Why social media are crushing our souls

Came across this in my computer today, dated November of 2015. Never published it here, but it’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the last couple years.

I am not the only one who experiences an inexplicable anxiety related to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. And when Facebook fails to open, as it did this morning on my phone, I am not the only one who secretly hopes it will be disabled by some heroic hacker and go away forever.

A million years of evolution did not prepare us for this. We are the most complex communication machines yet invented, but social media have taken us by surprise, which is why a dread that even Kierkegaard would not recognize has afflicted our sad species over the decade since Facebook forced its will upon us.

For a million years, the only communication humans engaged in was interpersonal communication: either one-to-one, or one to a small, intimately familiar audience.

Over the last few thousands years, writing has developed, and over the last 500 or so, mass communication has become possible: one person speaking or writing to a large, mostly unknown audience. First, the town crier, then the local Gutenberg. Eventually, William Randolph Hearst and Rupert Murdoch.

For 490 of those 500 years, mass communication was the privilege of a sliver of the population: those rich enough to afford a printing press, or talented enough to win a role as writer or, more recently, broadcast journalist.

Only in the last decade have we all become mass communicators, directing a large portion of our daily communication to a wide audience composed mostly of strangers — a handful of real friends and relatives, and a much larger contingent of “friends” we barely know, or knew once, or know only via digital technology.

A human only has so much daily communicative energy. It’s hard to speak and harder to write. The more we devote our limited energy to sending messages into the ether, directed at those we barely know, the less is available for more crucial face-to-face or written communication with family, intimate friends, and daily associates.

As a result, important relationships have suffered, while unimportant ones have stolen an increasing share of our time and effort.

In face-to-face, interpersonal communication, we know each other, we understand the context, we listen, we reason together, and we sometimes change our minds.

In mass communication, we don’t share a context, we don’t know each other, we can’t interpret motive or meaning, and disagreement immediately turns upper case or silent.

We are lab rats in an experiment designed by accident, and we’re responding like captive animals: turning inward, fighting with phantoms, obsessed with unreality.

We all know politicians are phony. That’s because everything they say is carefully constructed to appeal to the widest audience possible.

The alternative is to say what you really think, which in mass communication makes you appear crazy. The Internet is full of Donald Trumps letting too much hang out and Hillary Clintons playing it way too safe.

On Facebook, we are all either politicians mincing words or crazy people speaking off the cuff. There’s either too much second-guessing or not enough. No mass communicator makes sense to everyone.

Evolution prepared us for an extraordinary set of complex communication tasks: using lips, tongue, teeth, lungs and larynx to produce an almost infinite variety of meaning-rich sounds; reading the countless expressions on faces made by hundreds of muscles that evolved over millennia; and processing words and gestures through miles of neural pathways in the overdeveloped gray matter upstairs.

Evolution prepared us for the real world. The virtual one has taken us by surprise.

The communication skills we were born with are moot when it comes to social media. Written conversation with near-strangers inevitably leads to uncomfortable situations involving misunderstanding, conflict, danger, fear, confusion, anger and even virtual violence. No context. And way too many cats.

It’s depressing. Annoying. Infuriating.

Why? Because we didn’t evolve for this. We are not born to be mass communicators.

As convenient and unavoidable as social media have become, the healthiest choice for most of us would be to drastically limit, if not eliminate, our mass communication, and focus our energy and time on those we truly love.


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