Tag Archives: self-involvement

Social Media Just Aren’t That Interesting

Powerful?  Undoubtedly. Fascinating to study? Not so much.

Social Media. I teach and write about their uses and commercial functions.  But when push comes to shove (and there is a lot of intellectual shoving here), they just aren’t that interesting.  They are often the routes by which Americans now “connect” with each other. “Communicate” would be an overstatement. Are social media powerful?  Undoubtedly.  An interesting communication form to study?  Not so much.

Texting and posting via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and many other digital forms of Post-it notes usually offer us what is too often the equivalent of the stuff left over in the back desk drawer of the mind: discarded fragments of what still remains to be worked out, or judgments of others that are no credit to one’s own character. It can be a dispiriting thing to stroll through a university library full of tomes of worked out narratives and carefully curated insights into the human condition.  But if one looks at nearby tables, it seems that too many people seated in front of their laptops are doing little more than exchanging thought-fragments that now pass for flashes of judgment.  On the shelves the serious work of linear thinkers mostly remain untouched, while library patrons seem to be surfing through throwaway messages mostly because they can.  And their pictures can be just as problematic, suggesting levels of crippling self-involvement that leave little time or room for others.

My complaint is a professional one. My field used to have a sweeping focus on message analysis, examining those in public life who had interesting, frightening or far-reaching things to say.  But now, it seems, we have returned to the kinds of preoccupations that then defined our still-immature field in the 1960’s: when television was the newest medium and we studied its disposable content with an intensity it rarely deserved. And so here we are again 60 years later, looking at “emergent media” and marveling at .  .  . what exactly? The President’s awful bullying and bluster?  Celebrity comments that “go viral?,” corporations that have mastered micro-targeting because of the trail of digital bread crumbs the rest of us leave?  In terms of the quality and thoughtfulness of the messaging, it’s all pretty tepid stuff.  Perhaps television’s Ellen DeGeneres has it right.  She looks at texting as a source of humor: worth a laugh, but not much more. To be sure, the first wave of media theory with McLuhan and others was exciting.  More recent efforts seem less compelling.

The seemingly durable canons of the field used to include entire philosophies of communication thought out in exquisite detail by thinkers like Kenneth Burke, Susanne Langer, Neil Postman, Hugh Duncan, Wayne Booth, Jane Blankenship, Richard Weaver and many others.  Their names may not be familiar, but their work propelled generations of scholars to take the work of message-analysis seriously.  Burke in particular offered a complete and evocative world view of communication that many of his acolytes adopted and still teach (in my case: to perhaps 6000 students so far).

Remember the famous line in Sunset Boulevard (1950), when the fading Norma Desmond is reminded that she “used to be big”?  Her response seems fitting to for a field that seems lost in the tall grass of pixels and platforms rather than a higher terrain beyond.  “I am big,” she responded. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

Easily the Most Common Communication Deficit

                                              sott.net

Our constructed selves are mostly held together by a desire to assert identities intended to cast a shadow.  We want to be presence; someone who is more cause than effect.

With its nearly infinite varieties, communication is usually about nuance.  Few challenges or strategies are foolproof or easily applied.   Even ‘best practices’ are usually contingent.  But this is not true if we seek an answer to at least one straightforward question.  When the query is ‘what is the most common deficiency most people show in their interactions with others?’ a firm response can given in two words: effective listening.  This is mostly because the mantra of our age is to first take care of ourselves. This may usually be good for our overall mental health, but it can be no surprise that our interactions reveal a common desire to bring most conversations back to ourselves.

This is an age where celebrity demands our attention; we routinely honor people who make their mark through whatever forms of validation we admire.  Our media is populated with these figures. And as more and more research is confirming, social media often function the same way, offering constructed displays of enviable lives. It follows that our own efforts at self-repair are motivated by the desire to offer versions of ourselves that will cast a shadow.  We want to be presence; someone who is more cause than effect; the one who is the source of attention rather than the one who attends.

Cameras were once used to capture the images of others.  Now they are often turned around to create ‘selfies’ that we can pass along the digital food chain.

And so communication between equals can easily devolve into exchanges that can best be understood as ‘taking turns.’  The preoccupation of self that defines our age plays out in the simple desire to be at the center of typical exchange, preferencing our judgments and conclusions over interest in giving others space to lay out what are often extended narratives.  For example, cameras were once used to capture the images of others.  Now they are often turned around to create ‘selfies’ that we can pass along the digital food chain.

The impulse to be heard rather than to hear is unevenly spread across the culture.  It seems strongest in adults, which is perhaps why so many young adults are impatient with offers of advice from older family members. The circles of influence for the young are smaller and tighter, leaving less of an appetite for giving time to parents who are ready to assert their authority and credibility.  We’ve even turned this pattern into a Hollywood trope: films about the lives of teens rarely allow parents or teachers to be the pivotal influencers they hope to be. Think of Greta Gerwig’s recent film Ladybird (2017).  Mom and daughter are mostly on different planets. Screenplays like Ladybird typically write older figures as foils more than resources.

Lady Bird Official Trailer #1 (2017) Saoirse Ronan, Odeya Rush Comedy Movie HD

Lady Bird Trailer #1 (2017) Saoirse Ronan, Odeya Rush Comedy Movie HD [Official Trailer]

It’s not that we don’t listen to anyone anymore.  Functionally, most of us spend large parts of every day in front of a screen that is asking for attention to spoken or written messages.  But this is ‘listening’ at its lowest gradient.  Peripheral attention to a figure in a video is qualitatively a long way from the more active listening that is often needed to produce a conversation that can be enlightening or even transformative.  Our excessive attention to packaged media requires only a passive kind of reception, setting us up to be frail listeners when circumstances demand so much more.