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 A shorter version of this piece was published in the Maryland Daily Record October 3, 2011

It used to be said that the great difference between family and friends was that you could pick your friends.  Technology, that great changer of realities on the ground, has subtly undercut the joke.  You may not be enjoying quite the autonomy in picking your friends you once enjoyed.  And that may be a good thing from a First Amendment standpoint.  But the jury’s still out.

I refer, of course, to the world of social media, in which we ostensibly pick, link up with or otherwise inaugurate connections with “friends.”  Sounds like an act of great autonomy.  But various kinds of linkage are likely to assure that our friends’ friends come unbidden with the package.  And once we enter that strange, strange world, before we know it, we are reading discussions partly or even wholly among people we have never met.  Or we are participating in dialogues with people we knew once and have suddenly become reacquainted with.

This system looks as if it were designed to counteract the siloing effect much remarked upon among the punditry, i.e. the tendency listen to radio stations and watch TV news slanted towards whatever your slant may be, visit only websites that stoke your own viewpoint, chat with neighbors selected to be just like you, and go to your house of worship to encounter the deity only with fellow-believers, and never encounter points of view that differ from your own.

You have it in your power to create a comprehensive comfort zone.  Given siloing, you can persist on a steady diet of Christian fundamentalism, or Tea Party-ism, or Islamic radicalism, or conservatism or liberalism whatever ism tickles your fancy, and seldom have to come up for air.  But arguably the social media make it harder to stay in the silo the whole time.

Once you log onto Facebook and check your Recent Stories, you are going to at least have to scroll past what your friends’ friends say, and what your old friends say.  You will enter a universe where everyone sounds off, and some of them will say one thing, and others say the opposite.  Your radical lesbian feminist friend will be reposting something very different from your old classmate who moved to Arizona and is patrolling the border with the Minutemen.  You will stroll down a veritable bazaar of discourse, with links and videos and screeds and rants and arguments.  Arguments especially.  Disagreements between those who mostly agree and disagreements between those who mostly never agree.

The undisputed policy of the First Amendment (at least since the Warren Court[1] and certainly persisting in the Roberts Court era)[2] is to encourage expression of ideas with underlying hope that there will be not just an expression of ideas (critical to human dignity), but also an exchange of ideas (thought to be critical to the formation of a wise political consensus).  Siloing is the enemy of this desired exchange.  This is paradoxical, because siloing is only made possible by the very freedom of media sources to proliferate.  But proliferation does have the side effect of enabling the balkanizing of public discourse.  When the “lamestream media” can be totally ignored, there is little common currency in the marketplace of ideas.

This is where at least potentially the social media could offer some relief.  You at least have to take notice of your feminist friend and of the Minuteman, whichever one you might initially be inclined to disagree with.  You may see longs strings of stridency where the feminist and the Minuteman tangle with each other, rag on each other, belittle each other’s logic.  It can be quite amusing, and indeed I spent much of my first year in this world watching with a grin as just such matches played out.

But increasingly I have come to wonder if what I am witnessing is a series of nonversations.  (If you’re behind the curve, “nonversation” is a neologism that denotes any of several different kinds of interchanges that look like conversations but aren’t.)  Even given the commonly-experienced difficulty anyone has changing anyone else’s mind, it has come to seem that the spectacle before us is simply a gladiatorial combat between viewpoints, not a dialogue in which people are seeking to influence anyone’s thinking.

At a gladiatorial combat – all right, maybe that’s a bit old-fashioned, however apropos; try the NFL – at a football game on any given Sunday, the partisans of both teams come in to cheer their favorites.  Each team does its best to put on a good show.  But whoever wins, when the fans troop out they still root for whomever they were rooting for as they trooped in.  No allegiances were harmed in the making of that movie.

I recently tried a small experiment to see if the clashes in social media were similarly unproductive.

There was a dialogue involving someone I’d gone to school with back in my golden youth.  This guy, call him Babulus, has become a Tea Party activist.  Daily my old friend Babulus foams at the mouth about President Obama.  The President has become what the decapitated head of King Charles was to Mr. Dick in David Copperfield: a subject that intrudes into every conversation.  No matter what problem is under discussion, it’s President Obama’s fault.  He’s the president and it happened on his watch, so it’s his fault.  QED.  And the world must be told.  Like a fan on a football Sunday, Babulus cheers when Republicans triumph and jeers as Obama sinks in the polls.

Trading jibes with him is another old friend, Catus, who, amidst what from my view is some pretty shrewd liberal analysis, adds his own jibes at Republican pratfalls and personal insults for Tea Party figures.

I interjected in one exchange that I was finding the tone of Babulus’ remarks increasingly grating, that his crowing at Obama’s misfortunes could be interpreted as gloating directed personally at those who had elected and agreed with the man, and that this was a turn-off.  And I added that the syllogism which resulted in everything that happened on Obama’s watch being Obama’s fault left a little to be desired.  I suggested, gently as I could, that if Babulus really wanted to convince anyone, he should lose the raillery and the inconsequential logic.

Babulus’ only substantive response was that he was exercising his First Amendment rights.  As if that excused boorishness and bad logic.  I could not draw so much as a pro forma expression of regret.  My comment had had literally zero effect on Babulus.

I’m not going to bother again with trying to change Babulus.  He and Catus and some other people in our Facebook debating society are obviously committed to slugging it out for the duration.  Babulus is right that he’s exercising his First Amendment rights, but he’s not contributing to the First Amendment’s purpose.  Jointly he and friends like Catus (with whom I mostly agree on the substance) have turned the encounter of disparate speakers into a sparring match whose sole end is the spectacle it produces.  No one is seeking to convince anyone else or to be convinced.

New social media should not be about nonversation.  We have too much of that everywhere else, and too few outlets for a true exchange of ideas, which is a big part of the reason we have a First Amendment.

[1]. “It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail, rather than to countenance monopolization of that market, whether it be by the Government itself or a private licensee.” Red Lion Broadcasting Co., Inc. v. FCC (1969).

[2].  “Factions should be checked by permitting them all to speak, … and by entrusting the people to judge what is true and what is false.”  Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n (2010).

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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One Comment

  1. Fiona says:

    Alas there are too many “Babylus”s in this world!