In 2010, I joined Twitter. This momentous development went unnoticed by the world’s press – but to be fair, it went almost unnoticed by me, too. Certainly, I had no particular trepidation about getting involved in social media. The internet still embodied more promise than threat: the iPad was just arriving; Uber and Airbnb were finding their feet; “gamification” was going to solve everything from obesity to voter apathy, by turning tedious chores into fun digital challenges with points and prizes; the Arab spring, coordinated on social media, was a few months away. This was before the Rohingya genocide, before the teenage anxiety epidemic, before Cambridge Analytica and the alt-right and “fake news”. In October 2010, the Guardian news blog ran a brief item on a darkly comical nightmare scenario for US politics: “Donald Trump considers running for president,” the headline read.
What changed in the 2010s was not so much the arrival of new technology as the rapid evolution of a business model, the monetisation of attention. This wasn’t a recent invention; indeed, it dated back to the “yellow journalism” of the 19th century, which used sensationalist stories and cheap cover prices to build big audiences that advertisers would pay to reach. But ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet has sent the attention economy into hyperdrive, plunging us into an online world structured to prioritise not the truth, or what matters most, but whatever’s most compelling, which often means whatever makes us angriest.
Those who warned of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” were right, but right in an unexpected way. Both phrases misleadingly suggest spending our digital days in a warm bath of mutual agreement, when what really happens is that social media shows us our enemies behaving at their most outrageous (and thus compelling) worst. And we’re rewarded, with shares and likes, for condemning them in hyperbolic terms – and so our tribal allegiances harden, until those who we once viewed merely as opponents come to seem like another species. Rather than democratising the public sphere, social media replaces it with a global Freudian id, in which everyone’s darkest impulses collide, and sane debate becomes impossible. A healthy democracy, it turns out, requires people to keep certain emotions to themselves, and mull their views before expressing them; but online the attention accrues to those who do the opposite.
The cultural correlate of all this is the development that has been called “the politicisation of everything” – the relentless reorganisation of every domain around partisan poles, and the transformation of every topic of cultural debate into one about politics. In 1995, if two Americans disagreed about the OJ Simpson verdict, the reason was probably to do with their race, and their experience of race; but by 2013, opinions on the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, as on many other issues, overwhelmingly lined up with political affiliation instead. And politics colonises private life, too; it becomes harder and harder to imagine, say, being a remainer but dating a Brexiter, agreeing to put politics aside in your relationship – quite apart from the fact that, thanks to geographical sorting, you’re less likely to meet each other in the first place.
Meanwhile, the centrifugal force of social media pushes every opinion into an extreme version that fuels indignation at the opposite extreme. Thus (for example) it can only be the case that free speech is under mortal assault or that the threat to free speech is a myth; and since it’s easy to find evidence contradicting both positions, the futile seesaw need never come to rest – which, of course is exactly how Facebook likes it. This is one aspect of the atmosphere that the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa has labelled “frenetic standstill” – the technology-exacerbated sense that, while everything moves ever faster, the possibility of real change has somehow slipped out of reach. On one hand, cultural norms change so rapidly that it’s possible to get “cancelled” in 2019 for views that weren’t remotely controversial in 2014. On the other, our political institutions are deadlocked, unable to address social inequality or the climate crisis no matter how ardently some politicians might wish to.
We should be wary of technological determinism here: this isn’t all social media’s fault and, in any case, we could rein in Silicon Valley if we had the political will. (Recent governmental pressures on Facebook, and Twitter’s decision to ban political advertising, suggest we might even be starting to do so.) But we should also beware the cheery tech-boosters who’ll always be on hand to dismiss this all as a fuss about nothing, pointing out that former generations worried about earlier technologies, too, as if that settled the matter. (Maybe life was better before TV? There aren’t many people left alive to tell us.)
And even as we pursue political remedies, we shouldn’t make the error of concluding there’s nothing we need do as individuals. Among other things, the 2010s were the decade in which we began to realise we’d actually have to think about the internet’s role in our lives – to figure out which platforms we’d quit, which apps we’d delete, which devices we’d prohibit from our homes. And not in a nostalgic effort to return to the past, but from a dawning intuition that our futures might depend on it.
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