The advancement of technology has given humans the ability to communicate across the globe to places they previously would have to go on a long and dangerous boat ride.
It has also given way to sexual liberation in the form of contraception and the reduction of simple diseases that in the past reached epidemic levels. By way of germ theory, accompanying treatments, and the implementation of indoor plumbing, technological advancement has proven to revolutionize civilization.
With great power comes great responsibility and the same thing should be said about Social Media. Marshall McLuhan was a genius in explaining the phenomena of how the medium itself becomes a intermediary factor in communication.
Film is an example of this. Life itself and the way we see it is in “linear sequences” but a film is a collection of scenes those scenes are less continuous and more so “configured” and arranged.
It’s easy to apply this to the written word in comparison to speech which has its own additional tone and accompanying body language. The interpretation of tone and body language are supportive and complementary mechanisms of communication that help to carry the meaning behind speech. While certainly there is tone in written communication it is even less obvious and lacks additional supportive or complementary mechanisms that can aid in interpretation and clarity.
How does this apply to social media? Well, as Marshall McLuhan says, “the Medium is the Message.” Just how film has an effect on speed and time of visual reality, the absence of the nonverbal communication of body language and tone have an effect on the written word as communicated completely changing the structure of speech, so does social media itself have an effect on how humans communicate.
Social Media creates a new digital space where the structure of communication is changed not only in comparison to speech but the written word and how it’s disseminated. No longer are people constrained to communicating only in their small social circle but are able to reach across the globe and speak to others without delay.
The ability to be able to communicate with someone immediately creates a structural urgency and entitlement. It gives a voice to anyone and an opportunity for access to anyone.
While that ability to reach people all over the globe is useful and productive for a healthy global community it has the structural inadequacies for clear communication. It also creates a cacophony and wide-ranging buffet of communications and information. More communication, especially a large quantity of crappy communications, does not equate to a meaningful slew of quality communication. One of the advantages of written communication is its storage and the ability for human society to recall information that was written down. The added advantage to Social Media is the immediacy in which information can be recalled and attributed accurately. In the past it was relatively difficult to acquire accurate information and we trust the media as a staple in a free society.
Currently the news from around the world is delivered primarily through “trusted” media sources but is shared over a platform or medium that structures how the information is disseminated. The ability to retrieve past communication from folks with social media accounts currently gives folks the ability to criticize past communication in the present time.
Past statements become fodder for critique, inquiry, and interrogation. There wouldn’t be an issue if statements of the past remained in the past but there is an emergent need to delve into the past statements of folks in order to test these statements against current political, social, and cultural standards. This practice I would call a ‘Politics of Purity,’ or a “Political Purity Test.” A politics that requires a person’s politics to be consistent throughout time and space.
Alexis Shotwell puts this succinctly in her book Against Purity where she states,
“We need to shape better practices of responsibility and memory for our placement in relation to the past, our implication in the present, and our potential creation of different futures.”
Taking personal responsibility for the present in order to create a better future is the work of folks who understand the past is the past and the future is now, not tomorrow or yesterday but, right now!
There’s a tried and true framework that has encompassed notions of health and disease that creates an Us vs. Them mentality. We see this currently with the vaccinated vs. the unvaccinated and creating access to society based on whether you fall into one category or the other. This framework has been used to commit some of the greatest atrocities known to man by creating a difference between those that are healthy and not, those that are pure and not, and those that are included vs those that are excluded.
The ability to go back in time and critique past statements speaks to this stratagem of purity being transferred over to the realm of politics, that folks must hold the same values consistently throughout time and space no matter if the past was totally different or not. It is a tool of differentiation. It also goads folks to virtue signal, where one must prove they have always been consistent in their politics and one must signal this by past, present, and even future communication being consistent with emerging cultural, social, and political standards.
This litmus test is constantly had on social media platforms every day and can only be practiced so meticulously through this medium and technological advancement that catalogs every tweet and every post.
There’s an impetus to reach into the past to test and virtue signal whether folks are aligned with current emerging standards.
We also see this similar phenomenon in the taking down of historical figures memorialized through statues and monuments. Instead of adding to history enriching it with further context by memorializing additional figures and events in history, folks have the impetus to remove these monuments and events from history itself.
Instead of adding to a person’s history, enriching it with further context, we try to hold people we don’t know personally to a standard contrived from an accumulation of social media posts, not anything that we personally know them to have done from years and years of the life they’ve lived up until now.
If we can’t look at the past because it’s too racist or too politically incorrect or too offensive to fathom, we’re going to repeat the same mistakes and not have a frame of reference for what was right and what was wrong and where we were making sense and doing things that championed freedom & liberty versus when we failed to live up to those values.
I’ll leave you with a final word from Orwell…