The Virtual Wall
I happen to have a soft addiction to social media. Alright, maybe that is an understatement. I have been the member of a long history of social media exploits and sites since I was in my young teens. My first networking experiences were found impatiently waiting for the artificially crunchy sound of the dial-up modem to end so that I could log on to a Bulletin Board Service (BBS) to chat and play games with friends. Sure, an alternative story is that I was busy downloading and disseminating the Anarchist Cookbook and anime comic book pornography, which I would print off on the old noisy dot matrix printer in the basement late at night snuffing out the sound with a thick blanket as to not wake my parents. I would later hide my dot matrix erotica on the reverse side of the ceiling panels in my tiny dungeon-like room. Fond memories. I was an early digital explorer following the breadcrumbs of the digital pioneers. Wonderful.
Fast-forward from the early 90’s until now. Several social media sites later. I had experienced the utter greatness of the digital age early. I had experienced falling in love online. I had experienced the vast flows of information and the resulting confusion and bewilderment. I had experienced Y2K. I had experienced the morphology of my behavior as a teen and as an adult as I evolved with these machines that support the virtual world. I experienced the freedom the Internet had gifted me. Yet, it wasn’t until much later, until recent years I realized that maybe with all this social media, I wasn’t free at all. I was being controlled and coerced by a hyperconsumerism so apparent it was invisible, or at the very least I was being told where I should be and how I should act. A wall was building around me brick by virtual brick. It was a wall of cemented together by my peers, colleagues, and friends. I felt stuck.
It took a very strict and conscious effort to begin exploring the nether regions and dusty corners of the Internet in order to escape my social media confinement. I began simply by spending more time seeking out things that I am interested in. Reading mostly unread blogs and academic forums. Exploring libraries and galleries. Employing a genuine effort to enroll and work and learn with free universities and education sites. Yet still, I find myself moving in circles. The Facebook platform has enveloped much of the digital world. It has become a parasitic entity. It is strange as we are each it’s host. It has worked from the outside in. Or maybe the inside-out? It is a parasite that we wear and at the same time one that we have ingested.
Enough parasitic theorizing and philosophy! My worry is more sociopolitical than philosophical. However, I do also worry what Facebook is teaching us, that is, its pedagogical effect. We should all now be well aware of the problematic of the ideology trap social media has created for us. We know the filter bubble phenomenon in which algorithms create perfect clean and white worlds for us, we know about confirmation bias. Yet we are all so on edge, like inmates in a prison, waiting to be offended so that we might strike the offender down. I’ve had liberal and conservative friends alike delete me from facebook so that they might retreat back into their bubble of comfort. I try not to take offense, they have been taught and trained by the algorithm and confirmation biases to behave in constant flight-mode. Always on defense, yet always striking out with a saccharine sense of justice and self-righteousness.
This, of course, leaks from the virtual world into the concrete. People are not as open minded as they would like to think themselves to be. We have fostered and reinforced an online communal intolerance to difference. In due course, identity politics responded and the global egalitarian movements slowly ran out of gas.
A prison of thought is what we are left with. A digital panopticon in which we police our own image through editing it down and creating a plastic and false persona, and then through the moral policing and digital bullying of others. I would like to go back and find the youthful optimism I had for the egalitarian project of the Internet. But it seems that our own sheepish stupidity has cornered us off within the world of a social media that is highly coercive and socially problematic.
Facebook has subsumed the social world. The wall has been built. Some of us have found ways to dig under it or fly above it. Others are planning their own Shawshank-style escapes, but perhaps it is too late. We need to rethink the social and we need to start with inclusivity, an ethics of moral particularism based on patience and tolerance. And, finally, we need to think about what Facebook and social media teach us … deconstruct the pedagogies of oppression and then the wall. Let us find the digital utopian and egalitarian community we were looking for in the eighties and nineties.
I urge you to get lost in those dark and dusty corners of the Internet. Build new digital worlds and communities. Dig under the Facebook wall, or better yet fly over it. Kick holes in it. Explore beautiful darling people. There is so much to see, experience and think about. Exploration is education, sitting on Facebook … it ain’t an education in any sense. Digital nomads hide behind no wall!