I’ve written recently about what I consider to be an emerging consensus, or if not quite rising to the status of consensus, a recognition that we have not reckoned with the societal costs of social media and are finally starting to do so seriously in 2018.
In The New Republic, Mark Oppenheimer recounts his experience of being on the receiving end of a social media firestorm after an ill-considered post. It’s worth pausing for a moment, before the laminations about the coarsening of discourse, to look at Oppenheimer’s motivation for writing this original post. He writes, “there was a lot wrong with the piece, which I wrote in about twenty minutes in the hour after I read the Weinstein story.” Oppenheimer is focused more on the fallout from his poor post, but it’s worth considering why exactly, a hot take needed to be pushed out twenty minutes into a breaking story.
The urge to post an ill-informed opinion like this must be viewed in the context of the sharing economy and the enormous pressure journalists are under to have a story go viral. All in the name of engagement, the coin of the realm of the social networks. The drive for engagement, for sharing, for virality here causes both the publication of a poor piece, but also the backlash to the piece as well. What better thing to share than an extremely bad Weinstein take! How simple to hit retweet, along with some choice words of condemnation!
And so, to escape the deluge of approbation, Oppenheimer turns away from social media. He realizes that the world outside his door does not resemble the world he has been marinating in for so long. “People continue to be overwhelmingly decent when communicating in the old ways. But that is not true of newer media. The web is thus doing something even more dispiriting than turning us into bad people: It’s giving us amnesia about how fundamentally good we are.” But Oppenheimer misses the point somewhat, describing a “coarsening” as if it’s just a thing that happens, like bad weather, rather than the result of corporate policy.
On Twitter, writer David Klion criticizes him for turning his back on humanity: “And yet they were still there, and so were the people on them, who are people, and the conversations they had, which are conversations. As a writer, how can you describe the world when you refuse to observe it?” But he’s not turning away from the world…he’s turning away from the world according to Twitter. Klion goes on to point out how “in the era when Mark Oppenheimer, straight/cis/white/male/lawyer’s son … endured less abuse, the communities he’s describing endured more, legally as well as verbally.” Again, it is the social platforms who have, in the name of engagement, in the name of active users, enabled this very abuse.
This is not the result of natural causes, but policies and preferences made by Twitter and Facebook which prioritize engagement, whatever the form it may take, over social harms, from the coarse and profane insults directed at Oppenheimer, to the threats and abuse that women and those from more vulnerable communities experience on these platforms. Twitter is not humanity, it is an environment is which humans have been given the opportunity and the incentive to behave badly. Perhaps Oppenheimer would have received similar treatment in a more humane Twitter, one with better priorities. But he’s not wrong to differentiate between the world as it is and the world according to Twitter.