Passion with dignity: Being your best self on Facebook and Twitter.
By MARCUS BANKS.
TEN YEARS AGO I began to blog. It was January 2005, and New York liberals like me were facing the gut-punch reality of the impending new Bush administration. Yes, George W. Bush—the president who sought to enshrine opposition to gay marriage in the United States Constitution during his first term. As marriage equality moves ever closer to reality today, it is worth remembering just how far we’ve traveled.
Of course, Bush’s most memorable failing during his first term was ginning up the war in Iraq under false pretenses. New Yorkers like me (in truth, a transplanted New Yorker like many others) took particular offence at the linkage of the September 11 attacks to Saddam Hussein. Hussein’s vaunted weapons of mass destruction were never found because they were never there.
This lie was obvious when Colin Powell proffered it at the UN in early 2003. It was even more apparent by early 2005, after almost two years worth of chest-thumping war with no weapons found. So what was a discontented citizen to do? Start a blog, of course.
Blogging was hot. Although trailblazers such as Andrew Sullivan began blogging as early as 2000, the form achieved mass consciousness in 2004. The 2004 Presidential campaign was the first time that blogs had an effect on political discourse, a milestone the New York Times Magazine validated in a September 2004 cover story. By that time John Kerry had already been Swift Boated, and I was coming to terms with the reality that Bush could indeed claim four more years. If you could not beat them, pillory them with your prose.
And so my Typepad blog appeared on January 26, 2005. It was not always political; sometimes I offered movie reviews or accounts of various adventures around Manhattan. Or I offered my perspective about the future of librarianship, my chosen profession. Anything political was acid-tipped, aimed at exposing the villainy of the Bush administration.
At this time there was much excitement about how blogging would democratize journalism and take down the dreaded “mainstream media,” or MSM. I was the beneficiary of the new technology, now able to share my views without passing through the filter of an editor. Editors were mere gatekeepers anyway. Sure, the ability for anyone to publish meant that much of what appeared online was terrible. But I strived hard to make sure this was not the case for me. Even my most fervent and tossed off posts had a discernible argument with traceable sources. Sometimes I crafted deeply researched pieces.
In 2005 Facebook was TheFacebook, and only available at Harvard. Tweets were issued by birds, not yet from humans. The main way to keep apprised of new posts to my blog was to set up an RSS feed, or—my preferred method for following other blogs—to randomly refresh selected pages every few days. It would have been nice to have an easier way to spread the word whenever I penned a new post.
Facebook solved this problem, once I opened my account in 2007. Every new post on Typepad became a “note” in Facebook, offering two places for people to read and comment. (Once Facebook severed the connection between Typepad and notes, I began linking to each new post as a status update.) Soon after that Twitter came along. Today I tweet each blog link and also post it to Facebook. For these reasons, among others, I was a passionate early booster of social media. Not only did social media allow me to keep in touch with friends and family more easily than before, it became my distributor.
Eight years after opening that Facebook account I continue to write my blog even though blogging has long lost its cachet. I also remain a Facebooker and tweeter. During that time my ardor for social media has dimmed but not extinguished. I am not yearning to return to some prelapsarian state in which Mark Zuckerberg finishes college and never launches TheFacebook. But the main uses of social media feel shallow, cynical and contrived.
Herewith, then, is a tale of disillusionment—and hope. I will focus on Facebook and Twitter, leaving discussion of things like Instagram and Vine to those better equipped.
1. Positivity: 2007-2009
IN JULY 2007 I moved from New York City to Berkeley, CA. My first wife began her MBA program at UC Berkeley that fall. Just before leaving I set up the Facebook account, but did not really start using it until arriving in California.
I had never lived, or wanted to live, on the West Coast. In 2002, when brownouts crisscrossed California due to the depredations of Enron, I vowed not to live in a place where the elevators would suddenly stop working. Not to mention a place under the constant threat of earthquakes. Or a place where a needless definite article is lashed to road names; why say “the 101” when “101” will do? Or an entity where the radio and TV station call letters began with K, rather than the noble and true W.
Clearly I had a lot of baggage regarding this voyage west. In those first months Facebook became a lifeline to friends and family from across the country. Many people I knew opened their accounts around the same time as me, and for months sending or receiving “friend” requests was thrilling.
In those years there was much ado about how young people could ruin their job prospects by posting photos of their drunken escapades to Facebook. Potential employers would see, and potential employers would judge. It did not escape me that many of these employers had been just as drunk themselves in their own youths. The Web was new, sure. But youthful indiscretion was time-honored. The hypocrisy of denying a job for this pretext was an outrage. I blogged about this (of course), worrying in 2008 that all this advice was causing young people to craft ever more “Potemkin versions of themselves.”
Then again, I was pretty buttoned down. I wrote that full-throated defense of social media even though the likelihood of any such photo appearing on my own Facebook page was nil.
What was much more plausible, as became increasingly apparent throughout 2008, was that my marriage was in trouble. Business school spouses are warned about the toll the program often takes on marriages, a warning that proved prescient in our case. We drifted ever more apart, as the chasm between our goals and interests widened.
By January 2009 it was clear that this chasm was uncrossable. We decided to divorce, after eight years of marriage. Eight years is not especially long in the span of a lifetime, but it is a lot of time when you were married at 23.
To cope with this shock, I blogged very openly about the divorce and its aftermath. I now think of 2009 as “divorce year,” both because that’s the year in which it occurred and because my real-time feelings are preserved on the blog. The day after the divorce became final I arranged these posts, and some pictures, to commemorate both the event and my process for grappling with it.
I linked to each post about the divorce on Facebook. In response friends, family and colleagues from around the country posted beautifully thoughtful comments of support. Many people thought I was brave and courageous to be so open about this experience. I appreciated these sentiments, even if for me the blog was only a real-time personal essay not worth praising (but hopefully worth reading). But people responded to it vividly and with grace, for which I remain grateful. It was an online support group, which would have been much harder to convene without Facebook. For this most personal of reasons, in 2009 I was still a dogged booster of social media.
2. Puzzlement: 2010-2012
IN EARLY 2010 I met my current wife. Our wedding was in 2011 and we are still going strong. These days any blog posts about marriage are very sparing and much more light.
My blog posts today look outward, offering film reviews or musings about baseball. There is no longer any need to convene an ongoing forum to wrestle with loss. For this reason, perhaps, I am much more attuned to the shortcomings of social media than I used to be.
One shortcoming, or at least concern, is how these tools encourage shallow postings. Smart phones make it very easy to post trifling observations, whether they are status updates or tweets. I am a living testament to this. As soon as I bought my first iPhone I began to snap and upload pictures to Facebook with abandon. My aim was to offer a quirky take on living in the Bay Area, with funny captions or wry anecdotes. Some posts achieved this, others just consumed digital space. These were just silly things, nothing scurrilous. But it is puzzling how I sometimes, still, feel a need to post a picture, or a link, or to check in.
À la “pics or it didn’t happen;” today there’s a real sense that if something is not reported and preserved on social media it is not a complete event. This is complete nonsense, of course. Nonetheless that feeling is now part of the ether.
Or maybe it has always been this way. Tabloids have long offered “Page 6” gossip and coverage of high society parties. Perhaps Facebook simply allows people to create tabloid-esque versions of their own lives, without requiring reporters or photographers. The shallowness inherent in all of this resides in human nature, not within the halls of Facebook.
Not that Zuckerberg & Co are completely innocent. In 2011 and 2012 there was increased concern about whether Facebook would protect user privacy. The Faustian bargain of using Facebook–the cost of this “free” service is providing your history on the platform so it can be mined and marketed—was baked in from the beginning. But as Facebook gained critical mass the real implications of this began to sink in. Facebook users are, essentially, cogs within a vast marketing machine. All of the company’s propaganda about “building connections” and “bringing people together” is limpid window dressing for this obvious truth. Listening to it reminds me of listening to George W. Bush justify the Iraq invasion.
Thank goodness that Bush did not have access to Twitter when he was leading us to war. One can only imagine the insufferable hashtags–#missionaccomplished; #remember9/11; #USA! During the 2012 Presidential campaign, loaded and misleading hashtags became part and parcel of every campaign across the political spectrum. Any candidate’s unfortunate slip of the tongue during the afternoon—think “you didn’t build that” from President Obama or “47% of this nation is takers” from Mitt Romney—became a trending hashtag by nightfall. Election campaigns of the 1990s, with their then state-of-the art management of the 24 hour news cycle, seemed positively ancient by 2012. This ingenious tool that allowed anyone to express their views in 140 pithy characters was quickly co-opted by established political powers.
Then again, Bush did not need Twitter to foment war. And his boosters did not require its services to Swift Boat John Kerry. Just as with Facebook, the shallow and caustic use of these tools reflects poorly on their users and not necessarily on the tool itself. Even so, by the end of 2012 it was obvious that any claims that Facebook and Twitter were revolutionary was nonsense. All they do is allow people to behave as they always have, only more quickly and often more stupidly.
3. Prudence: 2013-Present
DESPITE THE NUMEROUS flaws of social media, I continued to use it. I have never seriously entertained the idea of opting out or unplugging. For me Facebook is too rich a source of connection to family and friends whom I would seldom interact with otherwise. And although I am a sporadic tweeter, Twitter is an excellent source of communication and engagement at professional conferences. In that context hashtags are illuminating, not insufferable.
My current stance regarding Facebook and Twitter is one “take it all with a grain of salt.” In 2011 former Slate editor David Plotz hilariously spoofed Facebook, by claiming on three different days in the same year that it was his birthday. Many people blithely wished him a happy birthday each and every time; only the more discerning caught the joke. People’s shallow engagement with most online content is the reason it is so easy to use Facebook to fabricate a perfect life, as this Norwegian video that went “viral” attests.
Before the web only viruses were viral, and nobody thought this was a good thing. Perhaps this particular word choice indicates our awareness of the potential for social media to amplify triviality and hostility. Justine Sacco, who in 2013 wrote an infamous tweet about how white people cannot get AIDS, has experienced this first-hand. This is the kind of outre joke which, in the hands of Louis CK on the comedy stage, would draw belly laughs. But Sacco tweeted it, and the retweet pile-up accusing her of racism commenced swiftly and with such force that she was promptly fired. As Jon Ronson recently documented in the New York Times Magazine, Sacco’s chief inquisitor, Sam Biddle, eventually apologized to her. But the damage was done. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, at least, Biddle’s inquisition did not lead to Sacco’s violent death. Perhaps we’re making progress after all.
In the fall of 2014 I had my own taste of the tempers that Twitter can arouse. In my field of academic librarianship there is an urgent debate about how to help students become smart users of online information. We call this “information literacy.” I strongly support a new framework for information literacy sponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries, while many colleagues have deep objections to it. And so we took to Twitter, for an initially friendly debate that gradually became more heated. At least it did for me. As we continued I felt myself becoming more irritable, and convinced that immediate replies to all incoming tweets were a necessity.
This was untrue, and unwise. Social media needs its own ethics.
Affirming Social Media Ethics: I am not the first person to arrive at this conclusion. Evgeny Morozov is one of the most eloquent and trenchant critics of Internet culture. Morozov made similar observations as those I have made here years ago, and goes further than me. In Morozov’s view social media has more potential to aid and comfort dictators than to start democratic revolutions, because platforms like Facebook and Twitter easily allow despots to keep tabs on their people. Furthermore it is now easy for people to let themselves off the hook from doing the real work of social change. Everyone feels they have done their part by liking status updates or shuffling along retweets, when this actually accomplishes nothing.
Morozov is brilliant, and somewhat persuasive. Unfortunately he has become categorical and doctrinaire about the evils of Facebook and Twitter, reducing his effectiveness. Facebook and Twitter are simply tools, which can be used in inspiring or infuriating ways. Morozov does not possess the nuance to see this. Once you’ve read one of his acerbic critiques you can save yourself the effort of reading the next ten. And in any event, social media is here to stay however much Morozov loathes it.
Morozov’s frequent public interlocutor, Clay Shirky, plays the cheerleader to Morozov’s scold. For Shirky social media does possess revolutionary potential, giving everyday citizens the power to challenge repression in Iran, Egypt or Hong Kong. Shirky believes the Web can harness the “cognitive surplus” of our everyday thinking, connecting people who would never otherwise learn about each other in order to create and share new knowledge.
If Morozov is too dour, Shirky is too optimistic. To date many of the most popular uses of the Web (think porn, think cat videos) have been less than edifying. I share Shirky’s belief in the potential of the Internet. Then again, you could make the same arguments about the uplifting benefits of reading great literature. That doesn’t change the fact that dime store novels sell like hotcakes and the classics lie around unread. The benefits of social media are real, and Shirky should continue articulating them. But the most far-reaching possibilities for social media must contend with the lethargy (and baseness) of human nature.
Here is where ethics come in. Social media ethics are just the same as any other ethics: a rigorous code designed to encourage and reward our best selves. Just as it’s easy to fire off an incendiary tweet, it is all too easy to make a sharp remark in face-to-face conversation. It is ever-so-simple to post a link that only presents one side of an issue to Facebook. It’s just as easy to obfuscate unflattering details when making an argument “in real life.” In all cases, online or in person, we should always strive for the high road.
Easier said than done. Of course. Which brings me back to George W. Bush. I voted for his opponents in both elections, and sincerely disagree with his economic philosophy. I also believe he authorized the Iraq War under false pretences. But Bush was also very firm in supporting the rights of American Muslims after September 11, when the easier thing would have been to demonize them. He supported AIDS research for Africa and comforted the grieving families of the astronauts lost on Space Shuttle Columbia. It’s a mixed record, not a universally loathsome one. My deliberately pugnacious tone about Bush throughout this piece diminishes the power of my critique, even though it feels satisfying in the moment.
There’s the essence—do not yield to the urge to fire off a zinger, whether in conversation or online. Perhaps the editors of the “MSM” were (and are) gatekeepers. But part of the gatekeeping at the best outlets is to ensure that the conversation remains dignified without losing any passion. There is no contradiction in these goals. On Facebook and Twitter, it is up to each of us to edit ourselves.
Marcus Banks (@mab992) is a librarian, writer and critic who resides in Evanston, IL. His writing has appeared in the Nieman Storyboard, Superstition Review, Gotham Gazette, and San Francisco Chronicle.