Me vs. Social Media Civics, 12/18
I think that trying to teach better online behavior is futile
If you want to get ahead in the world, then do as I say, not as I do. I say that to get ahead you should hold back criticism and err on the side of telling people what they want to hear. I do the opposite.
Case in point: in the 1990s, our daughter’s middle school was given a $1 million grant from the county to promote student skills for the computer age. Parents were invited to come to a meeting in the evening and bring ideas.
“Teach literacy,” I said.
“Digital literacy?” an administrator asked, hopefully.
“No. Literacy. They need to learn to read and write.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a discussion of how to teach young people how to be good citizens in their use of social media. Instead of participating constructively in the discussion, I expressed disdain for the enterprise.
It could have been worse. I could have said that trying to fix Twitter by teaching social media civics is like trying to stop school shootings by teaching pacifism. But the only reason I did not use that line is that I thought of it later.
Why are people so nasty to one another on Twitter and other social media? There are many theories. For example, one plausible theory is that social media algorithms are tuned to maximize engagement, and people are highly engaged by stuff that makes them angry. So we are fed a diet of stuff that makes us angry.
Back in the 1990s, there was a lot of idealism about the Internet. There would be more information available, so that we would be smarter. And more voices could be heard, so that we would be more democratic.
What this idealism failed to account for is human nature. We are not all wise, comfortable, and empathetic. There are many people with significant intellectual and/or mental health defects. Oh, sorry: “issues.”
The easier it became to access the Internet, the more it has come to resemble humanity in all its flaws. We have met the enemy and he is us.
I believe that the Internet has empowered some people to access wisdom. We are in a Golden Age.
But the Internet has also empowered what I might call The Insecure Elites. You may have heard Peter Turchin’s phrase, elite overproduction. The idea is that there are not enough positions in the power structure for all the would-be elites.
We have people who made an effort to obtain credentials that they think entitle them to be in an elite class. They have a major presence in university administration, public health, journalism, Twitter, and corporate HR. They are not wise, comfortable, and benevolent. Instead, they are small-minded, insecure, and intolerant.
The Internet has also empowered Trolls. The guys who get pleasure out of nihilistic acting out. People who are deeply unhappy and want to bring everyone else down to their level. On line, they say nasty things and join Twitter mob attacks. Off line, they complain and undermine.
Taking human nature as given, I don’t think you get very far by coming up with social media norms to teach people. I don’t think you get very far by fixing algorithms or changing social media business models.
I don’t foresee humanity ridding itself of the Insecure Elites and the Trolls. Certainly not by offering courses in social media civics. But I hope that we learn to do better at limiting the damage that they inflict.