This past week social media became a battleground for yet another death match between media and Silicon Valley. So much has been said, so I am going to abstain from adding any more to the mix. However, all that sound and fury took me down the memory lane — all the way back to the early nineties.
Back then, I was a person with a limited amount of social connections in my newly adopted home. So, I often turn to television for distraction, especially during the day, when waiting for folks to call me back. It was then I came across the disgustingly distorted world of Jerry Springer, Montel, and Maury. These shows were and are still produced for a singular purpose — conflict as a source of entertainment and distraction.
I quickly moved on from the moronity and swore off what can be called “conflict television.” It was not just these shows. Even the cable television news shows became a place where opinions distorted news and passed themselves off as news. Like their network television predecessors, the cable news talk shows — no matter which side of the fence you are on – too were created because owners of these channels need to fill the empty airwaves, cheaply. And like day time shows that graced TV networks, they also have used the conflict as a way to keep people distracted from reality.
Humans love conflict. For the same reasons, people slow down to see a car wreck on the highway or gawk at a dead body lying on the street, people think of conflicts as a chance to forget about their miserable situations. When you look at the characters on that daytime shows and instantly felt better about ourselves, though, in reality, most knew their “reality” sucked. Similarly, the cable television talk shows, allowed us to take part in the conflict, by becoming affiliated to one side or the other. VH And by becoming involved, we became self-important.
In her book, The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows, University of Calfornia, Davis Sociology Professor Laura Grindstaff points out that daytime talk shows occupied a unique place in popular culture. They blurred the lines between experts and ordinary. Public merged with private; Reason and emotion were blurred, just as serious with the tabloid, she notes. Grindstaff argues that the “tabloid is part and parcel of a more general popularization of the media landscape, in which even the serious media are said increasingly to resemble a daytime talk show.”
Grindstaff thus introduces us to the idea of expressive content, as opposed to the informational content. In the increasingly electronic media space, the owners are willing to fill the empty electronic space with more expressive (and thus cheaper to produce) content. This is less than a degree south of what is titillating entertainment. In comparison, the print media has always been constrained by space, which it has used judiciously by focusing on informational content. The tabloid or expressive content was left to quasi-fictional publications. The lexicon of the city dailies was very expressive — I mean, how else would you describe the memorable New York Post headline: Headless Body in Topless Bar.
The Internet has removed the limitations of space on the print media. It might have started with the blogs, and later embraced by The Huffington Post. Today, the opinion pages of respected dailies, have also become expressive, and thus veering towards, not having a real impact, but as tools to keep the readership base close. Whether it is on the right or the left, everything has become infotainment.
Just as daytime talk shows and cable news talk shows, the Internet too has become the colosseum. The post-social Internet is no different than daytime television and cable news. About a decade ago, I wrote about the future where we will all be starring in a movie called me. I was excited about the sources going direct. “In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention,” I wrote, and that it was going to become the “defining the ethos for the new Internet-connected age as we go along.”
Fast forward to today, that desire has mutated into a new dangerous form. The conflict culture has not only infected the social platforms but also started to consume the host body. Whether it is the president, or a maverick entrepreneur, a delusional rapper, self-important investor, a media personality –, they are now hosts of their shows. And with an audience that dwarfs even the most prominent television audience. The increasingly outrageous statements are a way to get attention and thus create conflict.
Just like the old daytime television shows, the audience becomes part of the conversation – either as proponents or as opponents of a person or a school of thought. Thanks to the retweets, shares, likes, and comments, what in past lives would have been a smaller private group conversation balloons into network-scale tribalism.
It is all magnified by algorithms that understand only one command — corral attention at any cost to increase and maintain engagement so that it all can be monetized by selling advertising. Disregard for any civility is a feature, not a bug. At the start of the current decade, I wrote that “it is foolish to think that a company like Facebook, which prays at the altar of growth and ever-rising stock prices, is ever going to change. No Twitter employee is ever going to refuse higher engagement that leads to more advertising impressions and, thus, to better revenues — and who knows, maybe profits someday. “
I hoped that when faced with the algorithmic avarice, we the people would look to self-control. Little did I know, that pandemic would hasten us towards a future of tribalism, anger, and perhaps a realization that online social isn’t social after all.
July 6, 2020, San Francisco