On the new social media outrage

Since the temperature is rising fast on the need to regulate/modulate/curb the online information flow, social media in particular, I think it’s time to take a deep breath and think through a few things before narrowing the blinders even further and recklessly barreling forth.

Your media is filtered. It always has been, always will be, and in fact it *must* be. If you heard all seven billion humans at once, you would hear nothing. Somewhere, somehow, a choice was made. Drafts were drafted, editors edited, librarians curated, the deafening feedback screech of the world quieted, and you received information. It’s both the largest conspiracy in the world and no conspiracy at all, because it’s too decentralized to really be wielded by mortals.

You can’t just “choose yourself”. You can’t eat everything on the menu to decide what to eat. That isn’t an artificially imposed limit. You must, to some degree, go meta on it – choose people who will choose for you, or even choose people who will choose people who will.. and so on. But one thing used to be quite clear – to greatest extent possible, you should be free to do just that, not have it done for you. Unless, and this is where the clear ethical lines suddenly get squashed, you chose someone that role. But either way, some of these choices have gotten a little more accessible.

I say “a little”, because if you’re alive, it was never that hard. You could read the New York Times, or the St Petersburg times, or the Beijing Times, or your choice of a thousand other carefully collated chunks of data. You could hit a local library and read about almost any subject. You could change the TV station. You could flip through the back pages and have scores of very enthusiastic wingnuts drown you in Xeroxed zines with lots of ALLCAPS opinions. You can walk into an overpriced coffee shop at your local college, or at Berkeley, or NASA, or Yale, and partake in vibrant discussion. You could direct-dial any consulate, corporation, or even a random number, and ask if they’d mind sharing their opinions. You could write a really mean-spirited letter to your favorite government official and mail that bad boy right to their office. It was all there, and making them marginally less inconvenient changes nothing in principle. You weren’t information starved, nor silenced, nor in any position to just “pick all of it”. So what did change? Something must have changed, right?

There were a few subtle changes. You were usually guided (mostly consensually) by making you incur some form of cost, inconvenience.. for lack of a less dramatic term, pain. Pay for it, sit through a sales pitch, unravel the spin to make it useful, return your books, don’t hog the mic, renew your subscription.. They’re minor, but they’re there, and most of the choices are made by not choosing due to them. New media, instead, usually guides you (with your implicit consent) with rewards. Facebook found a person they think you’ll really like. Google is so convenient it can often literally give you what you were just about to look for before you typed it. Keep your snapchat streak going and we’ll brag to your friends about how much we like you. Tumblr will only show you the very finest funny cat videos. Carrot beats whip, and then candy cane beats carrot, and all of a sudden you wonder why you’re eating codeine-syrup-soaked cotton candy, and why no one is stopping you.

No one is stopping you because that’s kind of your job. Yes, FaceTubeInstaSnapGoogle could, and probably should, help you with that a bit by making your choices more explicit, more accessible, and more nuanced in terms of “I’d like for you to be *this* aggressive when you make my choices”. But you still pick the picker, and you need to own that. Just like before, the choices aren’t exactly medieval. Don’t chase facebook content you didn’t come looking for. Use duckduckgo once in a while. Hit some aggregators with more explicit and less fine-grained choices, reddit, blogger, reuters, stumbler.. Pick some RSS feeds, hang in some chatrooms. By all means, be judgmental, but take it up a notch and aim it at whom or what presented you with the information, not the little cherry picked atom of data and the random person behind it. Do what you did before – endure a little inconvenience, intentionally, in exchange for experiencing something actually new. Get used to the new telltale signs that you’re getting cornered or snowed. You know the reaction you get from millennials when you ask them to use a dictionary? Don’t be like that to their tools either – they require a slightly difference skill set to wield, but OMGWTFBBQ rein in the drama – it’s a tiny bit uphill, not a rabid squirrel gnawing your left <blank> off. Are you seriously wanting to ban candy because you can’t quit eating it? We’re supposed to be the generation of inner fortitude and character FFS, can we maybe act a little more like it?

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