As a fan of Seth Godin, I was taken by the title of one of his books on my bookshelf. I was stopped by the title, “Tribes” about the tribal nature of our world and it got me thinking about social media. It seems that as much as we laud the new media as a way for us to find information, to educate and inform us for the betterment of ourselves and our society, how often do we see news that challenges us or stirs us to action. With algorithms that curate the content that we see, where is the challenge to our worldview? It seems that we use this wealth of information in a Faustian manner, using it only to reinforce our world view and reinforcing our tribal nature. We use our media not to be social but to make us more tribal, using information to divide us from other tribes and to find where we belong. We connect with like-minded people while the algorithms create a feedback loop showing us the world more and more insulated from dissent and difference what WSJ Woman of Note and thought leader Mardi-Ellen Hill refers to as “a self-sustaining loop of known noise”. Indeed, like the dead in “The Sixth Sense,” we only see what we want to see and join in lock step with our tribe secure in our ignorance.
Some time ago I was listening to America’s Test Kitchen radio program which had a story on the Brothers Grimm and their obsession with food. Of course, the stories were written in a time of famine so finding gingerbread houses or finding yourself eaten by wolves, indeed the subject of food would be of the utmost importance and fascination. In the discussion the phrase, “we crave what we lack” jumped out at me and stuck in my head. Looking at our media obsession in this light it seems that as a culture we must all feel invisible and anonymous-why else would we do outrageous things, video them and put them online only to hope people will notice us, watch us and tell others to look at us too or take photos of our food begging for others approval or adoration. Like children on the playground, we seem to need our every action, triumph, action or foible observed, noticed and commented upon. With this craving, the advent of social media must have seemed like manna from heaven. We seem to have created an all-seeing, Mother’s eye, constantly observing and hopefully responding, filling the empty space in our live we must so desperately need. Now if we can only get her attention….
I have been following the Facebook controversy where a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror after a napalm attack in an iconic Vietnam War photo. The controversy began after the editor of the Norwegian newspaper said he had received a demand from Facebook to remove the photo, which was in an article posted to his page. Within 24 hours, he said, Facebook removed the photo and the article itself. While there is a question of nudity, there is also a question of our tailoring our view of the past and possibly the future to suit our wants. I am reminded of Mrs. Jellyby, a character from Dickens, Bleak House, rich socialite obsessed with helping the neglected children in Africa while neglectful of her own children. Dickens describes her as having wonderful eyes that could see the starving children in Africa while unable to see the condition of her children at her feet. If we can remove a picture as it is, inappropriate due to nudity, what other reasons are there for us to remove content. Perhaps we would find pictures from the Holocaust too disturbing to be seen or video of Christine Chubbuck, a newscaster who committed suicide on camera too much to be online. While the latter has been removed due to the family’s wishes, there are many sites that will tell you the details of the incident while withholding the images. We still have a visceral appreciation of the event even if we don’t see it. But what about those images that contribute immeasurable value to our understanding like the photo of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the Vietnamese girl. Is this what do we do with things that are too difficult to see, will we also remove those images and posts or websites, in a way denying their existence? Could we become an electronic Mrs. Jellyby, seeing only the things that we want to see while ignoring others?
Where is the joy, the unbounded excitement in our electronic age, now that we have the ability to go anywhere electronically, where is the joy in the journey? The road seemed to beckon with the promise of discovery, an attempt to fill a wanderlust that only following the white line separating the sides of the asphalt nervous system connecting our country. You had to go- you had to feel the rush of the world coming toward you and hear the sound of the tires on the road. To go and go and see what was beyond the horizon. It seems the electronic nervous system is driving us to look within rather than explore the world around us, we would rather look at our lunch rather than see the world. The joy of the road and seeing the world seems to have been replaced by the joy of the post and our lives are measured more by the things we post rather than the signposts we pass.