We immigrants into the digital world are inundated with channels of communication – text messages, email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Google+. The term ‘social media’ has been coined to refer to those platforms that allow for the exchange of what is antiseptically termed ‘user-generated content’. Usually, it is the latter half of the list above that is entailed, but I see no reason to exclude email or text messages from this consideration. If I text my friends a picture, how is that substantially different from posting it to a digital wall?
There is no doubt that some of what goes on within these channels is social, by which I mean it involves community, the enjoyment of other people’s company, or free companionship. But some of what goes on within these spaces strikes me as nothing of the kind – as anti-community, as a broadcasting of trivia rather than mutual enjoyment of one another, as vanity rather than camaraderie. For all that some sociality occurs in these spaces of discourse, I am still inclined towards concern about anti-social media.
Before expanding this thought in the context of digital media, let me start by asking whether radio and television were social or anti-social media. On the one hand, both did serve as a locus for community formation and stabilisation – at least in so much as people at the train station or at the water cooler might talk about what was on television instead of (say) the weather. It provided a minimal common ground for small talk. (Sport, which can be found on both radio and television, was and is the exemplar of this phenomenon).
Radio, more than television, served to create an illusion of community – you could call in and talk to the host, perhaps, and the very possibility that you might gave a sense of community that of course did not run deep. If you were in trouble, you would hardly call up the radio to help you! The community was one-directional, and the opportunities to contribute against the current of the content were always a tiny percentage of the flow of information taking place. The ability to call in might be a desperate hope of some kind of recognition before it could ever be considered part of a healthy community.
In the digital world, the illusion of community is all the more compelling because of the apparent symmetry of relations – everyone can talk to everyone (more or less). But this is still a very thin kind of community compared to what people who meet face-to-face can develop. There is a trade-off between the breadth of people caught in the net of a given communicative medium and and the depth of relationship that becomes possible.
A few hundred people regularly follow my blogs, and I feel a genuine sense of community with them (albeit somewhat thinner than, say, with my friends, spiritual groups etc). On Twitter, there are ten times as many people listening to me, but our discourse is curtailed to sound bites, quips and quotes – it is a still thinner community, even though dialogue occurs more often than on the blogs, not unlike chatter at a large party and chillingly similar to the MUD chatrooms of yore expanded to a global scale. On Google+, the community size is equivalent to the blogs yet the sociality feels distant. My feed churns up the nonsense shared by others, with interjections by Google+ concerning “what’s hot” – by which it means, what has lowest common denominator appeal. Dialogue occurs more readily than on the blogs, yet it feels shallow and disjointed. If it did not have utility to me as a promotional tool, I would have long since deleted it.
Then there is email, which replaces the thoughtful heart-felt content of letters with the immediacy of internet communication. I never felt that the mail I received was a burden, but now my email is all too frequently a massive pile of ‘things to do’, or at least to read and ignore. Even sorted into separate boxes (a pre-requisite for my sanity!) email is something I try to avoid except when I am working, because I am unable to keep my private life and my work life adequately separate, and this spills tensions and anxieties out into my personal life where it is far from welcome. I wouldn’t say I hate it, because I depend upon it. But its community is perhaps the coldest of all, a string of demands and robotic drool punctuated by the occasional exchange rooted in genuine friendship.
I do not feel that social media has made me more social. Compared to owning a dog, which has forced me into amiable contact with dozens of people living within walking distance of my local park, social media is a chill simulacrum of human contact. Some sociality survives here, but it is not nurtured by the medium – it forces itself through by the sheer desire we have to be with other people, even though it is also stifled by our sheer inability to do so. We suffer from what Kant termed ‘unsocial sociability’ (ungesellige Geselligkeit) – we cannot be happy alone, yet our desire to have our own way makes it hard for us to live with others.
In the so-called social media of the digital realm, we seem to achieve the recognition of others but it is little more than a prop, a number that counts our shallow connections and reassures us that we are not alone in our solitude. How could we be alone with so many channels of communication? With so much social media surely we must attain companionship? Ah, if only there were more to this than the fiction of the Facebook ‘Friends’ count. But just as the telephone offers only the promise of long distance communication and can never substitute for an immediate community relationship, social media is a surrogate for sociality. I have a strange faith that it will allow us to achieve great things – but if this is more than just a pipe dream, it will depend upon our capacity to first transcend its anti-social mediocrity.