Years ago I contemplated writing a blog post called "Usenet is hell." For those who don't remember, Usenet was an early bulletin board system that allowed people to chat with each other in unmoderated forums. I guess it's still around, but I haven't heard anything about it in a long time. But I did use it, back in the day.
Until I decided it was hell.
Here was my reasoning. The heavenly planes, we are told, are self-selecting. People of similar beliefs, similar temperaments, similar levels of spiritual and emotional development cluster together in spheres manifested out of the collective unconscious of the inhabitants. Each community is essentially friction-free.
Earth, by contrast, is a far more challenging environment. Souls at all levels of development are thrust into a shared reality. Advanced spirits and primitive, barely evolved spirits coexist. Though we can choose our friends, we cannot choose our relatives, our neighbors, our coworkers, or the people we rub elbows with on the street. Conflict, oppression, violence, and cruelty are the predictable results of disparate people bumping up against each other.
And then there was Usenet. Here was an environment that seemed appealing at first, but ultimately struck me as being as unheavenly as possible. Anyone with access to a computer could join in any conversation. People with widely differing worldviews, psychologies, and levels of maturity interacted directly. In theory, this was a great opportunity to bring people together and expand everyone's horizons. In practice, it was a recipe for malice, intolerance, and abuse, as people who normally would never meet suddenly came in contact and discovered how much they disliked each other.
The conflict was exacerbated by the unique properties of online communication. People could post anonymously, allowing them the freedom to viciously mock, insult, and defame their opponents. The social cues that mitigate conflict in personal encounters — facial expression, tone of voice, body language — were absent, making misunderstandings and escalation of conflict far more likely. And the loudest voices, the most obnoxious, hateful, and crazy ones, inevitably dominated any discussion. In a variant of Gresham's Law (bad money drives out good), the bad commenters drove out the better ones.
A constant babble of angry and spiteful voices all putting each other down, spewing venom, spitting malice — it seemed a lot like hell to me, and I mean that literally. If heaven is a community of likeminded souls in a "consensus reality," then hell must be a community of angry souls in perpetual conflict, trapped in a reality that reflects their lowest drives and crudest impulses.
Usenet is largely irrelevant now, having been supplanted by more popular forums: Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms categorized as "social media." These forums initially promised more control over your personal community of online friends. You can friend or unfriend, follow or block. But the discussions are still unmoderated, and the reality is that conflict is still ever-present. The inexorable compulsion to take potshots at anonymous semi-strangers from the safety of our computer keyboards overrides all safeguards. Facebook and Twitter started out as rather benign environments filled with cat videos and cameraphone pics of tonight's dinner. Today they are hotbeds of controversy and acrimony, as people rake each other over the coals for differences over politics, religion, sexuality, TV shows, comic books — you name it.
And it's tearing out society apart.
This sounds like an overstatement. But I don't think it is. Since the rise of social media, our society has become more polarized than I can ever remember. Of course there will always be strong differences of opinion in a democracy, but I can't recall a time when the two sides actively hated each other with such reckless passion. It used to be the case — and by "used to be," I mean three or four years ago — that only the most marginal members of society talked about a new civil war. Now the idea has gone mainstream, with many sober commentators observing that the lack of mutual respect or even basic civility between left and right is reaching the boiling point.
Many factors no doubt have contributed to the rise of incivility in our national discourse, but social media may be the dominant one. It's not just a question of being constantly confronted with opinions contrary to your own, thrust at you and demanding your attention. It's the angry, personal tone of much of the messaging. You open your Facebook or Twitter feed, only to see yourself characterized as a moron, a monster, a terrible human being, a fascist, a racist, a communist, another Hitler, another Stalin, a loser who lives in his mom's basement, a paid tool of corporate or collectivist interests, a liar, a scumbag, a clown, an ignoramus, an illiterate, a redneck trailer-trash rube, a welfare-cheating leech, a garbage human being, a piece of shit.
It's almost impossible not to respond in kind. We are not hardwired to turn the other cheek indefinitely. The fight-or-flight reaction kicks in. We either leave the forum or we start to hit back. And the more we hit back, the more "triggered" the other guy gets, and the more he lashes out at us.
Multiply this encounter thousands of times over the course of the year for any given social media user, then multiply that result by the number of users in our society. Is it alarmist to suggest that it's having an impact? Or unduly negative to suggest that the impact is predominantly bad?
I think we have become addicted to a technology that is demonstrably detrimental — detrimental to ourselves as thinking, caring persons, and detrimental to society as a community of shared values and mutual respect or, failing that, at least mutual restraint.
And I don't think the worries about Civil War 2.0 are necessarily overstated — or at least not much. We may not be on the verge of a new Fort Sumter incident, but it's entirely possible we are entering the territory of Bleeding Kansas, on a national scale.
What to do? I'm doing my best to cut back on social media. I've deleted my Twitter account, but this was no real hardship, since I rarely used it. More difficult is restraining myself on Facebook. The goddamned site really is adductive — literally so. I believe that getting positive feedback ("likes") gives you a small jolt of pleasure, which then prompts you to seek more "likes." Eventually you're always thinking of pithy things to post that will earn you more of those all-important thumbs-up. As "likes" become more important to you, negative and hostile responses loom larger also. Your ego gets increasingly caught up in a meaningless, pointless game of oneupmanship. You're like a gambling addict pumping quarters into a slot machine; you know you should stop, but not yet — you just need to pull the lever one more time ...
If quitting is hard, and participating is destructive to self and others, what is there to do? My modest proposal: ban social media.
Outlaw Twitter, Facebook, and similar forums. Dissolve their parent companies. Delete everyone's account.
A drastic measure? Yes. Practical? In theory, sure, though I'm not holding my breath for our political class to take on multibillion-dollar compilations, especially since these platforms are so easily weaponized for use in political campaigns.
Would such a ban be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech? Many people would say so. My view is that banning a platform is different from banning speech. People would still be free to vent in many other forums; they just wouldn't have the particular forums offered by social media companies. As an analogy, many communities have banned billboards because they regard signage as detrimental to the beauty of their neighborhoods. This is an inconvenience for advertisers who wish to use billboards as a promotional tool, but it's not a violation of their rights; they are still free to advertise in other ways. One platform has been outlawed, but others are available. The judgment has been made that the negatives posed by billboards (they're ugly, they obstruct views, they distract drivers, etc.) outweigh their positives.
I've come to believe that the negatives of social media likewise outweigh the positives, and in a far more serious way. The incessant drumbeat of online conflict is ripping at the seams of our social fabric. Life without Facebook and Twitter might be marginally less convenient for some of us, but societal breakdown, open warfare, and blood in the streets would be an inconvenience of considerably greater magnitude.
Do I think such a ban will actually happen? Not a chance. But it's the most straightforward way out of the digital hell we've unwittingly constructed for ourselves. And as our online anarchy continues to escalate, real-world chaos can't be far behind.