A Series of Boob Tubes

We should have seen the downsides of social media years ago.

The panic about social media’s influence on our politics, our kids, our selves is both late in coming and hysterical in tone—the latter no doubt driven by the former.

Had we 15 years ago been even a little thoughtful about the way we started our relationships with those platforms, we would not now be treating them like a cross between asbestos and radioactive waste. Like with cigarettes, cheap fattening foods, and unlimited pornography on demand, our backlash against the purveyors carries in it more than a little of our own embarrassment. It's a greedy hog that is easiest to lead to slaughter. Thinking of the provider as nefariously scheming to take advantage of us may reduce our own sense of agency, but it also limits our guilt at our lack of self-control. 

But we weren't likely to see the obvious truths back then—like the accusation from the “whistleblower” from Facebook that the company “over and over again chose to optimize for its own interests like making more money.” Imagine! Next thing you’ll tell us is that Hershey’s focuses more on selling chocolate than fighting obesity. In hindsight, it seems impossible that people could have ever believed companies that profit by selling advertising would not exploit our appetites to keep us enthralled. But our stunted understanding of those new media was shaped in the old media world we were living in. 

Social media to many of us seemed initially like at worst a free, fun time waster and just maybe could hold promise for reconnecting a culture that had become increasingly divided and isolating. When we met social media, we were already suffering under the reign of the most enthralling cultural master we had known since before the Enlightenment.

Television, which had at that point utterly ruled our media minds for more than a half-century, is received passively. Its critics often liken the boob tube to a drug that leaves its viewers in an intellectual stupor. “It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions,” lamented Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death. When Postman wrote that in 1985, we were still more than 24 years from America’s peak in TV consumption: A brain-melting average of nearly 9 hours per household, per day in 2009.

But right as cable television was fully conquering American’s leisure time and could bundle together hundreds of channels of every imaginable kind to form a digital morpheme drip, three new products appeared to challenge TV’s domination of narcotizing diversions: Facebook, Twitter, and, most significantly, the iPhone and iPad, which made the scope of the other two inventions so much greater.

Social media had to be better than television. After all, what could be worse? Way back in 1961, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow* described the television viewing day as “a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder … and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending.” By the start of the 21st century, thanks to the miracles of fiber optics, you could get all of that at any time, plus cable news, pay-per-view smut, and that most barren portion of the “vast wasteland” of all, reality television. Nine hours a day, every day.

At the dawn of the current era, people spoke disdainfully of the “corporate media” as compared to the dispersed power, egalitarianism, and decentralization of social media—or so it promised. When the story of the water landing in the Hudson River by “Sully” Sullenberger first broke on Twitter in 2009, media watchers were already agog at the power of this revolutionary tool for citizen journalists. By the time the story of the killing of Osama Bin Laden broke first on Twitter two years later, journalists had already been talking excitedly about the era of real-time journalism.

In just five short years, the era of connectedness was already delivering on its promise of a smaller, people-powered world of information and entertainment. Rather than the passive drip-drip-drip of corporate-controlled media, perhaps the citizens of America and the world were on the verge of something great. But it was about that time when the first great revolution of the social media age—the Arab Spring—began to sour. What Westerners wanted to see as a peaceful, pro-Democracy movement began to look like just another flavor of authoritarianism. This was less surprising to conservatives who believe that man’s fallen nature is immutable, no matter the platform. But for many of the progressives that had placed the greatest hope in the power of technology to improve the human condition, what followed were especially painful.

The problem, they concluded, was that there was actually too much dispersed power, egalitarianism, and decentralization in social media. These companies had to stop allowing unpopular, upsetting things to be said on their platforms. When Facebook and Twitter made it possible for a young black man to get elected president after serving less than one term in the Senate, it was evidence of technology for progress. When the same technology enabled an old, white reality-show host to become president without any experience at all, it was evidence of corporate wrongdoing. Facebook and Twitter had to do more to restrict what could be said and who could say it. In short, they had to start acting like the “corporate media” that was once reviled for its gatekeeping and high barriers to entry.

That realization came alongside the dawning knowledge that social media wasn’t so much about people-powered content as it was in the power to hypnotize people. Just like with television, these new advertising platforms weren’t selling #content. They were selling us and our attention. Listening to lawmakers express shock that Facebook tries to keep people endlessly glued to its feeds for as long as possible makes one wonder if they’ve ever considered, say, primetime cable news, Below Deck, or Dr. Pimple Popper.

We should have known that we would have ended up here, given the human tendencies toward avarice and self-indulgence. It should not have been a surprise that people would get rich from Americans yet again “narcotized by technological diversions.” But we were probably too busy watching television to notice.

*Correction, November 1: This article incorrectly spelled the surname of former FCC Commissioner Newton Minow.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor for The Dispatch.