I wrote this last week during a poetry workshop at the High Plains for Applied Anthropology. This poem is dedicated to Howard Stein, who always inspires us to remember how powerful poetry is as a tool for understanding our humanity. Thanks Howard!
A Land of Fortresses
We are a land of fortresses,
Solitary, we treat only with those who think like us,
We are surrounded by a moat of toxic water,
Where the corpses of diverse ideas fester.
Our noses burn with their smell.
So we plug them and avert our eyes,
Staring only at the safety within our walls.
It is safe in here,
Like in the dark ages.
The world out there is dangerous,
Trolls pick their teeth with the bones of their victims,
The ones who wandered too far from their fortress,
They gorge under crumbling overpasses at the intersections of cyberspace.
Hoards of hairy monsters circle the walls,
Pounding on the portcullis.
Longing to cut their teeth on fresh fleshy argument.
Their wicked smiles gleam,
But only at 2 am, with beards unshaven,
Their cry of, ‘actually’, screamed at rhythmic intervals.
In the moonlight mist,
Even robots wait in ambush.
With strange requests for our most intimate knowledge,
To be used against us.
Your mother’s maiden name,
Your first pet,
Your high school mascot,
A way inside.
Our memories are our vulnerability.
There, waiting in a tower of thorns we hide behind walls.
Ignoring the needy who gather at the gates by day.
We stay closed for business,
To those with needs unmet.
Only pontificating from the ramparts.
And the guards pay no mind,
Until the siege weapons arrive,
Well past the time of asking.
They erect the weapons just beyond our reach,
With great desperation.
Then we dig in.
Prepare the boiling oil,
Prepare the volley of flaming arrows,
And slings, to keep our outrageous fortunes,
The walls will fall.
They always do eventually.
Even with our pride bolstering them.
Even after they crumble,
We cling to their illusion of solidity,
And believe everything we think.
Until it rots us through to the core.
Then, we stand amongst the rubble wondering why.
Screaming in the darkness at some imaginary god to save us.
Requesting thoughts and prayers,
Rather than doing anything at all.
And so we join the lost,
For we have no home in ourselves.
Pounding at the gates of another
Begging for entrance,
Pleading for compassion.
Cut by the thorns as we try to scale their walls.
And we construct siege weapons,
To topple the towers,
And bring all to ruin,
Because we have been ruined by our indifference.
I have built a wall
I have dug a moat,
Made of algorithms.
To cling, to avoid,
Both are poisons.
I have turned away,
I have clung until my fists bled.
My own life, slipping through my fingers.
Only to find Saturn return and demolish my walls,
With the weight of its gravity.
Open the gates.
Smash the walls.
Feel the freedom of the open-air,
Of strange conversations in dense forests,
And find the wisdom in the unkempt grass,
Or roll in the mud until you are baptized.
There is no choice.
To ignore is only to delay.
To ignore is to forfeit your will,
Your choice in the matter.
Be forced naked into a wilderness that no longer wants you,
In the last few years numerous films, books, research papers, and podcasts have been published on the problem with social media. I address some of this in my previous blog Why Social Media Can Be Such a Dumpster Fire but that blog only highlights some of the social difficulties of navigating platforms as an individual and why there is so much conflict.
Social media is creating and/or reinforcing massive problems in our society. So here I wanted to write something short and open a forum for discussion of how we could possibly fix these systems and make them work for us, rather than the other way around.
My background is an as anthropologist, but more specifically, my area of research during my time in graduate school focused heavily on media systems. I read quite a bit of literature and research and conducted some of my own (You can find the documentary version here) on the relationship between culture and media. However, I would hesitate to call myself an expert, especially on social media. So what I am going to do here is outline what I know, a few ideas I have, and then, hopefully in the comments below people can engage in some serious discussion or propose ideas. My ultimate goal is to gather some of the best ideas and hopefully create an open letter for public consideration. Perhaps we could send these letters to some of the heads of these platforms or even state or federal representatives and propose action. There is no doubt that we must address the problems on social media, because we know, pretty clearly now that some elements of these platforms are making our world a worse place to live. Like any good tool, we must learn to wield them wisely.
This is a bottom up approach, something that anthropologists called, collaborative methods. This is when you source the wider community to formulate questions and answers that people may not have considered.
How do you understand media systems?
The most helpful element of graduate school that included a large component of media research was that I learned how to ask better questions about media. Generally, there are three major sites of research in media (of course there are more but these three cover a lot). These sites also have their own power dynamics, politics, and are areas that shift culture and representation. These three areas are, Production, Distribution, Consumption.
Production – The site of production is, where is the media or platform created. Who is making it? For what purpose? The entire production and post production side of media systems is all of this. Social media is less concerned with the production side of things, since most of the content isn’t produced on these platforms. That doesn’t mean how the platforms are built isn’t a concern though.
Distribution – A large portion of the issue with social media platforms is distribution. There is some overlap here with production via algorithms, but algorithms are largely centered in the distribution side of things. You may have heard already how YouTube’s algorithms shifted a lot of people toward wild conspiracy theories and helped spread fake information like wildfire. They have corrected some of this but have a long way to go.
Consumption – This is the site of consuming the media. What are they watching it on? How long are they watching? What habits do people have surrounding consumption? Do certain algorithms change consumption habits or not? Do people watch this stuff individually or do they share it with others? What makes something go viral? How do things like confirmation bias prevent people from consuming different viewpoints?
You can probably tell that these three sites of research have a lot of overlap, because well, creation of any medium is a cycle and creates all sorts of feedback loops, both positive and negative. Take algorithms for example. While algorithms determine what get’s distributed where (distribution), someone makes those algorithms (production) and then the viewers behavior (consumption) changes how the production and distribution cycle works. Over time these algorithms are refined to work better in both distribution and consumption. Better of course is a relative term here. If your goal is more revenue, that can create all kinds of problematic algorithms and is why YouTube accidently promoted massive amounts of conspiracy theory videos that had no basis in fact.
So why break it down? Because rather than tackling the whole system at once, it’s important for us to break down each site of research and understand the dynamics of each layer, so that when they are viewed as a whole they make more sense. It’s similar to how we learned how the human body works. We took it apart, analyzed it, and overtime our knowledge about how each organ functions in relation to one another.
So, I leave you with an approach (it may or may not be the best one) to try and think about these issues. I am going to make a few suggestions of my own here below for things I think would help move social media platforms in a new and better direction, but the point here is to source ideas from a variety of people with different backgrounds and disciplines so that we can come up with something collaboratively to solve this wicked problem.
My Ideas on Solutions:
Reinstitute the fairness doctrine and expand it to social media. The fairness doctrine was designed to make sure that all media exposes it’s viewers to a diversity of viewpoints on any topic. Air time had to be given in equal measure to conservative and progressive viewpoints (that is a bit of a simplication but go to the Wikipedia link above for more) forcing the viewer to consider several sides of each story. How could we do this on social media though? I think perhaps any article that is shared on social media, could have a required and connected article already attached to it from an opposing viewpoint. Is the article from fox news? Create a way so that an article on the exact same topic from MSNBC is sitting side by side with it, contrasting both headlines. This way the user and anyone who sees the shared post is required to see the different headlines from the different services. It can be incredibly illuminating to see two very different headlines on the same topic or event sitting next to each other, and it encourages critical thinking. Will many people dismiss the counter article? Sure, but what it does do is help those of us living in our bubbles to realize, there is a completely different way of thinking about the exact same set of facts. Facts are facts, but facts can also be understood from different viewpoints in quite a few cases. Showing different interpretations can at least give us pause and consider someone else’s viewpoint, even if we don’t agree with it.
Label Everything. I think a label could be created that sits at the top of every single news article regardless of the source. Blue could represent something that has good factual information. Yellow something that is opinion and needs fact checking. Red could be something that is clear and blatant misinformation. There should also be labels for satire (maybe purple?) as well and labels for blogs like this (perhaps gray) that are not as easy to evaluate because they don’t have a wide reach. Things that are difficult to evaluate could have a note above them saying, not vetted or evaluated for facts, until it is vetted. Labeling things might become annoying for a while, but using labels could help us understand what is good and bad information. Yes, some people will ignore it, but people might be more hesitant to share misinformation it is clearly labeled as misinformation.
Open the code for algorithms so people can see how they work and what they are doing. This one is tricky because a lot of these platforms are not interested in sharing their code. There are a lot of trade secrets and very likely, an attempt to force them will be met with a lot of pushback. That doesn’t mean that these platforms don’t need to be reined in and held accountable. I don’t believe that any of these platforms set out to do harm, but there does need to be social responsibility and accountability on these systems so they don’t hurt society. Why should we do this? Well this book Weapons of Math Destruction really helped me to understand how dangerous it is to keep coding closed. We need to understand how to refine and correct these algorithms so they don’t cause unintended harm.
Those are my three ideas for improving social media. Would they work? What do you think? The point here isn’t to throw up road blocks and say, well that would never get passed in congress or something similar. The point here is to brainstorm ideas for solutions. What solutions do you think would work? Let’s collaborate and see if we can take our ideas and make the world a little bit better. Even if we only improved things a little bit, it could have a massive impact on our culture and society. If we want things to get better, we have to try and tackle them. We can’t wait for people in charge to do something, we must find our own ways to source ideas and act. Be the change and all that right?
Please keep your comments and opinions respectful. I will moderate these comments. Differing viewpoints are very welcome (and frankly needed), but I will be sure to keep this a place of respect.
We have all had the experience right? Someone decides that it’s time to blow up your post about something you feel passionate about, or worse, something that you simply thought was funny. Next thing you know, it’s all out war on your page and you’ve spent 4 hours of your life you never get back, leaving you to feel emotionally and physically exhausted, if not in a terrible mood.
But why does this happen? There are lots of articles that talk about confirmation bias and that people are more divided than ever before or how hard we cling to certain ideas, and so on…
But after teaching a college course specifically on diversity in the modern world, I have come to discover a few things when having in class discussions about social media. Now I may not be the first to notice these things, but I think there are at least three major problems (feel free to comment if you see an additional one) that we face when communicating online that we should consider.
1.People have different intentions for the internet
This one, in particular, was really hard for me. As a person who loves books and learning and the spirit of debate, I view the internet as a space to discuss important issues and try to learn from and understand people who are different than me in both philosophy and culture.
For years I loathed it when people shared cat videos or jokes or posted memes. I would grumble to myself about “what a waste of an amazing opportunity” and yes, sometimes I would comment just to be a jerk. Or, someone would post something that was clearly misinformed and I would go on the attack, because, of course, I must. How else would they‘learn.’
Do you know what I learned from thinking and behaving that way? I was completely and totally wrong. Also, people think your an asshole and it’s counterproductive to any useful thing you might say.
People use the internet for a host of reasons. It may be to share news, or keep up with family, or post information about their baby or their cat, or perhaps they like to joke or are looking to relieve stress after a hard day at work. Maybe they are promoting their new book, or using as a space to promote their business. Some people are looking to build awareness around particular issues and provide a space for discussion. I have to tell myself all the time that for some, critical debate is the absolute last thing they want to engage in at the end of their day (or the beginning).
There is also another side of this. Some people use the internet because they want to troll and bully others. Their idea of humor is to harass and bully and get cheap laughs at the expense of others. So we have this group into the mix aswell, which further complicates things. A few weeks ago, when discussing this exact topic in a class, one student raised their hand and said, “But don’t you think it’s funny to write a bot program to troll people and have them waste all their time arguing with a mindless bot?” My response was, ‘well, I suppose that’s one way to engage online.’ But in reality, I think that is hugely problematic for a number of reasons, but I won’t get into that here.
The point is, when you are on social media, it is hard to remember that people’s intentions and use of the social space vary greatly. We are not all on the same page, and so this alone creates conflict, confusion, and misunderstanding.
2. There is no paralanguage, and so we put things on other people that might not be there.
Paralanguage is the components of speech that help us to understand the meaning. It includes pitch, tone, speed, gestures, and facial expressions. It’s how we understand if the following phrase, “That’s so amazing.” is a sincere expression or a sarcastic one.
We don’t have that in written speech. Grammar helps, and a good writer can create a scenario where you understand the tone and attitudes within dialogue, but even then, stuff can get lost in the translation. Also, think how hard it is to tell if some people are joking or not. I am told often, that I have a dry sense of humor, and it’s hard to tell if some of my jokes are serious and that’s in person.
So add this to a forum of total strangers. You don’t know any of these individuals, or you might know a few from previous online interactions. So, someone makes a statement like, ‘That’s so amazing,’ to something you said. But the context of the conversation is such that you could interpret it as either.
In that situation, what your brain does is make assumptions. If you are in a bad mood, or you have had other bad interactions in this conversation, your brain may frame the statement as an attack or a comment in bad faith, which could launch a series of escalating replies and blow up the whole conversation, even if the person was commenting in good faith.
I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me on both Twitter and Facebook and recently even had to unfriend and block someone who took a comment that I said, as support, in a way where she nuked my page because she understood my comment as something completely different.
It is always always important to get clarification before you lash out at someone online, on social media or in anemail, because a lack of paralanguage will have our brain fill in the gaps. Depending on our history and our current experiences, we may completely misunderstand what the other person is saying. Remember when you assume you make an Ass out of U and Me (I have never stopped loving that play on letters).
3. When it comes to issues of diversity people are both at different stages of understanding and different states of acceptance
First of all, before I dive in here, there is a very excellent episode on the Netflix series “Explained” on PoliticalCorrectness that I highly recommend watching. It is a highly complex thing, and there are no easy answers there. The episode talks about the history of the phrase and some of the debates around free speech vs. censorship. But it does not provide you any clear answers, and that, in this case, is a good thing, because there are none.
The internet is constantly alight with debates of diversity and inclusion. Regardless of how you feel about these conversations, they are, for the most part, productive and useful to ensure that people who are sincerely facing injustice and oppression, are opening other’s eyes to their experience.
The problem with these conversations is multi-leveled. And when I say problem, what I mean is, why they are so combative and tense. These are important conversations. This is how society changes into something better.
I will illustrate this with my own experience. I am a white guy, as white as you get. All my ancestors are white as the snow in the northern countries from which they originate. I am a Cis, I am straight, and I grew up in an all-white community. For the first 12 years of my life, before I moved to Colorado, I grew up on the east coast in Philadelphia, in what was possibly the whitest community you can imagine. Segregation in Philadelphia (and many North East Cities) is a real problem (See this for more). So, when I moved to Colorado at twelve years of age, I was shocked to discover there were still Native Americans alive. I had been taught, by omission mostly, that all Native Americans had died out years before I was born.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I could go in more detail, as to the various kinds of ignorance I had going into college, (middle school and high school was also an all-white experience)because, for me, college was terrifying. Everything I thought I knew was challenged. It was a kick in the gut, it was uncomfortable, but it was a good thing. Why? Because there are a near infinite ways of experiencing the world, and I had made endless assumptions that really, the world was simple, orderly, and experience was mostly universal.
I was, legitimately ignorant of so much of the rest of the world. And that’s a real thing. There are a lot of people out there like that. Even ones like myself, who became an anthropologist, who lived and worked with other cultures, took a long time to challenge all those deeply planted ideas. And I am a person, who is willing and open to learning and accepting that I might be wrong on things. The reality is, some people aren’t willing to learn. Some people are, what we call, willfully ignorant. In other words, no matter what you say, no matter how well you craft an argument, you aren’t going to change their opinion on something, even if you have all the data and truth on your side.
Remember too, we are all ignorant of something, we all have sizable holes in your knowledge and experience. This is based on your gender, race, class, religion, family, language, etc. You cannot know everything, and it is not reasonable to expect someone, who grew up in vastly different circumstances to intuitively understand something you do. If you have never seen poverty for example, how can you understand what it’s like to live that way for your whole life? You can, but it’s no easy task, and you have to think critically about it.
So, when discussing online, the first thing you have to figure out is, which kind of ignorant do you have? Do you have a person who is willfully ignorant? Or is this a person who simply lacks exposure? That does make a difference, and it is a big mistake to treat both kinds of people to ad-hominem attacks because both of those individuals have entirely different intentions when discussing.
This comes to the next point, which is, even people who are willing to listen and learn, they can’t do it all at once. Keep in mind, that by the time you are an adult, your brain has been programmed to think in a certain way for at least eighteen years of life. Neurologically speaking, you simply cannot dismiss ideas overnight, unless you have a massive brain trauma that changes your brain chemistry drastically.
Using myself again as an example, when I first discovered the Implicit Bias test, (the test that measures our subconscious assumptions about things like race and gender) I thought, of course, I would receive the coveted neutral result. Because I didn’t hate anyone or any group right? At age 23, when I took this test and got “A Strong Bias Toward Individuals of European descent,” I was shocked. But, this is entirely explained by the background I grew up in, which I already explained. After that, I went out into the world and studied anthropology. I learned about other cultures, worked with them, and lived with them. After a few years, I remember that test. Took it again, and got “A Moderate Bias Towards Individuals of European Descent.” It wasn’t until after graduate school, that I finally got a Neutral result.
The point? If you are online, you cannot reasonably expect people to understand an issue overnight. You are fighting against years and years of programming and often, lack of quality education. People need time and space to digest things, to shift gears in their thinking. Acceptance of a new idea, rarely happens overnight and the older you are, the longer it takes because there is more social programming.
Does that mean you don’t hold people accountable for saying or posting really awful things? Of course not. But remember what you are fighting against. Remember, that you may not win that discussion, but also, other people are reading and watching even if they aren’t interacting, so it’s still worth having those discussions if you have the intention and inclination to do so.
To Sum Up
The internet can be the most amazing place for building ideas and spreading important social critique and creating a space for inclusion. But it can also be a messy imperfect mess that allows for long-established ideas, to persist and spread. We have seen some pretty terrible events in the last few years, like what happened in Charlottesville or a number other instances of social media being used to spread all kinds of nastiness.
But, if you want to avoid dumpster fires on your social media, keeping some of the above things in mind, may help. In reality, though, it’s not possible to avoid problems, because well, people are messy creatures, and any social space is fraught with controversy and difficulty. But I hope this lengthy piece was useful to the few of you who got all the way to the end. I wrote it, because I believe, that we can do better.
Note: Sometimes I have friends read my blog posts before I post them to get feedback.