Recently I went to my first Meetup in several years. It was for a philosophy discussion group, and after the meeting I got emails from Meetup reporting that a few people from the group had said “Good to See You.” They had pressed a “Good to See You” button next to my Meetup profile, and in response I pressed a button in the email that said “Good to See You Too.” I had no idea what this accomplished, but as it took only a second or two, I didn’t care.
Then, in an actual exchange of messages with the organizer of the meetup, the box in which I composed my message instructed me to “Say something nice.” I wrote what I was going to write anyway. It was “nice,” but that wasn’t the point. The point was to communicate something with actual content and value.
Finally, after all that, I got a notice that someone had “liked” a comment I made.
If these little inanities were just the quirks of Meetup, I would not bother remarking on them. But as you probably know, unless you have managed to avoid social media altother, it’s all like this. I opened a Twitter account about a month ago (under duress and with regret), and not long after my first tweet I got an email saying that it had been “favorited.” No, scratch that—it was “favorited!” with an exclamation point, as if something signficant had happened. I could only guess what that meant, but gradually I learned that it is a way to communicate without actually having content to communicate. You vaguely like something, you don’t want to bother crafting a thought, so you hit a button and you’re done. The other person then gets a notice that they’ve been “favorited!” or “retweeted!” and everybody gets to feel disproportionately good about the negligible work that has been done. (Disclosure: I have favorited tweets, and will probably do it in the future, unless I lose interest in Twitter altogether, which is a very real possibility. Fuller disclosure: I like it when my tweets are favorited, even if I would prefer to be indifferent.)
I’m not on Facebook, for reasons I won’t bother enumerating here, because there are so many of them. But when I come across Facebook refugees—people who have escaped, bearing tales of horror and suffering—I always take a schadenfreudal pleasure in what I’m missing. Example: a column in the Washington Post on October 11 by Susan Senator, titled, “Why I’m logging off Facebook.” She describes how she couldn’t read a book because of Facebook distractions, and how she lost touch with actual friends because she had a thousand “friends” to keep her company. But that was all bearable until “the pivotal moment,” she says, “when I started railing about a woman for her huge number of ‘likes,’ no matter how inane her posts. I was actually jealous.”
A smart, middle-aged woman, jealous of “likes.” That’s the natural culmination of Twitbook discourse, the inevitable result of the way these companies encourage—nay, demand—trivial forms of communication. When MySpace and Facebook came on the scene early last decade, my immediate reaction was: Thank God I’m not a kid and I don’t have to do that shit. I don’t have to gather “friends” and start “liking” things and turn all my thoughts and preferences into little commoditized nuggets. And then all the adults jumped in feetfirst, making it a virtual requirement for life in the world. You could have knocked me over with a feather.
There’s nothing to be done about that; the lid is off the box. But maybe we can stop falling for these companies’ line that they are here to improve human communication. Because they’re not. And it’s not just that they juvenilize social discourse, reducing it to the equivalent of fill-in-the-blank third-grade notes (Do you like me? Yes ___ or No ___) It’s that they’re not actually interested in communication for communication’s sake at all. They’re interested in it as a means of social control—as a way to manage the communication of others for their own benefit. And you can see this with crystal clarity the moment you need to communicate with them. It is very nearly impossible.
That’s the subject of a future post.