The other day I had an epiphany and I wanted to share it with a guy I used to work with. I discovered I didn’t have his contact info and thought, “Darn, what am I to do now?” Then I realized that he was a “friend,” of mine on Facebook so I went searching for him on my iPhone. I searched his first name and nothing came up. My initial thought was “Isn’t that uncool, he defriended me!” So I looked him up in general and found his FB profile with a drastic change – it had been ravished like road kill in the Arizona desert. There was nothing about him – no contact info, no FB posts, no photos and no meandering thoughts answering the perennial FB question “What’s on Your Mind?”
Now I have heard about social networking detox. That’s when people who presumably addicted to social networking sites abstain from updating their most mundane details in an effort to “get control of their life,” and stop “wasting so much time online.” But the guy I was looking for was a tech geek. He built online networks, it just seem obvious that he would belong to one. I finally tracked him down and he responded that he self exiled “to the dark side of the social networking moon.” His funny way of saying he purposely disengaged with all his social networking activity to preserve
his mental health and to obey, what I think is God. (He just said obedience and us Christian folk know what that means.) He isn’t the first person to do this and he won’t be the last. But being as that he’s tech-savvy, his abstention caused me pause.
Have we kept the Internet revolution, firmly and needlessly ensconced on the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy? Has a tool that is so wonderful that it allows you unfiltered and live up-to-date info blurbs from inside the Iranian revolution been marginalized by Tiger Wood’s sex life being released in text messages and tweets for all to see? Have we misused and abused a technology revolution which began as a platform for sharing information and open source collaboration and now is a constant feed of man’s maladies? What struck me most about my friend’s assertion was his claim to want to preserve his mental health. And indeed, I can say that social networking sites are driving many intellectually-inclined people crazy. Freedom of speech comes at the expense of allowing ignorant folks a megaphone and there are few places on earth that offers ignorant people a wider platform than online. In blogs, tweets, posts and comments, the Internet is rife with ignorance. I’d love to see the percentage of social network users who can find the former Upper Volta on a map. (Hint: This country was featured in CBS’s Amazing Race).
And if ignorance isn’t bad enough it’s also rife with vitriol. People can’t calmly disagree online. Most online forums I’ve participated in quickly turn to personal attacks, accusations and just downright meanness. Since I have a mean streak that only Jesus could cure I usually abstain from commenting. Contrary to popular self-help books people who disagree with you really don’t care what you have to say. It didn’t take long for early adopters to shape the online community through swordplay and paint a picture of it belonging to the extreme. In 1990, the year Google went public, Mike Godwin observed, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” He could not have been more right. The tendency toward people to get downright vicious online is a fact not hyperbole. I’ve seen it time and time again.
When I decided to delve into social networking I considered it a way to tell other people who cared about my life. I considered my online network to be a private foray into the way I think, sort of like a private estate sale for invited guest. Yet with all the pressure to collect friends, followers and RSS feeds, my social networking life soon became a free-for-all open house where any free loader could set up camp inside my mind. Vile words and opinions that I thought I’d never have to hear thanks to my great circle of intellectually honest friends began assaulting my conscious as I read comments on newsworthy items on various online news sites, FB updates or random Tweets from “followers,” I’ve never heard of. It made me wonder how evolved we as a species really are.
It never once occurred to me that people who disagreed with me would use my social network space to attack me for my opinions. Now I don’t mind defending my stances – I’m smarter than the average bear and more importantly, more loquacious – but geez I didn’t expect to have to defend my every FB update or Tweet I make. It gets exhausting after a while. Especially when you’re engaged in a battle of wits with a man that doesn’t even know he isn’t armed. So I tried my own abstaining. I refused to go to online communities where I know my opinion is in the minority. Not because I’m afraid of an intellectual debate, but mostly because it just seem fruitless to try to educate someone on all the history, politics and global development that happened while they were dozing in history class. While I saw the Internet as a way to glean knowledge and inform the citizenry I’m quickly getting the sense that it’s vastly contributing to the fractionalization of the our society in ways that are intended (thank you Google marketing) and unintentional (thank you Huffington Post and Breibart). What should be a platform for free exchange of ideas seems to be a megaphone for intolerance, ignorance and just plain meanness. Is that an inevitability when it comes to communication? Will man always devolve into the lowest common denominator. Now don’t get me wrong there are great and wonderful endeavors in online communities. After much boo hooing I’m liking Wikipedia. I love social change organizations like Change.org and some others who are getting people online to do good for others. But those bright spots seem few and far between. So taking a cue from a man I admire and respect I’m abstaining from stupidity online. I vow to do my part not to devolve communication below grade level and to use social networking responsibly. Will you take that pledge with me? Take the “anti” out of social networking. Be good to each other.