I have been reading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death again, and I think he may have been wrong, not in entirety, but at least in one critical point that bears materially on any attempt to extend his work to social media. Postman’s central thesis is essentially that textual media and visual media produce profoundly different kinds of public discourse. He claims that textual media require active interpretation and so produce a public sphere that is characterized by rational, propositional, and informed discourse, while visual media encourage passive amusement and so produce a public sphere that is characterized by concern with image and appearance. This is not to say that visual media are in every respect inferior to textual media, only to say that they produce a public sphere that is less able to conduct the kind of discourse required for an informed and functional democracy, and I would agree with this analysis in its broad outlines.
Where Postman errs, I think, is in including the telegraph and the telephone among the technologies of amusement, when I would argue that these media are actually forerunners of the social media that currently dominate the media landscape. Because his book precedes the internet and the rise of social media, it fails to see how profoundly different these kinds of media are from both textual and visual media, even in their simplest forms. This is not exactly Postman’s fault of course, not considering the time in which he was writing, and I have been told that he did address the idea of cyberspace in some of his later work, but I would like to presume on Postman’s ideas a little by extending his analysis of textual and visual media to social media, probably in ways that he would not endorse. I apologize to anyone I might offend in so doing.
Here is what I would suggest. First, where textual media require active attention, and where visual media require only passive attention, social media require a kind of attention that is neither active nor passive but idle. We have these media continually on hand, in our pockets, on our screens, in the background, but we seldom actively apply ourselves to them or passively amuse ourselves with them. We play with them. We fiddle with them. We trifle with them. Rather than absorbing our attention actively or passively, they absorb our attention idly. Though they are capable of supporting active and passive attention, the natural mode of social media is merely idle attention.
Second, where the activity of textual media results in understanding, and where the passivity of visual media results in amusement, the idleness of social media results in diversion. These media operate by ceasing to be merely on hand, in our pockets, on our screens, in the background, and by demanding to be answered, now, in this instant, by ringing or chiming or vibrating or appearing on our desktops, and they thus diverts us from whatever it is that we were doing at that moment. They can be ignored, of course. We can let our phones go straight to voicemail, ignore the message telling us that we have mail, put off reading the latest item in our feed, but the natural mode of these media is to disrupt, to demand instant response, and so they divert us. Indeed, they very often divert us from a previous diversion, so that we intend to check only one meassge and end up looking at the pictures of some guy we hardly know, or we intend to follow one link that a friend tweeted and end up surfing youtube for half an hour. Diversion leads to diversion. This is the mode of social media.
I am not implying, of course, that social media cannot support other modes of attention and activity, only that idle diversion is the natural mode of social media, the mode into which they fall by default, the mode in which they are most comfortable. I am also not implying that the mode of idle diversion is necessarily without value, because it is very good at accomplishing certain ends. What I am suggesting, however, is that this mode tends to produce a particular sort of discourse in the public sphere, just as textual and visual media do, and that the sort of public discourse produced by social media is not necessarily in the best interests of a healthy democracy.
The reason for this is that success in social media is not a matter of attracting active attention, as in textual media, and not a matter of attracting passive attention, as in visual media, but a matter of diverting idle attention. To put this practically, it is a matter of going viral, of getting more likes and more retweets and more comments and more hits. It is not necessary that we understand the political issues, not necessary that a candidate amuse us with witty talking points and distinguished good looks, only necessary that something divert us long enough to click it. Our engagement in public discourse becomes reduced from active engagement, to passive reception, to idle clicking that diverts us from something else and will almost instantly be replaced by another diversion in its turn.
This is not, as I said above, the only mode in which social media can function. It is possible to stimulate tremendous political action through social media, as history has shown already. Social media can reach massive numbers of people almost instantly, and can mobilize these people in powerful ways. However, even when it is successful in producing action, this action remains mostly uninformed. It is a viral action that mobilizes over a slogan or an event, something that can be summarized in a hundred and forty characters, something that we can post on our feeds and send to our lists, something that we can click, and it lacks the kind of sustained, reasoned, informed public discourse that is necessary to produce healthy political action. It is political action as a diversion from the other things we do, and we are as quickly diverted from it as we were to it. When something else hits our feeds, we are off in another direction altogether.
It is certainly possible to use social media against their natural mode, to conduct through them the kind of political discourse that a healthy democracy needs, to disseminate information through them, to hold government accountable through them, and I affirm anyone and everyone who uses them in these ways. The real problem is, however, that these social media produce us as much as they produce the discourse in which we engage, and they are increasingly producing a population which is incapable of any political action beyond following a feed and clicking a “Like” button, not merely because this seems natural, but because they have no experience of any other political discourse or any other political engagement. It is not only the public sphere that is being changed by our media, but we ourselves. We are becoming a culture that is capable only of idle diversion, and the implications of this impoverished ability to engage politically can only have a detrimental effect on the health of our democracy.