I used to believe in the power of social media. I remember my mother, smiling, on the day that marriage equality was legalized across all fifty states. She told me that social media had done it, that Facebook and Twitter, of all platforms of communication, had saved the day.
We were all thinking it. Looking back, it might have had a grain of truth. But we overlooked decades of activism, before and after the internet became easily accessible to the public, before and after Myspace and Facebook became popular. We didn’t know or think about how polarizing the Internet was, is, and will always be. Our feeds were filled with rainbows, and we thought everyone else’s must have been too. But even the alt-right has its own corners of the web, filled with bigotry, seething with hate, and more active than we care to believe.
History has always had waves of ideas, trends. The spread of Christianity in Europe. The Enlightenment. Everything that happened in the Sixties. Blue eyeshadow got famous all by itself, without the help of the Internet. We thought the world-wide web changed the pace of the world. Instead, I think, we could just see it more clearly. The earth has always spun really fast. Nothing new about that.
Of course, I have to acknowledge the irony here. The blogosphere is social media. To complain about anything at all, a platform is needed. This won’t be the first time someone uses social media to complain about social media. Or the last. We know it’s a waste. What a shame, we say to ourselves. I could never do without, we add, even though it’s not true and we know it. We keep on scrolling and ignoring out guilt.
I justify my use in different ways, but mainly I stay online because I don’t want to fall behind. But let’s face it, sometimes screens don’t tell us the truth, or even what matters. And this idea is sadly more relevant now than ever, in the United States where net neutrality is a thing of the past, and you can tell: I see nothing about it online. Ever.
I spent this December evening absorbed in a really good book. I forgot about my phone for several hours, as I am known to do. I remembered its existence hours later, in a guilt-stricken panic, wondering who was thinking I was rude because I hadn’t liked their photo or messaged them back. Still, I couldn’t help but think of how nice it was to sail at my own pace on this little green and blue spaceship for a while. And I wasn’t falling behind; I was reading a book, and thinking a lot about how to be a good citizen in these trying political times. I thought about the implications of banning the CDC from using the word fetus. I thought and thought and thought about how I was a human incubator to a lot of men. Some of the apathy I’ve been feeling as a result of the constant onslaught of information finally gave a little. I processed. I used my brain. And I got angry.
Coherent thoughts need peace and quiet. Of course, we still need the news. We still need a platform for social change. We still need a voice. But our voices don’t count when we’re shouting trivialities. I’m starting to learn that good citizenship means a lot of things. It means, as my mother says, that dissent is important. It means to stand up for yourself, and for other people, even if they don’t look like you. It means that you should pay attention to the news, and take responsibility for understanding the social and political problems your country is facing, will face, has faced, and might face. But to do that, you’ve got to take a break. You’ve got to tend to your thoughts, feed them ink and paperbacks, a little contemplation, and yes, for God’s sake, some peace and quiet.
And when you do come back, you might find you haven’t missed much. You might find that the polarizing internet remains the polarizing internet. And you might pick and choose your preferred social media outlets, and stick to the ones with the best community, that help you water your thoughts and veer out of your bubble.
As for the power of social media? I do think there’s something there. Just not as much as we would care to believe.