By now, everyone has probably seen Gary Turk’s viral video call “Look Up”. If you haven’t, watch it. It is a beautifully produced, absolutely compelling, goose-bump inducing, thought-provoking spoken word poetic analysis of how so-called “social media” is causing us to become anti-social. Instead of looking up, it hypothesizes that we are always looking down at our devices, living in the virtual world without connecting to the real one and the people in it.
The video is also patronizing, judgmental, and totally whiffs on identifying the actual problem with social media. It’s not that social media causes us to be anti-social. On the contrary, it increases our social footprint. It expands our social market. Social media doesn’t detach me from the real world – it connects me to it. If it weren’t for social media, I probably would have never struck up a conversation with this guy and experienced this moment.
Another example: I was walking through Mount Royal and saw a cute French Bulldog, started talking with the owners, and realized that I already followed this dog on Instagram (Life of Pants).
Social media doesn’t cause us to be anti-social. But I’ve noticed that it certainly does train us to have bad habits when it comes to inter-human discourse in the digital realm. Social media – and twitter especially – rewards sass, rudeness, and conditions us to engage in a form of discourse that would never be encouraged or tolerated IRL (“in real life” for those not down with internet lingo).
Let’s start with Twitter. Imagine – a social media platform built on a 140-character limit… I like to joke that Twitter is the only place where being short on character is a requirement! What can anyone hope to accomplish in 140 characters? What form of social discourse can anyone have in 140 characters? The result: No one is looking for meaningful inter-human discourse. They are looking for the one-line comeback. The verbal knock-out. The most clever insult that will lunch their tweet into the vapid Twitter stratosphere.
Facebook may not have a character limit, but the reality is that online attention span is short. No one really wants to read a Facebook rant. The result is an impersonal back-and-forth, each person trying to get the last word and the most devastating “gotcha” (I am sufficiently self-aware that I analyze my own social media conduct with the same degree of severity).
The real problem with social media is that while it connects us in ways no one could have ever imagined a few years ago, it distances us in the way we talk to each other and in the way we listen to each other. The result is that we don’t talk and listen to each other the same way we would if we were in the same room. The digital distance emboldens us to personalize a discussion very quickly, because we’ve lost the guilt and shame that comes from looking into the eyes of someone we have just hurt.
The digital distance creates a buffer between our words and the effects they have on others.
And those internet points – the likes, the thumbs up, the retweets – that’s the proverbial juice that rewards the sass.
Social media has caused us to be more social. We are more connected than ever before. But we are being conditioned to interact with one another in digital and less human manner. It may be a stretch, but I truly believe this digital distance has brought us to the current political climate. No one is trying to understand the other any more. They are just searching for the sassiest, 140-character knock-out comeback.
It’s not a question of looking up. It’s a question of toning down, and writing as though you are staring into the eyes of your interlocutor.