In a previous version, everything got muddled and led to massive bloat that has now proven uncomfortably similar to an experience after sharing an entire “Little Italy” pizza from Pizza Hut with a roommate in college once. It was an awful experience, much like reading uninteresting walls of rambling text. So I’ve changed things up and am now parsing this into bits. Another note, this is more of an all encompassing social commentary series that merely uses social media/networking as a starting spot with which to latch on to a couple things that have been bothering. So, without further adieu, enjoy.
In a recent Time Magazine article, Fareed Zakaria wrote the following when discussing the peculiar case of the now infamous former NSA Agent, Edward Snowden:
[“We are living with the consequences of two powerful, interrelated trends. The first is digital life. Your life today has a digital signature. Where you eat, shop and travel; whom you call, e-mail and text; every website, café and museum you visit even once is all stored in the great digital cloud. And you can’t delete anything, ever.
“The second is Big Data. Americans were probably most shocked by the revelation that the U.S. government is collecting massive quantities of their digital signatures—billions of phone calls and e-mails and Internet searches. The feds aren’t monitoring every last one. But they easily could, and this is the essence of the age of Big Data. “]
Needless to say, I’ve thought a lot about social media/networkin, communication, and public discourse at large in this ever-changing digital age. On the surface, that isn’t surprising. I graduated from one of the best schools of journalism with an emphasis area that stressed multi-platform journalism. . Most of the work I did as an undergrad involved broadcast, print, and audio styles meant to be uploaded and viewed online. That was my niche and I enjoyed it a lot. I still do. Recently, however, my thoughts about social media have changed, due in large part to recent things I’ve read and recent events in the world. At the forefront is a book by Andrew Keen called, “Digital Vertigo.” It is a critique detailing how social media is dividing, diminishing, and disorienting the populace. While at times hyperbolic, it provides interesting points I think warrant discussion. The first of which is what I’ll call “The Borg Collective.”
Another description is the “mob mentality.” You can also call it “the hive mind.” Orwell referred to it as “groupthink” in his dystopia, “1984.” I wish I could take these as my own, since I can’t; I’ll use the coolest one, which is the Star Trek analogy. I can’t help it! I’m a closet Trekkie!
In an age far gone, the “groupthink” sessions used to happen in town squares. Now, more often than not, these take place online with little to no oversight. In this corner of cyberspace, we routinely “stone” folks who have come under scrutiny, been charged with crimes, or said something callous that may have been taken out of context. I see these all the time in political forums or the comment sections of news stories. In places where you should well know which direction the bias needle points, you can often have people coming in droves to heckle, put down, and mock. They are “casting the stone” without any regard for content, truth, or human decency. I routinely saw this online during the high profile trial of George Zimmerman and the death of Trayvon Martin. You’d be surprised at the mob gathering of legal experts and omniscient oracles that know all of what went down that tragic night. They then latch on to any and all that agree and walk in-step because that person agrees with you. I think social media has made that easier. Finding people that agree with you that is. We all enjoy it. We enjoy being right. So we seek out those people to make ourselves feel better. This isn’t an inherent sin of social media by any means and it isn’t tied specifically to it. No, social media/networking has merely made it easier to ignore the debate and counter-points of others. In a way, it can perpetuate the hive mind or “Borg Collective” as I like to call it. You don’t need to do any external thinking on your own. What is, is, and that is all that matters.
I decided to put this theory to the test. Rarely, if ever, do I post comments on news stories. I’ve seen the comment section. Never have I seen more perfect examples of adults who never grew up. It is rather frightening and when I decided to post on an article about a recent McDonald’s fast food restaurant’s A/C failing and the employees walking out until it got fixed. I posted a single sentence comment on how employees working for the bare minimum deserve more. Within five minutes of such a posting, I was immediately attacked on all sides and labeled a “libtard.” Surprised? You shouldn’t be. This tends to happen even more on controversial stories where the hive mind takes power and if someone dares to have a dissenting thought, they are thrown to the wolves. What perpetuates this kind of behavior? I must admit, I am at a total loss. In part, I think it has to do with anonymity. Perhaps it is their way of expressing their hate that they otherwise wouldn’t engage in, in a public arena. Maybe they just grew-up engaging online and have no other way to interact with people, no way to quarantine or regulate their anger. I don’t think this is an inherent flaw in social media and networking, it is everywhere. At the same time, however, cyberspace seems to be the #1 go to location for such things. The Borg Collective (all the angry, mean spirited folk) can plug-in together and do what they do best, “troll.” Hate. Anger. Callousness. You name it and they’ll probably do it. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the why behind it.
The Hive-Mind and Politics
Perhaps the more troubling misuse of social media and networking lies with political movements and the complex network of what George Orwell referred to as “groupthink.” The biggest examples of digital groupthink occurred in 2011, as Keen also pointed out in “Digital Vertigo.” We saw the rise of the Arab Spring and new revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, particularly Egypt and Libya. Stateside in the US, we had our very own mass gathering known as the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.” Now, there is some merit behind these gatherings and what social media technology contributed to bring the citizenry out and demand change. At the surface, there was change. The abusive, corrupt, and oppressive governments of Egypt and Libya were overthrown. The Occupy Movement brought more attention to the “99%” and the economic troubles countless Americans face. There are surface changes, surface progress. Beneath all that, however, it has accomplished little. The military has staged a coupe over democratically elected officials in Egypt. The Occupy Movement simmered out and disappeared. The hive-mind collapsed without any central queen bee to run everything. I think people mistakenly thought that using social media to get the attention they wanted and the change they needed, was all that was necessary. That using the technology would help solve the ills in their particular society. That hasn’t been the case, mainly due to poor leadership.
There was plenty of “rah, rah, rah, we want democracy and rah, rah, rah, Wall Street must suffer, the 99% demand equality!” And that’s great. It is a nice starting point. The real world, however, isn’t so simple. Many of the occupiers joined the cause to get on TV I imagine. Many more joined because “hey, we’re of the 99% too! Why not!?” The youth in the Middle East fighting for democracy, fought for something they didn’t truly understand. They wanted all the institutions that even sniffed of corruption and oppression removed. They wanted it all gone. For the occupiers you have to ask, what did they really want? For the youth wanting democracy, you have to ask what form? The most intriguing and effective power social media has is to bring people together under a common cause in a physical location. However, you need more than that. The power lies in connecting and then meeting together face-to-face, to hammer out what goals there should be and how to go about them. All these movements, I’m afraid, had no organized structure to them. What did the Egyptians expect when the institutions that governed them in the past fell? What did they expect once revolution proved successful? What did they want? Wanting something is easy. Sharing collective thoughts is easy. Doing something with it, however, proves to be the far more difficult action. Hence, my thoughts on our “social society” being like the Borg Collective. They mindlessly follow an ideal, with no thought on future gains, losses, or what to do after the fact.
In a more recent Time Magazine article by Karl Vick titled, “Street Rule (Egypt’s Elected President is Felled By Mass Demonstrations. Can a Democracy Be Run by Protest?”), Vick dissects how the protestor has come to dominate Egyptian politics. Vick writes that, “Popular as it was, the coup sets a precedent for transferring power not by the ballot box but by the mob. And it broadcast a clear signal to Islamists everywhere that elections are exactly what the extreme among them have always warned: pointless.” This is where I step away from social media, just slightly so. The protests began, in a sense, online and then transferred to the streets, where it has become a singularly powerful force in dictating the wants of Egyptians. “The precedent is street politics now…It’s not the best thing.” Vick goes on to write that the street has become the Egyptian ballot box, “the crucible of power.” I find myself wondering, what now? If the Egyptians get want they want, a democratically elected government that oversees the well-being and safety of the populace, will that be enough? If the public doesn’t like something, however small, will they take to the streets again and ask the military to intervene and oust the government? Will future party officials always tiptoe the line of power for fear of uprisings and potential death? Do Egyptians even understand democracy to develop it when all they have been successful at so far has been protests? It is an interesting conundrum. While detailing the support that Morsi received prior to being removed, Vick details how Egypt’s version of the “Blue Angels” sketched the national flag over Cairo and helicopter gunships dropped flags on the anti-Morsi demonstrators in the square. Vick put it succinctly when he later wrote, “a revolution announced on Facebook and sustained through Twitter had developed to semaphore and smoke signals. That’s another problem with the street: it’s not that easy to make things out.” I would add to that, that like social media, it is not that easy to make things out. It surely isn’t all that easy to nurture change either.
The problem with social media and networking, I think, is that people believe it is more than what it is: a tool. It is merely another form of communication, only developed through little 1s and 0s. It is a great tool, a fantastic one, to bring people together. It can get the ball rolling. However, it cannot end there. I hope the people of Egypt are learning that and the Occupy Movement learned it as well. Connecting virtually is great, but augmenting that with the most important element of all, face-to-face interaction, planning, strategizing, and communicating, is what tops it all of. There has been no central leadership in any of these movements from what I can tell. They aren’t quite sure what they want only that they want “something.” Mindlessly following an ideal, whether online or in the real world, accomplishes little. Developing the hive-mind to gain notoriety and world attention does little as well. In the grand scheme of things, what I think social media and networking did in these examples, was gloss over the difficulty of change. Social media is the “now.” It happens instantaneously. You send something out and it is immediately viewable by all. That’s great. Knock yourself out. However, real change doesn’t move that quickly or easily. You need plans, contingencies, and negotiations. You need give-and-take elements. I hope people realize this, as I think the people hearts of the Egyptian people are in the right place as were the Occupy Movement folks. However, they need to tread carefully. What they thought easy in the digital world can as surely blow up in the their faces in the real world as it can in an online cesspool of hate and disinterest.