by Kevin Currie-Knight
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.  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.