Back when the buzzword switched from “Web 2.0” to “social media,” I started to get quite suspicious. When I was participating in online communities, I wasn’t propagating “media.” That is something that boring corporate media types did.
What would those boring corporate media types, or rather their Silicon Valley equivalents, do with once-unconstrained, lively, frequently long-form debate communities? Make the conversations shorter, more vapid, more appealing to the masses, and more addictive. In short, more of a really dumb waste of time.
The Zucks and Dorseys of the world did this in order to hook people more and more. What they probably didn’t realize at first is that they had built tools for stupidification and radicalization. I don’t think “dumb down” is quite the right phrase: dumbing down means making something complex simpler, easier to understand, but also less accurate. To “stupidify” focuses on the effects on us; in social media mobs, we are truly stupid herd animals, and when enraged, rather frighteningly stupid mobs. What we are fed and say is dumbed down; consequently, we are stupidified.
That degraded quality of social relationship–that is these fools’ legacy. I have no respect for what Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey achieved. (This isn’t a personal slam; I don’t have that much respect for Wikipedia, either, which is something I built.)
If you had set out to reduce human Internet interactions to a subhuman, irrational, emotional level, an excellent strategy would be to replace long mailing list and Usenet newsgroup posts and rambling blog posts like this one with tweets (whether 140 or 280 characters–at that tiny length, it doesn’t matter), propaganda memes, and emotion-driven comments that are cut short and sent by default if you try to write more than one paragraph.
To make the medium of social interaction briefer and more visual is to convey that intelligence, which is almost always long-form, is not valued. We live in a tl;dr world, the world that Zuck and Jack built. They must be very proud. If Marshall McLuhan was right that the medium is the message, social media’s message is that your intelligence and individuality are worth little; your emotions and loyalty to your tribe are everything.
I will go farther than that. I lay the ongoing destruction of democratic institutions squarely at their feet. That’s a dramatic and indeed emotional-sounding claim, but just look at what has happened and what is going on right now. It’s a disaster. We increasingly distrust our institutions insofar as they are co-governed by our ideological opponents. That didn’t used to be the case; what changed? That we are constantly presented with idiotic and easily-refuted versions of our opponents’ social and political views. Consequently, we have lost all respect for each other. Staggering percentages of the American people want to split up the country and predict civil war. Long-term friendships and even family relationships have been broken up by relentlessly stupid arguments on social media.
It isn’t just that increased familiarity with, or constant exposure to, our opponents’ points of view has led to mutual contempt. Sure, familiarity might breed contempt; but through social media we do not project our most genuine, nuanced, intelligent, sensitive, and human selves. Social media makes us, rather, into partisan, tribal drones. We are not really more familiar with each other. We are familiar with stupidified versions of each other. And that is making society insane.
It certainly looks as if the combination of short, visual messages and simplified reactions to them–“hearting,” upvoting and downvoting, or choosing from an extremely limited menu of emotional reactions–is enough to dumb down, to stupidify, the versions of ourselves we portray to each other. And that is, again, wreaking havoc on our society. With social media absolutely dominant as the locus of modern socialization, how could this fail to have a profound impact on our broader societal and political mood?
It is Zuck’s and Dorsey’s fault. They built the medium. The medium stupidifies us. Stupid people are particularly bad at democracy, as our Founding Fathers knew. The leadership of republican institutions must be wisely chosen by a sober citizenry using good sense improved by education. What we have now, thanks to social media, is a citizenry made punch-drunk by meaningless but addictive endorphins awarded them by reinforcing their tribal alliances, stupidly incapable of trusting “the Other” and, therefore, of reaching anything like a reasonable, democratic consensus.
I sincerely, fervently hope that in five or ten years’ time this is the conventional wisdom about social media. What comes next, I don’t know. But we can’t survive as a democratic society under these conditions.
Dr. Lawrence M. Sanger is a world-renowned technologist, respected information expert, and in-demand public speaker. He is a co-founder of the online non-profit encyclopedia Wikipedia—now as well-known as a critic—as well as many other educational and reference sites. Larry is currently the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit Knowledge Standards Foundation.
An Internet industry veteran and a Ph.D. philosopher, Larry possesses a rare combination of world-class analytical abilities combined with deep technology knowledge. He is also a highly experienced writer and speaker on a variety of topics.
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