Way back in 1961, Newton Minow, then chairman of the FCC, gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he said, in part, “When television is good, nothing – not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers – nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse.” He invited attendees to spend an entire day – undistracted by a book, newspaper or magazine – watching TV. “I can assure you,” Minow concluded, “that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”
Minow is 95 years old now. What, I wonder, does he think people who spend an entire day on social media observe?
Like most of us, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time online since the COVID-19 quarantine began. That time has reinforced an opinion I formed more than 25 years ago: Social media makes Minow’s “vast wasteland” look like a verdant forest. It’s the unabridged dictionary of half-truths, boldfaced lies, conspiracy theories, contentiousness and vitriol. Almost no one, it seems, can resist being a moron on social media. Opinions are fine: YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary). And healthy discussion is good. But discussion fell ill maybe 20 years ago and went to an early grave.
Here’s modern discourse, in a nutshell: You have an opinion? So do I. And yours is crap! See for yourself. Visit any online platform meant to be a gathering place where people of like interests might have questions answered. There are forums for almost any interest: sports, music, quilting, photography, auto repair, collecting of almost any item. Pick one on them; scroll through the topics. My bet is you won’t make it through more than a few minutes of reading without seeing a fight start or, more likely, a brouhaha already in progress that spills over 10 or more pages of contrary opinions and downright nastiness. For example, as I said in a recent column, I’ve become interested in model railroading after a hiatus of about 60 years. Seeking to get up to speed, I joined several model railroading Facebook groups. It didn’t take long for the first argument to turn up. The initial one I found was about how best to lubricate an old locomotive engine. Several variants were offered. Each, someone quickly said, was wrong, and that anyone who used it was addlepated or worse. “WD-40? God, you’re dumb!”
Last week a poor soul posted a picture of a model train transformer’s power cord plug that appeared to have only one rusted blade, and asked, “How can I clean this?” Within 10 answers, he was berated for not knowing that the plug should have two blades and for failing to see that the cord was frayed and disintegrating. Among the solutions offered to his question: sandpaper; an emery board; a Dremel tool; send the transformer to a repair shop; throw the transformer away and buy a new one. Users soon began to berate each other, with one accusing another of not caring if the original poster’s house burned down and killed his entire family. Then things turned ugly.
Yes, social media is anything but social. I can see how the fledgling United States could have gone off the rails by 1778 if Facebook, Twitter and online forums had been around to allow anyone to offer an opinion on a subject.“States? We’re commonwealths! Did John Adams come up with this idiotic term?”
“You guys with those stupid wigs back in Philadelphia can’t tell us what to do out here on the frontier in Ohio! You probably wear silk drawers under your britches, too!”
“Spectacles? What in the name of the Almighty have you been drinking, Franklin? If God had intended us to see clearly all our lives, he would have given us perfect vision that never changes! I’d rather be half blind and chop off a finger whilst making dinner than allow your satanic lenses to rest on my nose! Traitor!”
“You call that a declaration of independence, Jefferson? Have a look at mine: Twitter won’t let me post more than 280 characters at a time. Here goes: 1/6 #TYRANT #TAXATIONWITHOUTREPRESENTATION Hey, George! That’s right, George! We’re starting our own country, Mr. Fancy Pants! #NOTMYKING”.