dreadful

I don’t ordinarily spend a lot of time on – or thinking about – social media, mostly because not much happens there which interests me. Twitter is a mild, partial exception, but even then I ruthlessly keep the number of people I’m following to a bare minimum. Right now, the number is 13 – I get much bigger and I’m just half-paying-attention surfing from tweet to tweet, which is exactly what I don’t want to do.

However, I find the dismal l’affaire McHenry weirdly compelling. For anyone finding this page months or years from now, I’m referring to Britt McHenry, the ESPN person (does the word “reporter” apply? Based on video I’ve seen, it doesn’t exactly fit what she does) who was caught on camera unleashing a torrent of insults at an employee of a towing company, after her vehicle was towed. If you need a refresher, it’s here.

We reach some kind of null point here – McHenry is the latest in a long line of not very important TV people behaving badly; the towing company is apparently less well-liked than your average towing company, from which you can draw your own conclusions; and the commentary on McHenry’s Twitter feed – which I rubber-necked yesterday like driving past a bad traffic accident in progress – was filled with the kind of cheap vitriol that is the stock in trade of, well, social media.

This mini-scandal is remarkable for its unremarkableness, out of the ordinary for its ordinariness. If you keep a mental scorecard of “How low can we go?” it rates mostly for how workaday it is. It’s what we do with our lives.

What’s different for me is a dawning awareness – make that horror – of how utterly artificial all this is, how it is purpose-built for social media, and how the point, the thing you should pay attention to is not the event itself, nor the reaction to it, nor the reactions to the reactions, but to what’s really going on beneath the surface.

This is solely about getting people to respond and building data points for the giant social media engines like Facebook and Twitter. There’s an old quote revisited in the compelling new book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, one which we should put at the top of most web pages, cell phone screens, blog posts: “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”  That would be us.

If this also strikes you as something to shrug about, either because you figured that’s the way things work or because you figure there’s nothing you can do about it, or more likely both, then you aren’t seeing just how large-scale the data mining is, of which you’re one point, or of how this has upended the model of computing most of us still carry around in our heads, the vague notion that these machines are tools of personal empowerment, that they can make us freer, give us more choices, more privacy. Facebook and the rest obviously reduce privacy; less obviously they reduce choice – think about, for a moment, how few options you have when it comes to customizing your FB page.

All that said, I’m not sure how to go forward: social media is unavoidable for most people and besides, it does have some value, though I think the value is way more than offset by what we are all giving up, date-point by data-point. That’s hard as well: the problem is asymmetrical – we don’t see the data dripping out, a little at a time. We do see the bright, shiny toys that FB and rest dangle in front of us and say to ourselves “What the hell. It’s just Facebook.”

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