozens of people were posting the news as their status. The people I follow on Twitter made snarky comments about this or that (as only people on Twitter can do). But the mood was mostly celebratory. People happy that the boogey-man was gone. People happy that their deeply-rooted beliefs in American Exceptional-ism were confirmed. People happy that justice was done. People happy for our troops, as if this was "Mission Accomplished" (and it felt like it), and happy for families of troops, as if this justified their decade of sacrifice.

But as joyful post after joyful post crawled across the computer screen, I began to notice another theme rising: righteous indignation. Disgust that anyone could find any glee or redemption from the death of a man. Little matter that this man was the most terrifying figure of this century. These people were upset -- uninterruptedly shouting into the chorus of joy about how inappropriate the joy was. It would be akin to a small faction of people making a ruckus about people enjoying a wedding reception because of 9% unemployment, or suffering in Sudan, or something along those lines. It was amazing. Like shouting into a whirlwind. Did these people think that they were going to shout down a happy mob? Who shouts down a mob?

Then I observed more indignation. People acting cranky over the President getting credit "instead of the soldiers." People acting cranky over the news about it being everywhere. People expressing anger over almost anything! Even people acting cranky over people getting cranky. Yeah, that's right: that was me. Even I tried to shout down the army of wet blankets who were trying to douse everyone's happiness. I'm not proud of it, but it happened.

The whole thing was just a strange phenomenon that led me two days later on Facebook to opine:

(Philip) thinks he learned a lesson since Sunday night: when big events happen, stay off of Facebook. Too emotionally charged. Too many opinions. Just seems like a good policy.

Let's see how long it takes before I have to re-learn this lesson

Turns out it was 9 weeks to the day. 63 days!

Because last Tuesday a Florida jury declared a verdict of not guilty on the most heinous charges brought against Casey Anthony. The reaction was virtually immediate; it was swift & full of fury. Twitter exploded. As I looked on, one person after another unleashed their rage -- or at least their dissatisfaction -- on Facebook. The general theme was that there was a miscarriage of justice. Some were affected to the point of feeling sick to their stomach. Some expressed not ever being able to trust the justice system again. (...seemingly reversing the sentiment from 2 months ago. If killing bin Laden helped us all feel strong again, the Casey Anthony verdict made us feel weak) And then, of course, the snark.

"O.J. Simpson finds this verdict outrageous."

"I wonder if the Casey Anthony trial jurors would ever let her babysit THEIR kids?!?"

"I wonder if Dexter will come after her!"

Social media has made us all into social commentators. And then there's strange minds like mine that spend time like this commenting on all the commentary.

Me personally: I could feel the spirit of spirit of indignation welling up inside me again. Not because I felt honor-bound to defend Casey Anthony. Not at all. It's pretty apparent that this woman murdered her daughter (whether purposefully or accidentally), then hid the body, then lied to the police. And all that while partying like a rockstar. No, I didn't feel the need to defend her; my temper was rising because... I guess because everyone else's was. "Don't these people know that the state prosecutors did a terrible job?" "Don't these people know that the jurors did exactly what they were supposed to do?" "Why are all my grace-accepting Christian friends obsessed with seeing this woman fry in an electric chair?"

Thankfully I refrained from angering anyone with these thoughts. I think. I let a couple of them loose on Twitter. Hopefully without causing anyone else ill temper.

I've spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out what possesses me in moments like these. Part of it has gotta do with how I'm wired. Being an ideological moderate, I like things balanced. So when I encounter a perspective that is wildly one-sided, and emotionally charged, it charges my emotions to want to respond with the other side of the argument. It's as if something somewhere deep inside me is wanting to exclaim, "THIS IS MORE COMPLEX THAN YOU'RE LETTING ON, YOU KNUCKLEHEAD!"

The good folks at the "You Are Not So Smart" blog would say that I'm unwittingly giving myself over to the backfire effect. That's where, when confronted with an opposing opinion, you strengthen & fortify your own views. I like how they put here:

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

No, probably not. Most online battles follow a similar pattern, each side launching attacks and pulling evidence from deep inside the web to back up their positions until, out of frustration, one party resorts to an all-out ad hominem nuclear strike. If you are lucky, the comment thread will get derailed in time for you to keep your dignity, or a neighboring commenter will help initiate a text-based dogpile on your opponent.

After some deliberation, I have decided that this is folly. (g) Seriously: Thank God for good satire to rouse us out of the caricature-like behavior that we can so easily & unwittingly slip into.

I've decided to repent & not steamroll over other peoples' views anymore. I recognize that it will be difficult for my balance-craving psyche to accomplish. But somehow I'll manage.

I think of two examples from Scripture. One is the prophecy about Jesus in Isaiah 42 that's also quoted in Matthew 12: "He will not wrangle or cry aloud, or raise his voice in the streets." Jesus managed to live His life and make His point without making a dramatic scene. Seems like I could do the same. I've also long admired Paul with how he combined both boldness and humility in a spirited defense of himself and his faith in Acts 26. One of the more under-rated passages of Scripture, IMO. Probably one I could stand to spend more time with. As could we all.

And if social media is the virtual town square, then it makes sense to act as one would when actually at the town square. If those gathered grow unruly & start to act with great furor, common sense would generally say, "Time to head home." I don't know why it's so hard -- maybe because it's just so intense -- but it wouldn't hurt just to log off. It's not like missing out on those two or three heated status threads (read: virtual Molotov Cocktails) is going to hurt. In fact, if indeed I were throwing a few around, it probably would.

* I wish I'd made that fabulous photo. I didn't. That came from www.xkcd.com via the "You Are Not So Smart" Blog.


Emily :) said...

Ecellent post! I think you have the right idea. I often get very overwhelmed online and I realize that people are totally entitled to their opinion, but sometimes I just have to step away if it something that upsets me.

I love that picture!

III said...

Isn't that the best?

Lori said...

Enjoyed your post, Philip. The internet can be a very "unsocial" place as you have aptly described. My non-confrontational self refuses to "go there" on blogs, Twitter, or FB. On the other hand, I've been amazed at how "close" I can feel to some friends I've "met" in BlogLand. To me that demonstrates that through our words alone we can connect in ways we couldn't otherwise. All the more reason, I need to sign off now and spend some time in "The Word."