Not getting angry about issues that make me angry

I have been thinking about this image a lot recently:

This graphic is taken from research published this summer. The image represents 563,312 tweets about three polarizing issues in the United States: gun control, same-sex marriage, and climate change.

The study presented two particularly compelling findings. First, tweets that are emotional and moral are retweeted significantly more than posts that are emotional without expressing moral indignation. Translated: if you want to get lots of retweets, let loose your outrage at wrongs committed by someone else.

The second intriguing finding of the study — illustrated above — is that your emotionally-amped indignation only goes viral as a ‘social contagion’ within the boundaries of your ideological group. Emotional-moral language galvanizes people to spread a message quickly, but only amongst themselves. Emotionally charged tweets about moral issues thus render a map that illustrates the polarization of society as a whole.

When I look at the image above, I reflect on my choice of words and language over the last few years. I wonder how I am implicated in this graphic. Ideally speaking, I guess I assume we all have a responsibility to forge (or reforge?) some middle ground: not because we need to compromise our convictions, but because history has nothing encouraging to say about societies that splinter at the ideological seam. But how do I, as an individual, engage with the most emotion-inducing moral debates without merely adding to the echo chamber of my choir? How do I talk about morally-charged issues without getting angry? Where am I engaged in a discourse at the convergence of these blue and red clusters? How do I intentionally not get angry about the very things that I am most angry about in the first place?

I suspect this image also captures at least some of the reason so many people I speak with do not describe the present state of Twitter as a particularly edifying experience. It seems like Twitter is, at this point, just making everyone upset. And divided.

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Writing versus Posting?

Surely writing has been in flux and evolution since our earliest etchings, and the advent of the internet has only ushered in yet another transformative epoch to the practice. So how does the post-to-share structure of social media change the act of stringing words together? I am wondering: is there a difference between ‘posting’ and ‘writing’ online? Obviously posting text involves writing, but how does the broadcast-this-now proposition of the internet shape the act of writing itself?

Here’s a question to frame the proposition: are you writing or posting?

The distinction may not be as subtle as it seems. Or maybe I’m splitting hairs. Either way, since leaving social media I find myself thinking much more about the act of writing as something distinguishable from the act of posting. I am ‘publishing’ here on my blog, yes, but this intuitively feels much different than submitting these words to Facebook or Twitter to distribute on my behalf.

Perhaps the difference between posting and writing is this: when you post something to Facebook, you inherently hope to find an audience; you wish the algorithm and potential recipients to ‘engage’ with the creation. By contrast, when you write a book or a blog, your write for readers — people who have already made some intentional decision to interact with you and your ideas.

Posting words with the intent to find an audience for them versus writing something for an audience are two distinct activities, I hypothesize. Granted, maybe the difference is all in my head. What do you think? Would you describe a difference between posting and writing?

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I have lost my voice (in a place where my voice wasn’t mine)

Have I lost my voice by removing myself from social media? And if so, does it matter? What is ‘my voice’ on social media, anyway?

In thinking about the decision to leave, most streams of reasoning resolve to a simple question: what kind of intermediaries do I want brokering my knowledge, communication, and interaction with other humans?

Social media platforms are publishers. I post content to them. Their algorithms decide where and when and to whom the content is delivered. Such operations are precisely the purview of publishers: distribute ‘content’ to ‘consumers.’

Except social media publishes the content of their contributors with no monetary remuneration. Instead, they pontificate platitudes and self-praise for amplifying ‘the people’s voice,’ which, in turn, retrenches their self-appointed role as gatekeepers of the public sphere. Social media manages, controls, and exploits my voice for its revenue model. It does not give me a voice at all; I give my voice to it. Is it really ‘my voice’ if someone else decides who gets to hear it?

So yes, I have effectively ‘lost my voice’ on social media, but my voice on social media was free labour for a non-transparent, self-interested publisher. It is not a ‘partnership’ upon which I want to build my dependency.

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This ain’t the fringes

Social media went from this ‘thing’ that could ‘influence’ political campaigns to the frontline battlefield of geopolitics. And now we suddenly realize that the discourses of our democracies and republics are mediated and hosted by private corporations. Digital literacy is democratic literacy. The two are not distinct.

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The Lie of the Timeline

Having pulled the plug on my social media presence, it is interesting to think about these platforms from the outside. Indeed, I am thinking about them very often. The reoccurring engrained impulse, I should post this on Twitter, remains a very strong instinctive muscle response.

It’s like my brain is a recovering pigeon that escaped from a Zuckerbergian version of a B.F. Skinner lab.

This respond-in-the-moment impulse highlights one of social media’s most conniving sleight of hands. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter present themselves to us as timelines, as if this moment is a ‘snapshot’ in a timeline. They purport to engage us in this moment, in the present. But as we engage, we do not merely input data into a timecoded sliver of history called ‘the present’, but into an archival dataset that is ostensibly the property of someone else, and for their profit. Timelines that ask us to comment on the present are lies: a status update is not really about the present moment at all, but about compiling your data profile.

Social media steals our present, saves it ‘outside’ of time, so it can ‘serve’ us ads in the future. This exchange is equally true if you are a selfie- or foodie-enthusiast, a tele-grandparent, a hate mongering troll, or a social justice warrior. Everyone is being played.

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