Problems in the public square: cancel culture or social media?

Image result for conflagration

It was great hearing from readers about cancel culture.  Many raised some important points like the issue of intentional disinformation. The main concern I continue to have is that conversations in the public square almost exclusively take place on social media now.  Even before companies began shutting down accounts there were problems with public dialogue taking place in this format because of the limitations that are built-in. Technology is never ethically neutral.  Values are baked in even if they are unintended. Social media is no different. As a tool to keep in contact social media can be helpful.  But as a place to have deep conversations where nuance and tact are needed it falls short. You cannot unpack very much in 244 characters or whatever it is now.  There is also a strange human-computer interaction phenomenon where people feel free to sound off online in ways that they would never do in a face-to-face interaction.  The same way people get beer muscles in a bar, they get keyboard muscles online.  

The shortfall of social media as a replacement for the public square has only been exacerbated by the pandemic because people are living in virtual worlds more than before due to lockdowns.  Yet even before the pandemic more and more people were limiting their community interaction to online communities.  Maybe I can see this shift more because I am extrovert who loves actual conversations and I am old enough to remember the public square before everyone had to check their digital devices to see what they were missing out on.  When I was younger, the public square could be our front stoops where we spoke to our neighbors, face to face.  Online community can never truly replace face to face community.  When we can construct our community based on algorithms that are intended to sell us everything under the sun, we are in trouble.  We end up in echo chambers that cause us to repel the minute we read or hear something we do not like.

If the limitations were not bad enough, the way social media is used today has only made it an even worse place to serve as the public square.  Everyone on social media wants followers.  The business models of many companies rely on social media feeds increasing followers. This has also led to a new profession, that of the influencer.  These people are paid to push ideas and products and influence the market. The whole model is built on increasing a following at any cost.  If everyone is after followers, it stands to reason that they will want fiery feeds with lots of sparks. The same way people like to watch a train wreck, they can follow a virtual one with lots of verbal derailments. I have received too many texts by people asking me if I have seen the latest social media battle. Twitter storm is now a term.  But to encourage a twitter storm or entice people to follow a feed you will want to make provocative statements that shock the readers or that cause a response to get the conversations going. The medium has been constructed in such a way as to encourage shock and awe versus winsome discussion.

Another problem we face, is that social media has only increased the speed the 24-hour news cycle which dominates our lives. Between the desires for followers and having an active feed and maintaining relevance in this information ecosystem people feel the need to react to the news or posts rather than reflect on them, so they can build a following.  I cannot imagine we would get many likes or followers if we posted, “still processing today’s events.”  As a historian this new world is foreign to my profession.  In the field of history, the more distance the historian has from the events they are writing about often times makes their work better and more reflective.  

I do not want to come off like the lovable curmudgeonly Muppets, Statler and Waldorf nor do I think we can put the genie back in the bottle.  But we do need to be more reflective in our use of all technology.  I cannot look at what we are experiencing in our society today with everyone at each other’s throats without picturing a great conflagration and the arsonists are walking away from the firestorm counting their money as the village burns down. It feels like we are being duped for profit margins. Christians we need to think Christianly about how we engage online. We need to seriously evaluate how this space can be redemptive.