We were having lunch at a quiet restaurant, and I was sharing career lessons with an eager 20-something and dispensing valuable wisdom (I thought) about the profession to which she aspired. She seemed to be listening and paying close attention. Then, suddenly, mid-sentence, she pulled out her cell phone and began checking messages.

I was astonished (how rude!), and insulted (was I that boring?).

Again, I was reminded why I dislike social media. Again, I began brooding about how it’s affecting our behavior and the way we relate.

Sadly, or fortunately, I am not alone. More and more people I know are quitting social media. Their minds can no longer tolerate the constant barrage of information, they say. It’s addictive and consumes too much time, they complain. It’s monopolizing their attention and preventing them from thinking, feeling and living.

A while back, I was heartened to learn that several former Facebook and Google employees, who helped build those companies, are launching a campaign to warn people about the harm of social media and smartphones, including depression, especially among the young. 

It’s too early to tell whether this is the beginning of a widespread revolt. But it does offer consolation to us outliers who, observant of modesty and desirous of privacy, never embraced social media in the first place and could never fathom its attraction.

Today, with everybody tethered to screens, social intercourse has become primarily virtual and electronic — to such an extent that those weaned on it, such as the digitally facile millennials, sometimes have difficulty making eye contact and conversing face to face.

As demonstrated by the current occupant of the White House, Twitter seems to appeal to those with weak impulse control and the attention span of a housefly. The 280-character limit guarantees shallow. The words Twitter and tweet are almost onomatopoetic; they connote trivia and ephemera, something as inconsequential and fleeting as a bird’s chirps. Why subject ourselves to this ceaseless deluge of mental static and psychic clutter?

Human relationships, human value and performance, have been reduced to numbers and “metrics.” Today, everyone is running in a ratings race of their own devising, clamoring desperately for notice, attention and “influence.”

Most tweets are banal and inane, sarcastic and snarky, unfiltered snippets of thought, spontaneous burps of opinion, some of it cruel and toxic (which is why Twitter has been called “the technology of the id”). They are akin to the gossipy notes mean girls in junior high used to pass in class. Invariably, they provoke two questions: So what? Who cares?

Some tweets aspire to cleverness and wit, but the main object is the adrenaline rush of nowness, the pathological fetish of sensation junkies. Twitter is a real-time news ticker, an instantaneous bulletin board, indispensable to those with a compulsive need to know and blab first. 

As a forum for democratic expression, and all too often populist ignorance (not to mention lies, fake news, propaganda and slander), social media exalts the slapdash and careless, the informal and colloquial, the vulgar and profane. There’s no room or respect for deliberation and eloquence. It both reflects and reinforces these inarticulate times, when so few – especially those under 30, and including the supposedly literate and educated – can utter a thought or form a sentence without saying “like” and “you know” countless times.

My principal objection to social media, however, is not so much the vapidity of the “content.” What troubles me is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., are fueling an orgy of narcissism, the full-bore commodification of the self, the apotheosis of ME.

As techno-hipsters proudly proclaim, social media enables everyone to self-publish and broadcast. At a time when it’s all about image and brand, fame and celebrity, everybody is in show business, everybody feels compelled to engage in shameless self-presentation, self-promotion, self-celebration and self-advertisement.

It’s like being in high school again, where it’s all about popularity, and self-worth is measured in “likes,” “friends” and “followers.” Human relationships, human value and performance, have been reduced to numbers and “metrics.” Today, everyone is running in a ratings race of their own devising, clamoring desperately for notice, attention and “influence.”

“Audience engagement” – the Holy Grail of newspapers, magazines, TV networks and websites – has become everybody’s business and obsession in a rampant economy of distraction, a ceaseless jamboree of noise, commotion, overstimulation and “infotainment” that addles the brain and damages the psyche. Look at me! Watch me! Listen to me! Hear me! Read me! Like me! Love me! Click on me to prove I have value and importance, that my life has meaning and purpose, that I’m a player whose existence matters!

Paradoxically, as we compete with each other for more attention, and the demand for our own attention becomes more overwhelming, each of us has less capacity to pay attention. Our hunger for attention is, in effect, starving our attention.

Facebook is appropriately named. Face implies the surface, the superficial, the cosmetic shell. The face reveals but also conceals. It’s the public display, the window dressing. It’s the appearance that masks reality, the seeming that disguises being. It pretends to honesty but also raises suspicion about the truth behind the illusion, the character behind the facade.

Face is an apt conceit for social media as a whole. How many of your “friends,” “followers” and “likes” are real? How many of your connections are authentic? How much of the attention you strive so eagerly to attract and retain is sincere and lasting? How does the ego validation of social media play out during a dark night of the soul? Will it provide genuine solace, or is it as substantial and reliable as blinking pixels on a screen?

Art Carey, a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, is the author of In Defense of Marriage and The United States of Incompetence.

3 thoughts on “Art Carey: Lamenting social media, a land of vapid content fueling an orgy of narcissism”

  1. Art’s provocative article makes the case for why “social media” should really be called “anti-social media.”

    (And it’s wonderful to be able to read Art Carey again. Kudos and best wishes to Broad Liberty!)

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