This isn’t going to win me any fans in our digital engagement department, but it may be time to pump the brakes on our social media sharing.
I say this as a rampant, rabid sharer of stuff. An oversharer in the truest sense. If there’s a function I serve on social media, it’s typically that of the plunger on a pinball machine, launching shiny stuff into the machine for it to ping and donk off of every possible surface until it inevitably rolls off the table. This pinball metaphor also applies precisely to how productive this sharing exercise is. (It’s not.)
After all, I’ve spent the last decade on social media building out a bubble so broad I can no longer distinguish the dome — a vast invisible crowd of thousands of people, all unwittingly cooperating in forming the illusion of rough consensus. It’s a nice thing to have in your pocket, and the impulse to grow it feeds the impulse to feed it, so I do.
Things I agree with, I share — thinking others will agree and we can celebrate agreeing. Things I disagree with, I share — thinking maybe we can all enjoy a meal together in the comments. But even things that go beyond the simple filing system of agreeing or not — like horror or disgust — I share, needing a way for the shame or revulsion to pass out of my gut and into another system.
I share things I think my friends already know, and things I assume they don’t, and in doing so I tacitly share the reason for doing so: I share the subtext of sharing. I share things I want to see more of and — here’s the bad part — things I’d like to see less of.
A couple of years ago I wrote about the emerging grossness of the “alt-right” (which hadn’t quite shed the scare quotes yet) and the fringey appeal of its prefix, the buoyancy it gave the term in the cesspool of Twitter. I felt my fingers drag on the keyboard writing it; knowing that to entertain their ideas would also mean to amplify them. And sure enough, a glance at trends for August 2016 reveals the first in a string of spikes in interest and eyeballs, all driven by “explainers” like mine and well-meaning sharers like me.
Social media has given people the means to deliver their own experience to the masses, and provided an inexpensive and invaluable tool for documenting everything from the view within the clamor of a sudden protest or disaster, to instances of everyday discrimination that would otherwise go unseen (and unshamed). Sharing has awakened a new sense of public accountability — but that accountability extends to what we share.
Right now, a decreasingly anonymous and increasingly amorphous group of Americans united by their taste for bizarre conspiracy theories are starting to present themselves in the pop-up public petri dishes of Trump rallies. Signs and T-shirts are declaring the official migration of this group from the message board to the half-full high-school auditoriums where our political discourse now reaches a rolling boil.
Again, a late summer blossom of explainers is lighting up the Internet. It’s as if neon has been installed behind their name. Again, there’s an unsettling feeling that we needn’t talk about them on their terms — that doing so softens our ears to their sound, the way the hard phonetic corners of “nazis” wrapped themselves in the protective blanket of “white nationalism” — a term we’ve also spiked into legitimacy.
If there’s one thing (that is not vodka) to thank Russia for right now, it’s that its influence on and interference with the past three years of American politics have also spurred a surge in cynicism enough to encourage a slight decrease in the nearly half of American adults who get news through publishers and sharers on social media.
News consumption across Facebook is already sliding downward in the wake of the platform’s mounting scandals and growing mistrust, while news is swelling in popularity on more private platforms like (the Facebook-owned) WhatsApp. Finding our news in less confrontational spaces could help keep it from downgrading so easily into ammo.
Certainly, sharing news on social media feels like a way to spread awareness — which is both its greatest promise and most pressing problem. Like a virus, awareness doesn’t carry the context of its contagion, it spreads indifferently through contact. And this is a condition capitalized on by conspiracy theorists. The scare quotes don’t always carry over from one copy to the next; before you know it, the unreal is real, and all your friends sound sick.