To Share or Not to Share (On Social Media)

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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There is a joy to not sharing one’s thoughts with others. This is an unexpected benefit I stumbled onto when I recently all but gave up social media. A story might illustrate.

I made the decision in very late 2021 to radically restrict my social media use. [1] Around two weeks after I did that, I received a text from a friend who was entertaining similar thoughts. He told me that I picked a wonderful time to give up social media. Why? I asked. He reminded me that the same day, the verdict had been handed down in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial, and social media was predictably quite ugly. I jumped onto Facebook and Twitter just to see what he meant, and he was right. Everyone seemed hell-bent to both share their thoughts on Rittenhouse’s “not guilty” verdict and to lock horns with and cede no ground to anyone who dared disagree. One group was convinced that Rittenhouse was obviously innocent of the excessively “woke” murder charges. Another group was convinced that Rittenhouse was just as obviously guilty and acquitted by a brazen show of white supremacy. No one budged. Do they ever?

This was a great confirmation of why it was right for me to leave social media. What struck me most is that people were so determined – even eager – to share and reshare their views on something on which their opinions quite literally have no effect. This was a court case decided by twelve jurors in Kenosha, WI. What any given social media poster thinks of the verdict – even if they persuade thousands of others to change their minds – will have no effect on the outcome. Nor did any of these commentators have reason to think that airing their opinions of the case would possibly change minds, at least if they’d had any prior experience in social media scrums.

Having been largely out of the social media universe for a while, my question now is: Why share this stuff? I used to, often with pleasure. But since falling out of the habit, I can’t say I really miss the feeling of burden to share most of the thoughts I have. And when I return from time to time to see what is going on, I just see more of the same: people sharing, arguing, sharing, arguing, SHARING and ARGUING. Why?

The most obvious reason one might share one’s thoughts and opinions – especially in a culture steeped in ideals of freedom of conscience and speech – is that doing so has expressive value. (Conversely, the enlightenment myth tells us that failing to offer one’s thoughts – especially when one refrains mostly to avoid grief – means that one ceases to be heroic in speaking “your truth.”) I think this has merit. There is expressive value in telling others what you think and speaking truth to power. This is what I think internet enthusiasts of twenty years ago had in mind when they imagined that the internet would “democratize” voices by giving everyone a platform.

Yet, when I look at these Rittenhouse discussion and those like them, I do not gather that what folks are doing is rushing online and sharing thoughts primarily for the expressive value of it. If that were the main idea, one could express one’s position, subsequently ignore all comments, and the deed would have felt great by itself. Or, if there were comments from others disagreeing, one would either be content to let them lie without response, or limit one’s responses to clarifications of what one’s position is. (“Let me express this more clearly so that I get maximum expressive value from this.”) That’s far from what goes on in these discussions.

Another potential virtue of airing one’s opinions is the hope that one can change others’ minds, which could have real consequences in the world. I think there is also some merit to this idea. It is particularly compelling in situations where one’s cause would be affected by social action. The more people you can convince people that Black Lives Matter, or that “critical race theory” is an imminent threat to your district’s schools, the more support and action your cause might find in the real world. This idea will be more plausible in some cases than others (the more local the cause, the more each person turned onto it can effect change). But it is wholly implausible in other cases. Debating the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict – a dead issue once a verdict is handed down – is as implausible an instance as I can think of. Even if opponents of the “not guilty” verdict successfully convinced a mass of people to go out and protest the verdict, those protests would not, could not, and should not affect the trial’s outcome.

Another case for sharing (and hoping that others will follow suit) is that one wants to disclose to associates where one stands and hope they do the same in order to choose more accurately whom to associate with. Those who believe Rittenhouse was guilty and think anyone who doesn’t must be racist, have something to gain from getting everyone’s cards out on the table. (Same with those who think that anyone who believes in Rittenhouse’s guilt has drunk the “woke” Kool-Aid, placing them beyond the reach of Enlightenment Reason.)

I am not sure their case for this is as strong as they think it is. Let’s imagine the year 1985, before anything like social media and its expressive potential was conceived. When some potentially divisive event occurred, you might have talked to your friends about it, and that might have led to some bad arguments and hurt feelings. But I doubt it would have occurred to anyone pre-social-media to use the case as a litmus test to gauge the souls of your friends and acquaintances in order to trim down your Rolodex. You might even have suspected that some of your acquaintances held obnoxious opinions, but I suspect it was a fleeting thought that few people followed up on by prying. You didn’t need to know everything your friends and acquaintances believed, and you probably knew it was better if you didn’t. I suspect things have changed today less because gauging others’ souls has become more necessary than because we now find it entertaining. More on that in a bit.

Another two potential reasons for sharing are (a) the stimulating intellectual exchange, and (b) regular exposure to dissenting and divergent views keeps us all more liberal/humble in spirit. I list these two reasons together because the argument against is the same: whoever shares for either of these reasons has to grapple with how implausible either is given what the social media world has become. No one seriously thought they were going to change anyone’s mind on the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict – or get others to seriously entertain the thing from another point of view – by tweeting about it

Why share these types of things then? The two most plausible reasons seem to be that we enjoy the tribalism and the combat that comes from it. (We now also have the technological means to make both possible.) We are a cultural species who learn from others and frequently look to others for confirmation that our take on the world is correct. When folks shared what they thought of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, I suspect they were primarily looking for validation in their judgment: let’s see how many people agree with me as measured by likes, retweets, positive comments, etc. I think this is especially true given that social media and the internet always keep us very close to views that diverge from our own, which may lead us even more to seek out the security of our echo chamber.

From there, sides sort into tribes and tribes do what tribes do: battle. Most of us, to some degree or other, are dogmatists in that we experience our own views as the correct ones to such a degree that we are unnerved when others don’t follow suit. Especially when we can connect with others who see things as we do – whereby confidence grows in numbers – we  come to enjoy the battle, the opposition drawing us closer in kinship to our own group. According to a recent study, this type of scorn and hatred for some group – those racists who think Rittenhouse is innocent, the wokeness that leads folks to think he’s guilty’ – can actually give us a sense of focus, meaning, and purpose.

What led me to step away from social media is that this leads to some very boring, repetitive, and frankly performative and histrionic discussion. When I started using social media in the late 2000’s, I used to share ideas on social media to “try them out,” using my virtual friends as feedback. As years went on, there seemed less and less room for this; there was an uptick in the number of discussions-as-battles. For a while, that was okay with me, and the battles could actually be interesting at times. But lately, the entirety of social media seems to reduce to sharing as a way to flash one’s tribal affiliations and perform repetitive battles between warring tribes. And with that, any reason I had to take joy in sharing has disappeared.

11 comments

  1. What led me to step away from social media is that this leads to some very boring, repetitive, and frankly performative and histrionic discussion.

    This what I would expect, and why I have never signed up for Twitter, Facebook or similar.

    Yes, I do engage in some discussion in online forums, but I try to be selective about what I post. I’m not interested in spur-of-the-moment opinions by others, and I presume that they similarly are not interested in mine. I prefer more thoughtful discussions.

  2. One question I wonder about is how many people are like you. How many people eventually find these online discussions tiresome? And what kind of people?

    I also wonder how many people’s experience of social media is like yours (and mine). Recently, I’ve been reading a book by Johann Hari called _Stolen Focus_. It’s all about the ways in which our lifestyles reduce our focus, particularly overuse of our phones. I’ve been having some of my students read it, and what’s fascinating is how little it resonates with them. Of a class of seventeen students, only two felt like they used their phones too much. Much more bothersome to them than their phones was their homework or their work. It made me wonder to what extent Hari’s worries in the book were simply the worries of an (over-?) educated class projected onto everyone else.

    Anyway, maybe after the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, most people didn’t even talk about it. Or maybe those who did talk about it didn’t actually care much about what they or their interlocutors said.

  3. I imagine you’ll get some comments along the lines of ‘How ironic–sharing online your reasons for not sharing online’. But there’s a big difference between sharing here and sharing on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Those platforms are very aggressive in monetizing shared content, which has led them to adopt a bunch of practices that are the equivalent of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ in journalism–if it hates it rates (highly), maybe? I’m sure there are better rhyming mottos, but they aren’t just using algorithms to *push* content that will elicit strong emotions. They are also using gamified features to *pull* such content from people–if you want likes, retweets, followers, etc., you’ll do best by being at your worst.

    The people who post here are probably about as dogmatic, tribal, scornful, etc. as those you were interacting with on social media. And we certainly see some of that in the comment threads. But the incentive structure doesn’t amplify those tendencies. It wasn’t until just now that I went looking for it that I even noticed there was a ‘like’ button for comments. So incentives are pretty much limited to the responses you get. And the moderation (mostly Dan?) does a pretty good job making it unrewarding to be a troll here.

    tl;dr: What we are seeing on this site is a reasonably authentic look at human nature. People here can be intemperate writers and ungenerous readers, but that is mostly of their own doing. What we see on Facebook and Twitter is a distorted look at human nature, with the worst tendencies brought to the fore, since that is how the platforms make money.

  4. Historically, the political function of protests concerning criminal court cases has been two-fold. First, it puts pressure on a future development in the same case – an appeals case for someone convicted, or a new charge, perhaps in a different jurisdiction, for the acquitted – for instance raising a demand for a related civil suit. Part of this function is the raising of funds for pursuit of the appeal or for the civil suit to follow. Justice often has a price tag, and the money has to come from someone.

    The other political function of such protests – and I personally think it primary – is advocacy for greater review, and reformation, of the justice system as a whole. This was made necessary by the failure of the Reconstruction, which allowed White Southerners to use their state systems to keep African Americans “in their place.” Arguably any justice system can be politicized or used as a political battle-ground in any republic with democratic aspirations – anywhere people can have opinions and voice them and enact them. But it is documented historical fact that until the 1960s, Black Southerners had little or no access to any justice at all – the post-Reconstruction systems had been constructed to deny them this. That has left a terrible shade over how many Americans view the justice system as a whole; and further shade has been provided by those who think “justice” really ought to mean maintance of certain European and Christian values, and fails when this is questioned or weakened.

    So justice in the United States is a work in progress. True, most rank-and-file protestors do not understand this fully, and may be expecting immediate results where none are available. But the organizers of such protests ought to know this, usually do know this, and are aware that they are engaged in long-term efforts (and of course the rasing of resources needed to support these).

    Now, I recognize that this is really only the initiating moment of your primary concern. What I have been discussing in overly broad and simple terms are actually quite complex phenomena with complicated histories. But if, in this small comment, I can’t give them the detailed descriptions they deserve – and I can’t – what can I do with them in a 240-character tweet?

    Nothing political can be accomplished on social media anymore. The right long dominated it, successfully while Trump was president, but even that influence has waned. It is still of use to promote conspiracy theories, but these now rattle around in social networks outside the web, needing little social media re-inforcement. The only social media phenomenon I read at all are the comment threads to Youtube news videos. I don’t read them for information or to participate; rather, I use them to guage how corrupt public discourse has become currently. The only interesting development recently is that many trolls long suspected of being paid influencers from Russia, are now openly admitting this; I suppose because the Russian state security apparatus they work for insists they must re-iterate Putin’s own conspiracy theories about Ukraine virtually word for word from his speeches – an old Stalinist propaganda move, and a major weakness in that kind of totalitarian publicity strategy.

    Otherwise, the commentators do little else than insult and threaten each other. Sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes disturbing, but for the most part very dull.

    And I suppose that is the one thing I would warn all social media users – the format makes it very easy to get very boring very rapidly. If all one wants to do is snark, do that and be done. Otherwise people will not recognize the influencer but the dullard. Party-pooper, not partizan advocate.

    There is nothing to be accomplished on social media. Its proper role is as a cyber-space for a quick contact with those hasn’t spoken with for a while – “Hey, what’s up, how ya doin’?” – that’s the extent of the effectiveness of social media. But people think their preceious thoughts must be shouted out in public, no matter how mundane or inane or simply boring.

    I used to follow the old Huffington Post, which once actually had a handful of journalists and regular columnists attached to it. Now owned by Buzzfeed, the revised HuffPost is basically just a gateway to television broadcasts and twitter feeds. Yet I stll glance at it daily; “George Conway tweeted something amusing about his wife!” “Stephen Colbert has the sweetest reply to Tucker Carlson!” “I married a diagnosed mongoloid, then this happened!” I am sometimes reminded of the old Weekly World News – the advocates of Bat Boy, who may or may not have been sired by a certain famous politician (Putin?). But the editors and writers of that rag at least knew it was all for a laugh – what’s HuffPost’s excuse? For that matter, Fox News’?

    So while I see political benefits in protests you think futile, I entirely agree with you that the web’s social media generates delusions of grandeur among those who “protest” with knee-jerk outrage without considering the actual politics involved. That’s actually not protesting, its just a kind of “I want my MTV!” demand for attention (and whatever goods, emotional or material, one can get through that). And what I’ve learned from both Youtube commentary and the HuffPost is that such phenomena can get entirely hollowed out of any meaningful content, and yet go on and on. Ultimately, the media feeds off itself and needs no content – the outrage is the content.

  5. Oh, though I’ve already gone on too long, one last thing. I have always thought of myself as a writer. Writing takes work, requires at least an interest in rhetoric and the possible responses of readers some of whom one knows, others one will never meet. Their is satisfaction in accomplishing a good sentence or paragraph, a good argument, a tasty turn of phrase. And there is disappointment and embarassment when such is not accomplished. Even the typos in my previous comment above annoy me.

    So I really don’t get just banging away on a keyboard a sentence or two of shock, outrage, or “look at me!” boasting. What has one accomplished? And why?

    Not for me, thanks. And no emojis.

  6. I don’t find social media all that moving. If distant friends haven’t the time or inclination to send an email, then they are only distant friends.

  7. Social media is a tricky animal. I originally used it solely to promote EA content — and that’s still the only thing I use Facebook for — but I am pretty active on Twitter now.

    The way I make it a more positive experience is by doing several things:

    1. I freely and often pre-emptively block people.
    2. I will not get into long and protracted backs-and-forths. A few rounds and that’s it.
    3. I mute threads I no longer want to see replies to.
    4. I mostly do not follow politically oriented accounts. Indeed, more than half of the accounts I follow are music related.

    As to the benefit, I have made a number of friends via social media, whom I would not have befriended otherwise. One notable example is Robert Talisse, whom I just visited in Nashville last week to see Agent Orange play. Turns out we both love punk rock.

  8. I sometimes wonder how different qualitatively these on-line interactions are from those in, say, a small 1920s community where everyone knows everyone, and some support and others detest Eugene Debs. Or perhaps, 17th century pamphleteering might better capture the “parasocial”.

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