The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 17
Your Hannah Arendt quote, and the piece as a whole, reminds me of a passage by Andrea Dworkin that I think of often. It's from a short piece called "Nervous Interview" that was published in 1978 where she is conducting an interview with herself. The passage is as follows.
Q: If the personal is political, as feminists say, why aren't you more willing to talk about your personal life?
A: because a personal life can only be had in privacy. Once strangers intrude into it, it isn't personal anymore. It takes on the quality of public drama. People follow as if they are watching a play. You are the product, they are the consumers. Every single friendship and event takes on a quality of display. You have to think about the consequences not just of your acts vis-a-vis other individuals but in terms of media, millions of strange observers. I find it very ugly...And if one has to be always aware of public consequences of private acts, it's very hard to be either spontaneous or honest with other people.
A private sphere is not necessarily a secret one. It's not done out of bashfulness or shame. In the age of social media, I think it's a requirement, for most at least, to have a sense of self outside of a mediated projection.
I must admit, I’m still conflicted about the presumed demise of Twitter. I saw someone characterize it at its best as a kind of cocktail party where they could have all kinds of exchanges with their friends and acquaintances. I’ve never posted all that much, but for me, the value has been the privilege of standing off to the side and listening to all of those conversations among some fascinating prone (yourself included). I doubt I would have stumbled across much of what I read these days were it not for Twitter existing the way it did. I wonder if I’ll have such a window into these circles again once the party ends.
Also loved the Auden stories. Though not exactly the same, a kind of disciplina arcani nevertheless.
I like the image of an Antiviral, however that metaphor does not catch one important aspect: The private good deed was not transformed into Content. Content gets put into a container and then gets handled by the system. Whatever the content was before, now it serves only/chiefly the extrinsical purposes of the social media "shipping industry". This deteriorates the value for the intrinsic purposes of whatever it was, befor being turned into Content.
I love this blog, and I'd be overjoyed if you could kick the Twitter habit - if only because you'd have more time to write! But also, for those of us not on "social" media, it's been disheartening to see some of its most perceptive critics still so dependent on it. Even if I can understand the rational reasons for the "devil's bargain", and the psychological dependency.
I've never been on Twitter, but I used Facebook from 2008-18 and spent half that time trying to get off. I used it mainly because I live abroad and it was the only way to keep old and cherished friends as a regular part of my life. Also, on the cynical side, professional networking - I'm a writer. But at some point, it just seemed like too much of a perversion of friendships and contacts and human communication. I haven't missed it, not even (actually: especially not!) in lockdown when I had few contacts.
There are only 24 hours in my day, and even sans "social" media I don't have any trouble filling them with work, conversations and reading material - not to mention hiking, having a beer with friends, etc.. Professionally I may have paid a small price, but to be honest, the amount of time, effort and grief that FB cost me was completely out of proportion to any networking advantages.
I actually had a good circle of FB friends, intellectual/lefty/politically engaged, no crazies, and some good discussions - but none I couldn't have had more enjoyably some other way. What far outweighed the good conversations was the chilling effect of the emotionalizing and polarizing algorithms that too often turn people into caricatures, and gave me a lot of hang-ups about real-life friends and acquaintances. FB does its best to sort everyone into fictional factions. I found out way too much about my friends' opinions, or their (apparent) vehemence and implacability. The result was that, when I see them in real life, there are a lot of subjects that are hard to broach, a lot of inhibitions and talking past each other. There's been a drifting apart, partly because of the lockdowns, but also, I think, because of the intensified "social" media dynamic during lockdown that made people spiral off even deeper into their respective worlds. I suspect the "social" media blight far more connections than they foster.
I have to say, I feel helpless, standing outside the "social" media maelstrom, because wherever I stand, the entire contemporary discourse still revolves around it. I understand why people who work with words are so addicted to Twitter - but that has huge consequences, because they are ultimately the "Multiplikatoren" (as the Germans say) who spread ideas to other media. And they "normalize" the notion that we somehow have no viable alternative mode of discourse. So it's now virtually impossible to find media or other forums that are not driven by "social" media dynamics.
But why is it so hard to imagine a world without Twitter/Facebook/etc. - when historically speaking they've been around for just a fraction of a second? We urgently need other, freer spaces for our discourse, and who better to build them than people like you?
Ok, I will get off my soapbox now, thanks for bearing with me! :-)
I think it's worth investigating the feeling that telling someone somehow corrupts the goodness of the deed. That feeling is pervasive and understandable. People are always so quick to shout, "They only did it for the accolades!" Perhaps that's true in a lot of cases, but no one knows the mental state of the person doing the deed.
I think we hear that criticism so often, though, that we internalize the (in my opinion, very cynical) belief that anyone who is publicly acknowledged as charitable is only charitable *because* it is publicly acknowledged. That belief, in turn, makes us feel guilty for wanting to tell our friends about something nice we did, and it's actually that guilt that corrupts the goodness of the deed, rather than impurity in our motives. Your friend didn't do it for acknowledgement, and he knows that, and telling his friends doesn't change that. He should feel no guilt, whatsoever, about his motives.
Obviously there are cases where the goodness is indeed tied to discretion, but a lot of the time it isn't, and it always bothers me when people who do good things and should feel nothing but good about themselves instead feel some sort of moral conflict because other people are cynical.
2 thoughts. As a good man once said “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”. Being self consciously and publicly “virtuous”, or even just kind, almost entirely vitiates the real psychological benefit of performing truly anonymous ie selfless good deeds. The Psychology of Happiness (sorry forget author) recommended doing one genuinely unrequited/unrecognised good deed every day. And if you’ve noticed yourself doing it, or patted yourself on the back for doing so, the benefit is thereby decreased.
Second thought - I’ve always been an advocate against avatars and anonymity on social media. While I understand the arguments for anonymity, I believe it really undermines the “social” in social media - in fact makes it thoroughly anti-social. Our interactions are already tenuous enough in digital reality, disconnected in time, space and simple physicality, without anonymity. But imagine if my contributions were all positive - kind, empathic, constructive - would they perhaps be even better if anonymous.
Loved the stories about Auden!
Though the beauty of this polemic and its syntax are not lost on me, I'm here because my friend found and messaged me on Facebook (even though we met originally at school). And he was talking to me about ideas in YouTube videos we had watched (asynchronously due to algorithms).
Was there ever really a time where progress wasn't just a two steps forward with one back affair, with romantic notions (of the sad or exalted variety) coming from the souls of folks at some point pursuant?
Great post as usual! I will call out that the only reason I know about this newsletter and Michael's writings is Twitter. So, for all the junk that comes with humans accessing each other's minds at global scale, at least something good came out of it.
I do want to quibble with one item: While I appreciate the sentiment of Mr. Bogost (and even agree to an extent), it's unsettling when someone with an almost-guaranteed, institutional audience claims that the solution to our problems with social media and the internet is "the public gets to talk too and they shouldn't be able to do that as much". You first, Mr. Bogost.
Sounds a bit too much like the Catholic church complaining about the printing press, doesn't it? Too patronizing for my tastes.
That's wonderful. I've never done Twitter. I do Facebook, but realize that it is only really good for keeping people updated on things. I too feel this pull to post. I'm glad to resist and to have a private life again, like the one I had before FB. Do you remember a year or two ago, when fB was down for six or eight hours? I remember feeling a sort of happiness in the immediate moment, an old feeling that I had forgotten - with no burden to share, I could just be.
Thank you so much for this post, Michael. I am living as a faculty-in-residence with college students and involved in a program that is designed to help students engage deeply with questions of vocation, meaning, and purpose. My task in a couple of weeks is to lead a discussion about "vocational crises" and this piece will be perfect for me to ask students to engage in preparation for that discussion. Just letting you know where your writing is traveling, quietly and invisibly, and offering gratitude for your leadership in helping us to think carefully about the ways we are diminishing the world we have inherited.
Slightly off topic, but I wanted share this:
Dr Ian McGilchrist addressing the recent World AI Conference in Amsterdam. Also excellent. More angry and emotional than I’ve ever seen him. And rightly so.
Re: bringing light to good deeds, this is what has bothered me about sites like GoFundMe. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad there are platforms to help people in need (although it pains me when strangers will provide more to someone in need than the local church....no, I'm not still salty about this three years later, why do you ask?), but while I can understand the donor knowing who donates to them, why do donors need to know other people donating? Let alone be encouraged to share it with your "followers" what you've done? True, I'm coming at this from a Christian perspective, but it has bothered me for a while.
That being said, I have to ask: now that your newsletter is more established, what benefit do you find from sites like Twitter that you couldn't, in essence, get from here as well? I will say the addition of the "chat" feature was interesting, until I saw it required installing an app. On a smartphone.