Log off

HAVING FACEBOOK ARGUMENTS WITH people is generally unpleasant, frustrating, and pointless. You won’t win them, and they only increase the engagement figures of the kind of people who engage marketing consultants, or use the word ‘yarns’ without irony. Arguing on facebook and twitter is why everyone’s racist uncle is in charge of our political parties and civil institutions, jumping into your conversation to say, well, ‘you might not like Trump but he reflects how real people think’, or other infinitely facile opinions that simply cannot be engaged with because there is no ‘there’ there, and people with critical self-reflection skills get off social media, retreat further and further from any sphere that can be called public, and work on their hobbies and addictions.

The key image of the early 21st century is major corporations shitting in the gemeinschaft.

Let’s not go too far into nostalgia: there never was a perfect public sphere of agonistic debate, looking back to imagined heroic eras of democracy and debate is a sucker’s pastime, and what always passed for ‘civility’ and liberalism in the 20th century was discussion between people choosing to ignore the bloodstains. What is fundamentally different about the experience of arguing on social media, and the internet more generally, is that it has given us the fantasy that sharing (if we agree) can replace the more serious work of gathering together to have ideas in an organised way. Virality and sharing as it’s experienced on the internet is a simulacra of the actual organising and mutual socialisation that used to go into extended family, religious groups, ethnic and minority associations, clubs, committees of interested citizens, not to mention, of course, trade unions. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful organisers of actual politics on social media are precisely those whose experience of politics involves a strong taboo: for obvious reasons, Nazis find it hard to book committee rooms, and thankfully few have the courage to march in boots and braces, but on the internet, they can have plenty of virtual space for the dankest of Fascist memes and as much living-room for semiotic ambiguity as they want. ‘It’s just the OK symbol’.

I’ve had the unpleasant experience of watching someone whose views I once respected become boring and hateful. I suspect that’s a universal part of ageing. What is new to experiencing it on the internet is that pushback to social breaches and shit opinions is so hard now, and so boring: if once our social groups tended to be led, and guided by people around whom we gathered (think of older family members who always bring people together, the centre of the friends group, religious leaders and lay leaders, so-and-so who’s played footy for the club for years, the shop steward who’ll take the issue to the boss), there’s no means now of exercising that top-down socialisation and mutual setting of boundaries. Nobody exists to say ‘hmmm that’s not really acceptable’, because there is, on facebook and twitter, always another group for whom that shitty, shitty opinion is perfectly fine, and will share it, because enough people will like or agree. The irony of social media is how horrible it actually is for the community as a whole, to let every individual find such supportive environments.

The result of experiencing political engagement on corporate social media is not that our political culture is impoverished, or disappeared, it’s worse: politics is healthier and more vital than ever, it’s just that all our political cultures are now facebook’s and twitter’s culture. No wonder it’s so cathartic and liberating to log off.

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