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Shooting the Messenger
A thumbs up or 'Like' icon at the Facebook main campus in Menlo Park, California, May 15, 2012. (Image flipped) (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
(ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Shooting the Messenger

Carolyn Stewart

Against my better judgment, I decided to post on Facebook the day after Donald Trump’s presidential win. My social media feed had become a foreign landscape, an exhibition of synchronized existential crises. “RIP America; hate won” read one friend’s post. “Trump is peak mansplaining,” said another, while a third mentioned how she cried herself to sleep, and several others posted suicide hotline numbers. In the midst of this, I posted a milquetoast CNN article on why things will turn out all right, and how our republic has withstood harder tests of character.

That turned out to be a bad idea.

As someone who takes her politics at room temperature, I was caught off-guard by the enmity displayed by people who have already proven that they can tolerate my brunch and pet photos. But the experience revealed a new code of social interaction, wherein incivility and intolerance are sanctified virtues, insularity is the norm, and ideological diversity must be marginalized immediately.

What is it about social media that compels us to throw off the gloves? In our abandonment of civil discourse, should we shoot the messenger, the message, or the medium? For guidance I turned to Lynn Truss’s meditation on modern manners, Talk to the Hand. Part Jerry Seinfeld and part Emily Post, Truss catalogues how the world has become an increasingly unpleasant place, beset by entitlement, isolation, and the expectation that the world around us is obliged to bend to our preferences.

Truss draws from a range of personal experiences, from life in the London suburbs to her literary career as a television critic, sports columnist, editor, dramatist, and novelist, including her New York Times bestseller for the apostrophe-obsessed, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Like its author, this charmingly belligerent book defies easy categorization. Six chapters correspond to six reasons why you should stay home and bolt the door, in a conversational style characteristic of beer number three.

Published in 2005, Talk to the Hand was written at a time when “140 characters” had more to do with Wagnerian opera cycles than personal expression. Facebook was a year old, and it would be another year before the little blue bird would hatch. Our lives were not yet subsumed by “fourth screen” mobile technology like smartphones, tablets, and digital signage (“fourth” because they follow movie screens, television, and personal home computers). Instagram and Snapchat, two camera-based juggernauts that normalized selfies as a mode of expression, were at least five years off.

Yet Truss’s social observations largely ring true, and many of the behaviors she identified a decade ago have flourished alongside social media. A chapter devoted to our expanding domain of personal space is depressingly prescient. She writes, “Increasingly, we are all in our own virtual bubbles when we are out in public, whether we are texting, listening to iPods, reading, or just staring dangerously at other people.” We have taken an expectation that previously applied to the private sphere—control over our environment—and are increasingly applying it to the public sphere. Proxemics, the study of personal space, has just begun to yield research on how the blurring of physical and virtual space has altered social conduct. One study suggests that we have created a new space entirely, the portable private-personal territory, which has diffused our participation in public rituals. We’re less obliged to use small words of courtesy with strangers, or scan the onboarding train riders to see if anyone may require our seat.

We recuse ourselves from reality via the device in our hand, which rewards us for ignoring reality with a series of dopamine-releasing mini-tasks. From Candy Crush and Twitter to work emails, these activities hook us on a seeking-reward feedback loop that is infinitely more gratifying than staring at the commuter sitting across from you. These cyber preoccupations allow us to customize our surroundings, and accustom us to regulating and controlling the information that comes our way. This has several effects: an expanded sense of what falls under our personal social domain, an increased expectation of control over that domain, and a greater sensitivity to input that deviates from our preferences.

In our private lives, we are leaving fewer moments undisturbed by our communications network. We’re opening up new categories of personal life to public scrutiny, which means that the sheer number of opportunities for offense or misinterpretation is greater than ever. If you have never checked Facebook on your cell phone in the office bathroom, you’re excused from reading the rest of this article. The other 75 percent of you should continue.

Facebook has been engineered to keep users engaged and bolster expectations for a custom-made reality. The network has invested in developing algorithms designed to emphasize content that caters to our stated political affiliation and keep users clicking within the program. The company’s justification is that selective algorithms make the social experience manageable. Otherwise, the typical Facebook user would be overwhelmed by an average 1,500 new posts in her feed every time she logged on. To solve the information overload issue, Facebook provides users with a curated selection of content designed to maximize their engagement with the website by drawing on the political and demographic information we willingly divulge. The approach is win-win-lose: users stay loyal to the website, Facebook increases its advertising revenue, and users begin to think that their social domain is more homogenous than it actually is.

The downside of this social media manipulation is the psychological impact on the user. The algorithms amplify our natural tendency toward network homophily (the observed phenomenon where “birds of a feather flock together”: When given the option, we surround ourselves with like-minded souls. See: high school). A Pew survey exploring political ideologies and social media revealed that conservatives are more likely to surround themselves with like-minded friends on social media. But network homophily is a bipartisan trait, as the same study found that liberals are more likely to have culled their Facebook feed to mirror their politics by unfriending and blocking friends with differing views.

As a result, we’re not only less exposed to perspectives that differ from our own—we hardly know they exist. We are given a seamless interface that connects us to many of our friends, and are likely to begin believing that Facebook is a cyber manifestation of our entire social network. As a result of positive self-bias, we are likely to think that all of our friends just happen to think like us. It’s not that my belief system is popular with my group of friends—my belief system is the system.

Our insular social media landscape begins to justify our beliefs, validate our political views, and reinforce the comforting knowledge that, out of all the ideological tribes, mine is the sane, rational, and intelligent one. This self-affirming feedback loop ties back to Truss’s meditation on how we judge our own manners, versus those of others. “Each of us has got it just about right. If there is something we are particularly good at, such as sending thank-you notes, we are likely to consider the thank-you note the greatest indicator of social virtue, and will be outraged by its breach.” Our personal standards of decency are self-created and self-absolving, making it harder to respect those with opposing viewpoints. This natural barrier is compounded by Facebook’s algorithm, which reduces the likelihood of Scalia-Ginsberg friendships and Matalin-Carville marriages. We should all hope to have good friends willing to challenge the primacy of our views, if only to help us sharpen our own blades.

With fewer opportunities for good-natured sparring, our social skills have dulled. Truss draws on Robert Putnam’s notion of social capital, laid out in his book Bowling Alone. If we gather for a dinner of close friends, it’s a bonding activity that reaffirms our existing sense of self and connections. It “bolsters our narrower selves,” whereas a bridging activity, like participating in a civic planning committee, forces us to adapt, compromise, and refine our identities through field-testing. Both forms of social capital are beneficial when balanced.

As Putnam pointed out in 2001 when Bowling Alone was originally published, civic engagement has been on the decline for the past 70 years. But the Internet, with its ethos of global connection, was expected to bridge different perspectives and overcome the atomization of society. Commercials for teleconferencing software would have us believe that every classroom in the United States is connected to a room of equally smiling schoolchildren in Beijing. In reality, the closest substitute to a virtual public square are the comments sections of news and opinion sites, a frightening place to dwell. So we retreat to the social media equivalent of a high-walled luxury compound in the suburbs, where Facebook ensures a safe space of frictionless social engagement and validation.

Except when it doesn’t. And when Facebook goes wrong, it becomes the cocktail party from hell, with acquaintances surfacing from the cyber-ether to loudly disagree with you as everyone quietly looks on. And unlike a cocktail party, where slights can be quickly patched over and forgotten, these disagreements are preserved so that the exact wording can be mulled over for days to come. Or worse, conflated into a think piece about social media.

Which brings me back to my recent experience the day after the presidential elections. Hours after posting my CNN article to my Facebook feed, responses began to stream in. “So a white male wrote this. Typical!” remarked one friend. Another, who volunteers for an LGBTQ suicide hotline, commented on the increase of calls within the first 24 hours of this new reality. Another argued the inherent faults of the Electoral College. Another scorned the article, claiming the author was part of the GOP establishment’s attempt to “normalize” Trump (the author is actually a British historian who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on Ted Kennedy and once ran for the Labour Party).

Truss would say my friends were exercising their “Universal Eff-Off Reflex,” a growing phenomenon characterized by responses “so brutally defensive, so swingingly final, that it clearly comes, itself, out of a sense of affront and outrage.” My friends were civil in their gentle condescension, but it was unapparent that any actually read the article. Each message sought to delegitimize the author, the context, or signal that the potential reader wasn’t obligated to read the piece. It was less an attack on the ideas contained in the article, and more a charge against the article’s right to exist. Or rather, its right to appear in their personal feeds in a domain where they largely maintain ideological control.

In shifting from real to virtual socializing, we have forfeited the powerful little moments seeded throughout physical interaction that reassure us our friends are decent people. A recent Pew survey indicates that 84 percent of polled social media users felt that their friends were more likely to say things in political conversations on social media that they would never say in person. About half of all users believe that online political conversations have become angrier, less respectful, and less civil.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer a great deal in terms of convenience and ubiquity, but require us to abandon the nuanced signals of face-to-face interaction. We no longer have a forum for “supportive interchanges,” a term developed in the 1960s by Erving Goffman, a sociologist who mapped the unconscious rituals of behavior that sustain social harmony. These unconscious acts by the sender signal to the recipient how she views him and her opinion of the on-coming interaction. Supportive interchanges may take the form of inquiring about the health of a family member, shaking hands, offering a genuine smile, or using a warm tone in conversation. They indirectly say, “you’re a pretty decent human being, despite your deranged views on lawn fertilizing,” and encourage moderated behavior. These gestures flourished in the interstices of person-to-person conversation, the exact areas that are neglected in Facebook’s call-and-response format of sharing content and receiving feedback. Courteous behavior faces a structural disadvantage on Facebook, one that is compounded by our growing intolerance of an unedited reality.

While social media has served as a catalyst of incivility and intolerance, we can at least be assured that our rudeness is an American tradition. After Charles Dickens visited the United States in 1842, he shared his opinion of the young nation through his character Martin Chuzzlewit: “The mass of your countrymen begin by stubbornly neglecting little social observances, which have nothing to do with gentility, custom, usage, government, or country, but are acts of common, decent, natural, human politeness. You abet them in this, by resenting all attacks upon their social offences as if they were a beautiful national feature.” Over 150 years later, we are still justifying our incivility.

Our path to redemption, Truss notes, lies in reclaiming the morality of manners and personalizing our practice of courtesy. The engine of polite behavior is empathy, respect, and the ability to visualize the impact of one’s actions on another. It is time to practice “a kind of voluntary charity that dignifies both the giver and the receiver by being a system of mutual, civil respect.” If that fails, you’re out of luck. Truss recommends that you stay home and bolt the doors, but even that won’t save you now.

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