Sunday, December 09, 2018

Social Media As Small Town

A lot of 20th C American fiction was about a small-town boy leaving his oppressive upbringing. It is one of those themes that combines truth and untruth. Small homogeneous communities have pluses and minuses. David Foster over at Chicago Boyz has a post about how the internet in general mimics those small-group interactions, and social media accentuates those negatives.

A frequent commenter gave examples of peer-pressure groups that believe in Political Correctness, in contrast to the rest of of the society, which is less in sympathy with it. Academia, the media, the politically active, the bureaucracy.  I would add in students, which while part of academia, are not who we usually think of when we use that terms.  Those groups have a strong tie-in with each other that might not be immediately apparent, and that is the social competitiveness of youth. Bear with me for a moment on that. That high school students care deeply about what is fashionable and who is cool is well-known. There is something about this that is developmentally normal, as each age cohort must learn to get on together to take on responsibility in the future. This used to be more limited, as children coming of age did not spend so much time exclusively with each other.  They were in larger families, and those families were together more (not always a good thing, but generally so). They had more contact with extended family, multigenerationally. They worked at jobs earlier, went to churches, and had more contact with physical neighbors, all putting them in contact with people of different ages more than is common now. As the years of education increased, children spent increasing time with each other. Since, say, the 1950's, high school and college students increasingly have their own world.

And they have money, or parents who will spend money on them for things like, oh, college. Suddenly there are lots of people who care what the opinions of 16-26 year olds are. High-turnover entertainment targets that group: music, movies, video games, youtube, sports. Political activists are disproportionately young. Unless they can get jobs doing activist work, they stop having time once they get jobs, spouses, or (gulp) children.  Even for Trump rallies, lots of people who might go just can't, because Tyler has a doubleheader that day, or work is really busy just now.  I wish I could find the article I read years ago by an ex-environmental activist who believed that environmentalists got extra exercised about peers having children, not just because of the ZPG extra drain on the earth's resources, but because experience had taught them that they would now stop having enough time to volunteer for The Cause.  Politicians in campaign mode need to hire lots of people at temporary, low-paying jobs, and that means a steady supply of young people.

You might remember Malcolm Gladwell's wonderful line* to Bill Simmons I quoted a few weeks ago, when Simmons got nervous and tongue-tied about discussing an all-time NBA White Team. "You're not afraid of millennials, are you Bill?" Large categories of people are afraid of millennials.  Their jobs are tied up in it.

Let me elaborate a bit on academics.  I think how much they care about the social and political opinions of juveniles varies considerably.  In one sense, nearly all have to care about students choosing their school and their classes. While many could get jobs outside the academy, others would be hard pressed, depending on area of expertise. Administrators, we have been learning, are even more dependent on a college expanding, and on the political/cultural environment.  While it appears on the surface that these authority figures - deans and teachers - are shaping the opinions of students, they are in turn dependent on them. There are people employed by colleges who went into the field because they liked School, were good at School, and want to stay in School.  It is a version of bright little girls who like school saying they want to grow up to be teachers.  It's something they can see, they understand the culture, it feels safe. School is what they know.  They might see women doctors and nurses in real life and want to do that, but they mostly see women lawyers, real-estate agents, scientists, and small business owners in pictures and in movies.

Cal Newton describes some interesting differences between blogging and tweeting. I would add that while Twitter is more vicious and prone to mobbing, it is also generally funnier. Facebook also offers more opportunity for humor than blogging.  This is because they are more like conversation, and whatever wittiness we have is wired for conversation than for writing.  Writing humor is hard, and it is precarious, as even a few years later it just might not catch the audience.  My father loved Pogo.  I thought it was okay.  My father-in-law saw nothing funny in The Far Side - couldn't see the point.  It is a rare humorist who can please beyond his own generation, and rarer still one who can extend beyond two generations. It is a rule of the theater that people will always laugh at sex, food, and money jokes, even those seem fraught with peril now. Laughter is becoming forbidden.  Wry amusement is preferred.

But social media can still produce moments of real laughter, because it is more like conversation. Thus our addiction, to enter a vast world of people being funny. Even at that, though, it is mostly funny to younger people, perhaps 20-35.  Others enter in, and some of those younger funny people are also appreciated by seniors like me; but there are diminishing returns as one gets away from the core group.

The cost is high.  The core laughter cohort is also the core worried-about-coolness cohort, and there is a sizable group of older people who have to care about this deeply as well. They are often the people who are still stuck with one foot in adolescence. Twitter, Facebook (Instagram, Snapchat less so) are a magnified outrage of people who are still trying to find a place in the world, petrified they will be ostracised and found wanting.  Therefore, they punish their competition, perennially finding those to cast out.  Irony: it is only at university, and in a few academic disciplines that there is discussion about the importance of The Other, and "othering" people. Considered in the light of living in a Mean Girls world and needing to cast competitors into the outer darkness, one can see why the topic would seeming gripping and be seen as an important description of Real Life.

I should add that social media seems to empower personality disorders, especially borderlines.  One of the core understandings of those with BPD is their fear of abandonment and annihilation. That can add acres of rage to a mob.

 *No, really


Christopher B said...

There's some limitation to small town meanness that is missing in global social media. You are going to have to live with those people, and your gossip might have made you an enemy of a cousin or sibling of the target. As a new person in town you're also instantly recognizable in a way as being Not From Here, You don't know what the locals know, and it shows.

The vast majority of people in those social media mobs have never seen the victim before, and won't see them or anybody connected to them again. Very unlike a small town.

Texan99 said...

I've never been on Twitter, but I think a similar experience is found in an open comments section on someone else's blog, a large free-wheeling type with a lot of sharp-tongued participants. I notice that I can get a lot nastier in that context than on, say, Facebook, where I'm posting under my own name on a site frequented by a lot of friends, neighbors, and relatives.