Thursday, February 20, 2020

Social Media in the Raging 20s

In her latest LOCUS post, Kameron Hurley writes about tension and anxiety in the era of instantaneous communication and miscommunication:

Into the Raging 20s We Ride

She discusses misinformation, the pitfalls of following news bites in real time, the anxiety caused by exposure to floods of "unfettered" and unfiltered content, and feelings of helplessness when overwhelmed by what appear to be irresistible, impersonal forces. The essay begins with this generalization: "I’ve found that the insidious problem for me in scrolling through social media is that it feels like action. Ironically, it also creates – in me – a profound feeling of being out of control over events in the wider world, while generating a huge amount of anxiety and worry."

We tend to think if we Like or Share a post on a vital topic, we've done something about it. We often forget to dig deeper for reliable information or to seek out something concrete we can do in the real world. Hurley recommends rekindling the joy of creation, as well as becoming more intentional and selective about the online sources we expose ourselves to. She points out, "Our always-on culture has been driven by organizations that seek to get an increasing share of a finite resource: our attention. The more attention I give their services and algorithms, the less attention I have for the things that matter to me." The "luxury of deep focus" is an important resource of which social media can deprive us; Hurley writes about the need to rediscover that focus.

I was surprised at her remark that she's trying to spend more time on books. When and why did her book-reading decrease, I wonder? I can't imagine not reading a portion of a book-length work every day (in practice, two or three, since I always have several books going at one time, each for a different reading slot in my schedule). Unlike many people, including Hurley, I don't get ensnared by Facebook for long sessions. Some days, if time runs out, I barely glance at it or don't open it at all. When I do scan my feed, I devote only twenty minutes or so to it. Since I've friended or followed so many people, the content is effectively infinite, so there's no point in trying to consume all of it. The organizations and individuals I'm really interested in, I see regularly near the top of the page. My personal infinite black holes in terms of online reading are Quora and TV Tropes, where I have to make a conscious effort not to get sucked in except during free time I've specifically allotted to recreational surfing.

Hurley's comments about the illusion of taking action remind me of some lines from C. S. Lewis's THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. (Like Shakespeare, Lewis offers an apt quote for almost any situation.) With regard to steering the victim's "wandering attention" away from what he ought to be spending his time on, senior demon Screwtape advises his pupil, "You no longer need a good book, which he really likes" to distract the "patient"; "a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes but also in conversations with those he cares nothing about." Later, Screwtape says, "The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel." Screwtape would probably get a lot of mileage from the temptation to chase an endless chain of web links down multiple rabbit holes. In a different work (I can't remember which), Lewis points out that our brains weren't designed to cope with infinite demands on our sympathy in the form of a torrent of news about crises and disasters in distant places that we have no power to affect. I wonder what Lewis would say about social media and the 24-hour news cycle. His reaction would definitely not be favorable; in his lifetime, he avoided reading newspapers on the grounds that the content was often distorted or downright false.

Hurley's essay concludes with a declaration that's easy to applaud but often hard to practice: "Our attention, like our lives, is finite. Choose wisely."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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