A few years ago I ditched Facebook for the seductive promises of Twitter. I took the distinction between the two to be fundamental, that we were plagued by the ignorance of our friends on Facebook, but benefited from the wit of strangers on Twitter instead. However, in time this distinction turned out to be merely skin-deep. It took me a while to admit that both forms of social media were already compromised by the very nature of digital communication.
After centuries of progress, we nurtured the uncritical assumptions of science, that all information was neutral; therefore all technology (particularly, search engines and social networks and their algorithms) consisted of impartial tools.
The Internet was supposed to be The Next Great utopian project that redistributed power to the vast masses. But what actually took place was the exact opposite – this utopian dream has awarded a megaphone to marginal but shrill demagogues, and in the process, ultimately normalized them by making them mainstream. Moreover, living in a country that disregards the human right of freedom of speech can be a liability when it comes to social media platforms that instituted a “real name” policy, because that helps such governments to track dissidents.
Twitter was supposed to change the world by giving everyone with a cell phone a voice. But nobody at Twitter knew what the consequences of giving everyone a voice would be, or what everyone meant. That was the Original Sin of Twitter. Eventually, an egotistic, paranoid clown of the highest order exposed the rotten worm inside of that Forbidden Fruit – he was bitter, vicious, petty and we paid him constant attention. And Twitter decided to ride this wave, pay heed to their demanding investors, and count the growing audience.
The abject failure of Twitter is quite simple – it failed to uphold its principles for the sake of the dubious metric of increasing usage to build capital. This is also the “Original Sin” of Silicon Valley.
Utopians promised that social media was necessary in bringing about a more enlightened politics by spreading accurate information effectively and efficiently in the hopes of eliminating all forms of bad governance, such as corruption, bigotry and other forms of falsehoods. However, in recent years, social media platforms has failed us all: during the height of the 2016 Election in America, 146 million users on Facebook were exposed to Russian misinformation, Youtube hosted over a thousand videos of suspect origins, and Twitter activated nearly 37 thousands spam bot accounts. Instead of enlightenment, social media has spread a cancerous growth of misanthropy. This circulation of untruth has virtually destroyed our capacity for self-judgment and exacerbated partisanship, erasing the necessary conditions for a liberal democracy.
Since the early 1990s, polarization, the ‘crack of politics,’ has brought about a growing division between the right and the left in America. This politics of contempt means those of different ideological color saw different facts, which prevented them from ever seeing a neutral, value-free empirical basis for a sound compromise. Each side, split by identity rather than by class, maliciously demonized the other, making the system far too toxic for the slightest hint of empathy. This created a maelstrom of pettiness, scandal and outrage, a true shitstorm that prevents anyone from seeing the bigger picture, or what actually matters for their society.
In digital communication, the long-standing virtue of respect has been completely replaced by the “shitstorm.” Respect meant looking back with consideration and caution, and that required some space between the observer and the observed. This space also maintains the distinction between the public and the private spheres, but social media has erased both distinctions. No private moment or matter is off-limit for digital distribution. Our private spaces have all but disappeared, in which the most intimate details of our personal lives now belong to everyone online, and we have been reduced to images.
Our utopian beliefs about the redistribution of power to the masses consider the larger online community as some powerful force, but according to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, this digital swarm lacks true power because it cannot be effectively mobilized. The individuals in this digital swarm has no true animating spirit, no true collective notion of “we.” Instead, we are encouraged to nurture our narcissism for self-interest purposes, becoming more individualistic. Without the ability to mobilize, without true coherence, there’s no true voice to the amorphous swarm – merely noise in a series of disconnected nows. We as individuals are easily outraged, but since there’s no available space to decompress before we communicate, and because we in the swarm cannot mobilize, the outrage falls back on self-interest rather than anything beyond our selfish needs.
The more we exploit ourselves for the sake of self-centric goals, the constant deluge of positive messages online keeps us trapped in an achievement society, the faster we burnout. And burnouts are utterly incapable of mobilizing for action.
Social media is a leveling equalizer where anyone of us can create and share content. However, this leveling process actually erodes the credibility of the experts, and in turn, the prospects of a representative democracy. Potential leaders no longer have the necessary space to think through ideas and work through possible solutions without having to face the immediate backlash of outrage. Political wisdom relies on a judicial withholding of information, but that goes against the demands of the public. They see no alternative but to cut out the middle man and represent themselves and their opinions.
The more we rely on digital communication, the more we miss out the non-verbal cues that make up 70% of all physical communication. This obsession with the bare bones of text weakens the ability to recognize the Other. Moreover, digital images on social media, particularly those on Instagram, have become more “real” than reality, and are in the process of comprising a new reality, a performative construction of a hyperreality. These images are so attractive that they actually make reality disappointing. “Digital is timeless… Analog suffers from time…the digital does not blossom or gleam.” Even analog consists of defects and flaws like scratchy records and jittery film playback. Digital images do not deteriorate, and may be reproduced precisely, creating a virtual space. But this degrades the ability to discern the real from the simulation, since the digital appropriates authenticity.
In our utopian faith, we sought for liberation but ended up drowning in a sea of limitless information. All our information is online, available through social media, but information actually “de-factifies” society and discredits faith because it moots the function of critical thinking and abstraction. Information suggests that it itself is sufficient for all purposes, that if enough data is available, no theory is needed.
A few conclusions are left: information is not truth. Neither is transparency a form of truth. We have been conditioned to expect the truth through information and transparency in a digital environment, where everything is available online, accessible and researchable by anyone, but this is false. The truth is a narrative, while transparency is mere accountability. The digital is technically itself a finger that counts, but this finger can never constitute a narrative. We count our likes, our shares, the number of our followers, but none of these is sufficient to serve as a complete narrative. Relationships are narrative driven, and thus they cannot be distilled into a metric for online consumption and algorithms for tailor-made information.
This unsettling realization is but the tip of the iceberg, because digital communication has shaped society far beyond our ability to comprehend and predict. We are all part of the swarm, socially and intellectually compromised by the digital, but perhaps this acknowledgement of such overwhelming power is the first step towards a new tomorrow.