Last week, I discussed Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist with my book club. It was a great discussion and a book I highly recommend for book clubs, since there’s so much in there to talk about. One thing got me thinking, though. In the chapter “When Twitter Does What Journalism Cannot,” Gay writes this:
Social networks are more than just infinite repositories for trivial, snap judgments; they are more than merely convenient outlets for mindless joy and outrage. They offer more than the common ground and the solace we may find during culturally significant moments. Social networks also provide us with something of a flawed but necessary conscience, a constant reminder that commitment, compassion, and advocacy neither can nor ever should be finite.pp. 265
Bad Feminist was written in 2014. It’s 2021, and I’m not sure that take on social media is true anymore. In the last several years, we’ve seen social media be used as a tool for good, yes, but also as a way to push propaganda, spread misinformation, organize insurrections, and galvanize extremist groups. It’s exacerbated the political divide in the US through a horrible cycle of echo chambers bouncing off one another. Does social media still actually provide us with a conscience?
Throughout the Trump presidency, and especially after January 6, I read and listened to a lot of commentary surrounding extremist views and how people come to believe obvious lies. One thing that stuck out to me is that social media has made it possible for extremist groups to seem louder and bigger than they actually are. One or two people saying “the election was stolen!” in the local coffee shop is easy to shrug off, but it’s more difficult when all your feeds are filled with that same idea. Social media magnifies things, and that’s a good thing when it’s, say, mental health awareness, but not so much when it’s an idea that threatens democracy.
I’ve had an up-and-down experience with social media since I first made my Facebook account in high school. Pinterest introduced me to feminism, Reddit is where I commune with other nail polish lovers and learn about plants, YouTube gives me laughs and yoga flows, and I’m begrudgingly admitting that Facebook groups can be nice. Instagram is my most heavily used platform, and I have been able to connect with old friends on there as well as learn about the antiracism movement and get help examining my own biases, especially last year.
But as I touched on early this year when thinking about intention, even the good parts of social media are a drain on both my time and mental bandwidth if I’m not careful. Sometimes, even though I get a lot of value out of the advocacy I see on Twitter and Instagram (the conscience Gay talks about), it just gets to be too much. There’s always another cause, another victim, another tragedy to focus on. I can’t count the number of posts I’ve seen recently along the lines of “If you care about this, you must also care about this. If you’re talking about this, you should also be talking about this.” It can get overwhelming. To be fair, the world we live in is overwhelming. But when it’s presented like this, social media isn’t so much a conscience as it is a guilt-trip. Balance gets lost.
I ended up splitting my Instagram account last week because of this. Now I have my main account, where I follow friends, local organizations, and influencers I like, and my second account, where I follow a lot of national social justice organizations whose work I value but whose posts often feel cloying. This way, I can still follow causes and organizations I care about in a way that lets me preserve balance.
Nuance is another thing that social media doesn’t do well. Not even on Reddit or Facebook groups, where the potential for real discussion is higher. Increasingly I’ve learned that while social media is great for introducing me to new things, like the Enneagram, I only start to get real understanding once I start exploring a topic away from social media. I think this is why Twitter can be so toxic sometimes. People hold their beliefs for so many different reasons, and it’s difficult to both express and understand nuanced ideas in a short-form format where most of us are just quickly scrolling.
Plus, because of the fast-paced nature of social media, there’s often a pressure to talk about a thing now, or share a post now, or donate now, without taking the time to think or research. That not only perpetuates the echo chambers that have come to dominate social media, but also disallows room for nuance. How can you be nuanced when you’re putting a statement together in thirty minutes or less? I’m slowly learning not to give in to pressure like that (I think gardening and meditation are helping me with that, given the slow nature of both of those things), but I’m still susceptible. Too often I think I let social media commentators define what it means to be a good person.
In her statement, Gay acknowledges that social media, as a conscience, is “flawed but necessary.” I can’t deny that social media has been hugely influential throughout my teen years and into adulthood in shaping my beliefs. Growing up, I was mostly surrounded by people with more conservative views, and having social media available helped expose me to other viewpoints. It has continued to serve as a reminder that people experience the world differently than I do. But big-picture-wise, social media disseminates just as much – or more? – vitriol and misinformation and extremism as it does healthy advocacy and awareness. Social media, more than anything else, is an idea amplifier. Given all the toxic and hateful ideas that get amplified alongside the good ones, I’m not sure that the good ideas outweigh the bad. I’m not sure social media, if it is still our collective conscience, is a healthy one.
If you made it this far, I’m genuinely curious what your thoughts are on social media as a collective conscience. Do you get good value from social media? Is the value worth all its pitfalls?