Social media hits the fan

Miss Communication

In 2011, seven years after Mark Zuckerberg sat in a Harvard dorm room and birthed a monstrosity, I made my Facebook profile. For someone born in the very last years of the 20th century, that was considered late. I sat at a school computer, a black, bulky Windows desktop. Of course, this was before Facebook was blocked from school computers permanently.

“Spell your last name with a ‘Z,’ ” I remember my friend saying as she pulled the keyboard out of my hands.

“Why?”

“Because it’s cool!” she insisted, like she knew what she was talking about.

“Um… yeah, you’re right.”

She typed “Josh Perkinz” and hit enter. I sat back, feeling thoroughly cool and a little rebellious.

At that point, Facebook seemed like the very best of the internet, which itself was a kind of utopian fantasy. There was a real sense of optimism that surrounded social media in the mid-2000s, a misguided faith that more information, more access, more connection would make humanity better off. Its promise was democratization — and on paper, it was a logical thesis.

Experts prophesied a radical political revolution. In 2006, Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, two progressive political bloggers, published “Crashing the Gates: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics.” Their book exemplified the argument that the internet would reignite progressive populist sentiment, like the 1960s born again. Or at least that’s what I’ve divined from the reviews and the back cover of the book. I’ve never read “Crashing the Gates” because by the time it entered my orbit, it seemed irrelevant. Two political bloggers touting the importance of political bloggers seemed like shameless autofellatio.

But for a while, it looked like they were right. In 2011, the Western world watched as a Tunisian fruit vendor doused himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. Mohamed Bouazizi was 26 when his act of self-immolation set off a movement that challenged authoritarian regimes across the Arab world. Social media fueled that fire and the techno-utopians sat back, satisfied in their creation.

As an American teenager, I was mostly oblivious to the uprisings in the Middle East, or at least they weren’t at the forefront of my mind. I was busy orchestrating the image of a happy, suburban teenager. There was a short period of time when I was active on Facebook. My timeline swells around 2014 with posts from my friends and our classes, as well as unflattering photos of myself. I broadcasted about my clubs with strange, cryptic captions, wished people I barely knew a happy birthday, and surfed my high school’s meme page.

All the while, my teachers fumbled through attempts to explain the Arab Spring and my parents dismissed Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. These were radical movements precipitated, at least in part, by the very website I was using to follow my friends and hash out teenage anxieties. Regardless of the outcome of the Arab Spring, social media was a powerful tool for organized resistance. But that’s obviously not where the story ended.

This year, Mark Zuckerberg sat in front of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees and calmly responded to allegations of data misuse in a rehearsed, awkward monotone. Most of the questions related to Facebook’s negligence when it failed to detect and stop Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — a failure that Mr. Zuckerberg called “one of my greatest regrets,” after he was basically forced to. The Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that social media is just another conduit for the already powerful to consolidate their power. In the lead-up to the election, none of the thousands of personal appeals, none of the outrage expressed in 140 characters, none of the reposted articles I saw littering my news feed really mattered.

I should admit that I hate Facebook. I hate the interface. I hate how it interrupts your day, consumes your time, forces you to be congenial. I hate the artificiality of it. So about a year ago, I turned off my Facebook notifications, a small, personal act of defiance. I grew tired of seeing people from my high school getting engaged, bored with the endless loop of food videos, the social comparison, the vacations I could never afford, the political showboating, the self-aggrandizing. And everyone feigning normality. The excitement I once felt when I replaced an “S” with a “Z” was gone; in its place was an unrelenting pessimism.

Social media has proven to be a means to manipulate, to stoke fear and reactionism. Far from solving our problems, the internet created new ones. It’s opened an avenue for authoritarian populism and the weaponization of false information. It failed us because we left-leaning young people placed our hopes in it. We were sold a neo-liberal Silicon Valley fantasy that told us all problems have logical, algorithmic solutions.

This week, messages of solidarity blew up my Instagram feed after a memo from the Trump administration suggesting changes to the federal definition of gender was leaked. But transgender advocates need money, not Instagram posts. And it’s nice when the latter leads to the former, sure, but too often the latter supersedes — it gives people permission to do nothing, offers a thin moral catharsis.

So, I think it’s about time we let social media lead us to old solutions: voting, protesting, donating, canvassing. Don’t let it replace real action. Because social media’s hit the fan.

Josh Perkins writes the Friday column on the absurd realities of modern communication. Contact him at [email protected] .