There was a time, not so long ago, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was univerally beloved as an icon of science and rationality. He made the rebooted Cosmos an unlikely hit, and his take-downs of scientific ignorance on Twitter were staples of virtually everyone’s feed. Then something changed. His Twitter feed became a series of exercises in #WellActually-ism, as he took it upon himself to take down views that no one held. #WellActually, New Years Day has no astrological significance — take that, person who… held that view, if you exist. #WellActually, the Earth doesn’t leap at all during Leap Year — apparently this is supposed to be a common misconception, rather than an idea that had literally never occurred to anyone. And now, the very worst depths of #WellActually: you don’t oppose Trump, you oppose his supporters — see, because you don’t want them to vote for… um, well, Trump. Zing!

This sad tale should be a warning to every academic who is tempted by the siren-song of Twitter. There’s something about the drive to constantly craft witty, counter-intuitive aperçus that is obviously corrosive to the mind. Inevitably one reaches the level of self-parody. Thankfully for Tyson, his self-parodic version is merely smug and too-clever-by-half. There are worse “worst selves” out there, such as the racist demagogue that Dawkins’ self-parody version turned out to be.

In retrospect, I can admit that I was reaching that level with the tweets that got me in trouble last year — too quick to opine, too cynically “knowing,” too self-indulgently sarcastic, too entitled in my assumption that everyone was somehow “in on the joke.” In retrospect, it may have been an unintentional act of mercy for the right-wing hordes to drive me away from Twitter, at least as a frequent improvisational tweet-crafter (I do like to retweet funny things and respond to friends’ tweets now and again).

The sad part is that I still feel a certain pride in my Twitter virtuosity. I look at Tyson’s decline and think: I could do better than that. But the end result would be the same — compulsively returning to the same tired formulas, gradually alienating more and more people. When my paranoia about fresh waves of harrassment drives me to search for my own name, it’s clear that there are people who are just vaguely annoyed at me, who use me as a byword for smugness or arrogance. It’s yet another way in which being good at Twitter produces only bad results. The better you are at crafting tweets, the more you get retweeted and the more people get sick of you. The more “exposure” you get, the more exposed you are to harrassment.

Twitter eats through the talent and reputation of its most dedicated users. Even more than Facebook, I think, it’s a “user” — and so it makes sense that the quintessential Twitter user turns out to be none other than Donald Trump, whose apparently unlimited supply of contempt and resentment renders him immune to the platform’s corrosive effects, which only make him even stronger. He thrives on the “hate retweet,” the “get a load of this guy.” Trump is the truth of Twitter.

Three thoughts on not having a Facebook account

Now that an anti-Facebook backlash seems to be gathering momentum, I feel increasingly vindicated that I’m one of those lucky few who never signed up in the first place. I will never be able to capture my objections to Facebook with the Adornoesque rigor of Rob Horning, but I would like to put three semi-related points forward:

  1. The last thing I need is another thing to “check” constantly. I know I’m basically an internet addict, and my initial reason for not signing up was precisely that people were finding Facebook so engrossing. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it, at least at first, but I also know that it would have crowded out things that are more important to me — or at least made me less attentive and focused while doing them. So to this extent, my initial choice not to sign up was driven by my recognition of personal weakness rather than by any overarching principle. BUT:

  2. I want to have control over how I present myself. It seems like every two weeks there’s a story about Facebook arbitrarily revealing things you thought were private, etc. This possibility always disturbed me. I am probably an over-sharer in many contexts, but at least when it comes to blogging and Twitter, it’s pretty clear what’s out there or not and how to keep things from getting out there — I’m not going to wake up one morning and find out that WordPress has arbitrarily published all my drafts, for example.
  3. I don’t want to be continually reminded of my past. Some relationships are for a certain time, and then it’s okay for them to drift away. I’m grateful for the friends I had in high school and college, and I’ve kept in contact with the ones I wanted to keep in contact with. I can understand the desire to see what people are up to, but it seems like many accounts of Facebook arguments, etc., are a product of putting people back together who don’t belong together anymore — so that all it produces is needless friction. This is compounded by the fact that I was largely miserable between elementary school and grad school. I’m sure everyone has turned out to be a wonderful person and I’m so happy for all of them — but my mental health is largely premised on not thinking about past eras of my life all the time.

I’ve been told that Facebook is a great way to do marketing and to get to know other academics — i.e., it can be future-oriented — but the concerns I list above incline me to just wait until it inevitably flops and we all move on to the next thing.

Adventures in Social Networking: 1. Incivility Happens

Being a social creature, I keep and maintain both a Twitter (AhabLives ) and a Facebook account. The latter is for personal contacts back in Ohio and Kentucky who I never see and never email, about whom I’m sometimes curious. The problem is, many of them are decidedly more conservative than I, which poses a problem when I decide to post the something that actually reveals what I actually think about the state of the world. Case in point, upon word yesterday of the Pope’s throwing open the doors to the Church for Anglicans, I posted: “A glorious day for misogynistic, homophobic bigots who happen to be Anglican! Kudos to you.” This set off a chain of acrimonious comments and private emails that my normal postings–e.g., ” Having obliterated the philosophical basis for ontologizing the sublime in a matter of a few pages, I think I can safely begin to wrap this paper up with a footnote explaining string theory”–rarely does. The major criticism of what I wrote was that it misrepresents as hatred and fear what is really just an alternative set of convictions. To which my response (in hindsight, I realize) added fuel to the fire: “Those who are not themselves filled with hate and fear can take solace, I suppose, that their convictions just happen to be those of misogynistic, homophobic bigots. (I know I do when my own views are compared with those of tyrants.)” For the most part, people employed selective reading and chose to disregard my fairly conciliatory parenthetical gesture, and instead chose to focus on my ungraceful incivility.

This got me thinking about the question of civility in dialogue. We go on about this a lot here. Well, actually Adam goes on about it a lot, since he & Anthony tend to be the ones to whom the issue is raised more often. I, as ever, remain the good cop. (This is, true to the metaphor, because I’m hardly ever around.) More broadly, people in general complain about the uncivil social discourse in this country, and how it is what is somehow holding us back. I’m not convinced this is true, though. Obviously, it may cause strain on one’s personal relationships. That’s not the issue. The problem, with respect to incivility in public discourse, is when incivility is instrumentalized beyond its natural, maybe even sometimes healthy, occurrences in specific situations. The problem, in other words, isn’t the screaming person on either side of a position or conviction, it is when that screaming person is given the title “columnist” or “analyst,” and who uses incivility as a tool (namely, a bludgeon).

So, in short, you should feel free to be a dick. Just try to avoid thinking your being a dick is conveying anything more than how much of a dick you are.

Posted in Rhetoric, Social networks. Comments Off on Adventures in Social Networking: 1. Incivility Happens

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