Un-Social Media

Be careful how you Brand

This past Tuesday, Twitter banned me for a week. I was scrolling along when I came across a tweet expressing outrage over Lauren Boebert. The freshman Congressperson from CO set off an alarm when passing through the newly installed magnetometer on her way to the House Chamber. She then refused to allow Capital Police to search her bag. I read about her refusal, thought about the context of the January 6th attack at the Capital, became ”righteously indignant” and I tweeted a reply, ”Throw her skank ass out!”

Within minutes, an information screen appeared notifying me that I had broken Twitter’s rules against ”harassment”. I chuckled inwardly that my 5 words had somehow triggered a response from Twitter’s harassment algorithm. I’d seen much worse. But sure enough, my account was to be limited to read-only or Direct Messaging my followers (which I do not do on any social media platform). I was in the penalty box. 

I’d like to say I rationalized my sophomoric tweet because I had knowledge of Boebert’s past criminal record. I knew of her boast that she would carry her Glock around the Capital. And in her first week in Congress, she had live-tweeted Nancy Pelosi’s movements during the siege of the Capital. Knowing these things prompted my off-the-cuff tweet. I was justified, right? But we humans confabulate rationalizations for everything we say or do. The fact that I had reasons, doesn’t make what I tweeted acceptable. The scary thing is, it was purely spontaneous. I didn’t think. I typed. My words appeared on the screen. I didn’t give a moment’s hesitation to consider the implications of my tweet. It was snarky. It was pithy. I waited for the likes and retweets to roll in….

I become a different person when using social media than I am in face-to-face or telephone conversations in real life. My hypothesis is that I am not alone in that behavior, but that doesn’t excuse mine. I would never have said those words to Ms. Boebert in person, no matter how disgusted I feel about her politics and actions. That’s not how I speak to people in the real world. And in RL, I don’t feel compelled to ”like”, reply to, comment on, or repeat everything I hear. 

Imagine a gathering at your kid’s __________(football game, school play, music recital). You park your car, climb out, and make your way to the venue, other parents and students streaming in the same direction. You are aware of faint snippets of unintelligible conversation floating to you in the air. There’s laughter, there’s a murmuring hum of voices below the threshold of comprehension. As the crowd begins to congregate, compressing and concentrating nearer the ticket booth, the conversations become clearer. You feel a compulsion to join in. You want to be recognized. You have a voice, and you’re determined to speak up and comment. A stranger nearby says to her companion, ”Hey, let’s go to Chili’s after this.” You lean in and crow, ”Ooh…I really like that place, don’t you love their margaritas?” Then, pleased with yourself, you turn around and begin to yell to those behind you, ”They’re going to Chili’s after the game! THIS!” pointing and gesturing at them for all to see. You are so happy to be participating. You can feel the rush of dopamine. But within seconds, several others overhear and begin to shout you down, ”Chili’s? Oh hell no! It sucks!”, ”What kind of a loser eats at Chili’s?” Soon, a heated argument breaks out. Tempers flare. Harsh words are exchanged. You feel deflated, confused, ashamed. Crazy, right?

That level of interaction in the real world is NOT social. It’s not normal. It’s not desirable. It is intrusive, distracting, unproductive, and weird! It is socially destructive. That scene would violate every social norm hardcoded into a human from birth. But, tell me that fictional scene doesn’t play out on twitter and facebook every day. 

Social media apps and platforms make us different. Anonymity allows you to be as crass and contemptuous, as ugly, mean-spirited, and vile as you can summon the nerve and the wit to produce. Dish it out and take it. Be quick though…someone else is going to beat you with the perfect zinger!

With the ban on my account implemented, I still had access to scroll though the feed of tweets, but I could neither like them, reply to them, nor retweet them. No interaction. No following of new clever people. No liking their *Chef’ Kiss* rebuttals in 280 characters or less. I instantly and irrationally felt ISOLATED. I felt invisible (and not in a good way). I was going to fall so far behind that in a week’s time there would be no possibility of ever…catching…up. I inwardly chuckled at my pathetic predicament, realizing how absurd it was to feel that way over tweeting snarkitudes with complete strangers, for God’s sake. I have a measly 250 Twitter followers. So…none…in the Twitterverse

Only a small handful of my followers know me in real life, and when we get together, we don’t gather with pocketfuls of heart stickers to plaster all over each other.

Like I said, I’m different in real life than I am on social media. You probably are too.

BUT NOT EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT…

Many use social media to ”brand” themselves. They want to be popular; to be ”influencers”. They carefully integrate their digital, virtual selves with their real life selves (which makes one wonder just how ”real” they are). This behavior is one thing if you’re selling a product, or a reality tv show, but what if you’re an elected official? What if you’re a politician using the power of social media to make incivility and outright hostility your brand? The United States is living through the consequence of that sad result right now.

We can observe what happens when politicians of either persuasion carefully curate their statements to stay ”On Brand”. This enables them to build a tribe of fiercely loyal supporters and followers; ones who will share a near vicarious identification. But a politician who builds loyalty by being an attack dog against the other party can never be conciliatory or compromising without risking the loss of those same followers who will only support the attack dog. And a politician who creates a following based upon the least common denominators of race, creed, or religion can never be a success as a statesmen able to unite disparate portions of the electorate around the greatest common denominators of humanity, dignity, citizenship, and a shared planet.

This is an unintended, serious consequence of the ubiquity of social media, and its adoption as the preferred means of communication by political figures. Politicians feel pressure to align their real life demeanor with their social media persona in a way that a normal citizen like me, doesn’t. 

A hardline, anti-otherside social media presence will not jive with a patient, openminded, tolerant, conciliatory RL personality. If my hunch is true, it goes a long way towards explaining the very recent deterioration of political discourse in our era. Politicians are too often protecting and projecting the social media version of themselves, which may be the worst version of themselves. Every public figure knows they are one tweet, video upload, or facebook post away from having their RL self plastered all over the SocialMediaVerse. If they are known for being mean to the other side on Twitter, heaven forbid they should fist-bump with them in the real world.

It’s one thing for a non-public, non-elected person to be a jerk on social media. It’s quite another to have to live up to that expected ”jerk-ness” on the floor of the House, or in a debate, or during an interview. To be sure, many members of both parties are doing a fine job being consistently uncivil in RL as they are on social media platforms. I’m saying that’s not a good thing. And the possibility always exists for 280 character tweets, or out of context facebook posts, or instagram stories to become embedded with more ”meaning” to the audience of indoctrinated followers than the politician intended. Those tweets may just radicalize. The hate-soaked, loaded words may flip a switch in the hearer that creates responses and behaviors that is not exactly civilized. This is just another way in which social media may actually be making us all less ”social”. 

So, these concerns and my twitter jail time have me thinking about some bigger questions…

Healthy social interaction requires healthy boundaries with healthy restraints. The threshold from individual to social is the moment another person enters the picture. Most people exercise the degree of self-censure and self-restraint deemed appropriate by social customs and norms, given the context. Less restraint out with friends drinking beer at a hockey game than when gathered with family around the Thanksgiving table. Absent mental illness or gross neglect, most people grow up acquiring basic social norms that have been passed from generation to generation. These norms allow society to achieve cooperation; thereby handing off the baton of education, culture, behavior, identity, innovation, and government to one another and to each successive generation.

When an individual breaks the norms, the group responds to censure that individual, either rehabilitating him, ostracizing him, or punishing him with expulsion in one form or another.

Behaviors that are bad for the group are bad by definition. 

Ethical behavior cannot exist in any meaningful way if there are not at least two people present. If it takes two to tango, it takes two to…Ethics? Ethic? An individual alone on the earth cannot practice ethical behavior. He certainly cannot sin against his neighbor. Certainly, the concept of Morality introduces a discussion of how one conducts himself towards God, but even the Bible teaches, ”how can you love God whom you have not seen when you don’t love your brother whom you have seen.” 

An aside: I find it interesting to recall the Genesis story, that Adam, having been created before Eve, spends an indeterminate amount of time alone before succumbing to the operation that brought the second human being forth. As head gardener, he takes care of the flora. As Zoologist in residence, he names all the animals. As the Priest, the Congregant, and the Worshipper, he walks with God in the cool of the day. But there is no record of him having sinned. And this, despite the recorded declaration that both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were present in the garden. One might derive from this cautionary tale that it takes at least two to sin against God. In fact, the NT concept of ‘faith’ is a transliteration of Hebrew and Greek words that combined connote much more the idea of ”total dependence upon”, than merely ”mental acquiescence in”. 

Until Eve appeared, Adam was completely dependent upon God for communion and companionship and all the fruits derived therefrom. It was God who said, ”It is not good for man to be alone.” and thus initiated a search for a help meet for Adam that culminated with Adam naming the animals (thus beating Aristotle in forming the system of classification of EVERYTHING that defines Western thought), and finally, when no suitable help was found, to Eve herself being formed from Adam and presented to him. 

Adam’s percentage of dependence upon God and attention to God lowered from one hundred per cent to some lesser unknowable percentage. We may surmise that it was this opportunity for co-dependence that created the context for temptation to act against the will of God and his command not to eat of the tree of knowledge, or in other words to become ‘self-reliant’, believing themselves capable of acting independently of God and that such action would produce a better outcome for themselves than continued dependence would produce.

The NT has a simple, terrible, concentrated warning. ”Whatever is not of faith is sin”. The essence of sin is to act as if there is no God. To act independently of God. Alone in the world, Adam was keenly aware of his dependence. He was no less dependent once Eve arrived, he was just less aware of it.

Without a doubt, individual expedience and utility are essential to survival. A solitary figure, alone in the world, doesn’t have the ability to sin against anyone and he doesn’t have to consult anyone’s interests but his own. He can howl at the moon, He can urinate outdoors, and not wash his hands. He can hunt and kill for the shear bloodlust and sport and adrenaline rush of it. Hell, he can go so far as to refrain from wearing a mask (since there’s no one else he might infect). But throw another person into the mix and that unrestrained individuality becomes destructive to the group, whether that group is a marriage, a family, a tribe, a company, or a state. 

As an individual matures, one hopes he learns to cooperate. He learns to harness his individuality for the communal, collective good. If he doesn’t so mature, he is free to be a recluse. But he isn’t free to interfere in the freedoms of all other persons.

It is the presence of another human that is the contextual genesis of morality and ethics. Ethical behavior is that which tends to the increase in overall good to the group in very general terms. It being obvious that in a group of two, one being a selfish millionaire, the other being a broke and destitute homeless person, if the millionaire becomes a billionaire while the homeless person remains broke, the aggregate ”wealth” of the group has grown, while the aggregate ”goodness” has not increased, and has even diminished.

A primary role of society is to sort out for itself what is ”good”, and to promote that ”goodness” to all members. The means, adoption, cultivation, and enjoyment of that goodness is what we call civilization. The format and means for advancing civilization is what we call politics. It is just here that philosophers have historically played their most important role. By thinking through and sharing their ideas of ethics, aesthetics, and politics, they serve to civilize us. The basic tenet of social and therefore civil intelligence is to project oneself beyond oneself appropriately at every occasion of interaction and social intercourse. This takes a strength of will and of character far greater than succumbing to the baser tendencies of Nietzsche’s übermensch, or superman, whom Nietzsche lauded as the epitome of human-ness, a being who would be ethically impelled to exert as much dominance as his strengths, gifts, and resources allowed. I reject the ”super-man”.

It takes no special strength of will, no special insight, and no special skill to consult my own happiness at all times and act as selfishly as my might allows. But to restrain those impulses in the pursuit of lifting up another, of relieving another’s suffering, of elevating the shared corporate ”goodness”, those are skills to be practiced for a lifetime. To cultivate a wider perspective, to walk in another’s shoes, to see with their eyes, to put oneself in their place: in short, to love thy neighbor as thyself; that is a purpose worthy of a human being.

It is no accident that the first word of the United States Constitution is the word, ”We”. 

I’m glad for my Twitter ban. Having my hand slapped and being told to behave like a good boy is the perfect opportunity to step back, think about who I really am, and realize that I’m a different person, projecting a different persona on Twitter. Who have I been doing that for? For ME…not for We. It made me feel better about myself to exercise what I considered clever snarkiness on Twitter. And realizing that now…mid ban…makes me reject that Un-Social self.

That’s not who I am, nor is it who I want to be. Thanks to Twitter, I have the chance to pause and consider. I have the chance to exercise restraint and contribute only that which is positive to the conversation. I have the chance to be social.

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