Social Media: The New Wild West

Last summer I heard a discussion on CBC Radio about social media and its impact on the way we communicate. It featured James Hoggan's bookI'm Right and You're An Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up. Social media provides us with an opportunity to make connections we otherwise wouldn't make and to dialogue about important social issues in ways we weren't previously able. It satisfies the innate human need to connect socially and share experiences with like-minded individuals.  However it's built to deliver more of what the user likes, and reinforce users' existing political beliefs. Media coagulates. Social groups cluster. People self-organize by affinity. Social media is the new federalism, highlighting the topography of societal intention and the already existing unrest in society.
Adversarial rhetoric and personal character attacks pollute and polarize public discourse, causing people to avoid engaging the issues. Inflammatory rhetoric, and propaganda stifle discussion and society's ability to problem solve as a collective. Basically, we suck as communicators: power-challenged individuals with fragile ego complexes whose sole means of validation centres on a need to be right typically lack the capacity to engage in tactful, constructive dialogue. That seems worrisome.
Social media has transformed us into caricatures of ourselves: not interested in truth, or in alternative perspectives, only interested our own, and shutting out/off anything that doesn't exactly mirror ourselves. By design,  social media causes people to gravitate toward narrower extremes of themselves. We moralize our social causes and then assault the character of all those who don't share our belief in them. We wield shame and guilt in order to carve out the social change we envision. We have such binary thinking - filled with mutual exclusivity. As a society, we seem quite pre-operational, unable to consider alternative view points. That leads to us versus them. We don't like disagreement or differences. Because, if you're not for us, you're against us.
Historically, societal advances have required shared sacrifice and collaboration around common causes. Consider Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine or the beating away of the fascism and national socialism of the 1930s and 40s or Rosa Parks and other great civil rights activists of the 1950s and 60s. Great things happened in our collective history because of the individuals who placed themselves in danger or gave their lives for a shared cause, and in doing so inspired others to follow in their footsteps and make sacrifices and engage in collaborative solutions for their shared cause. These individuals did not need glory or recognition - Rosa Parks did not live Tweet her refusal to give up her seat on that fateful day or take a selfie or a video and post to Facebook.
I think social media has changed the way we organize ourselves and communicate with each other. The digital world has brought us closer to, and also has closed us off from, each other. We have social connections with individuals we would not have otherwise known. We can see, first hand, the unrest and carnage in war zones across the globe; I think this is a sort of double-edged sword, both increasing awareness and social conscience and habituating war and violence in the public eye. We indulge our tendency to engage pre-operational thought in the heat of the moment with "mute" and "block" to shut out conflicting viewpoints. We build walls rather than build consensus, though, when we carry on like this. Injecting our need to be right into every situation and conversation creates a confrontational, antagonistic atmosphere. In social media we have created this giant centrifuge with fangs that complicates and pollinates sociopolitical unrest.
Social media maybe has become the new wild frontier, a place gushing with proxy wars.


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