Sunday, November 8 2020

politics on the internet

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A Political Cartoon

I clicked our bedroom light off and climbed into bed. Even though it was well after midnight, Marissa and I would spend the next thirty minutes on our backs stabbing at our brightly lit phone screens in the darkness. The bedsheet stirred as she chuckled, then she rolled on her side, holding her phone screen out for me to see. It was a comic of the statue of liberty aiming a cartoonishly evil Donald Trump at the sky, using a surgical mask as a slingshot.

"I like that," I said smiling. "Nice."

"I think I'm going to add it to my story," said Marissa. But by the time she had rolled back to her side, I was already asleep - probably snoring.

Marissa's Instagram account hovers around 110 thousand followers, and if the people that follow her fluid art account resemble the general population of America, it would stand to reason that a little less than half of those 110 thousand people would find the political comic offensive. The next morning, while we were sitting at the table cutting into a hot Sunday morning brunch, Marissa once again held out her phone. This time, she was showing me a conversation over DM.

"I got some angry replies for that comic," she said. "Look at this person." She adjusted her posture in her chair and began to read the comment aloud.

"'You should ask Siri who the president of the United States is'- and then she unfollowed me," said Marissa smiling.

I chortled through a sip of coffee. "There's a lot to unpack there," I smirked. "Clearly she meant it as some kind of burn, as if you weren't aware that Biden's term doesn't begin until January, not to mention treating Siri like some kind of all knowing mediator."

We were laughing, but I could tell something about the subject was weighing on Marissa. It followed her around the house like her own personal rain cloud. I broached the subject again, this time more earnestly. Laying out all her possible motivations on a figurative table for scrutiny, we tried to answer this question: Why did you feel the need to post that?

Marissa had the right to share her opinion, even if it garnered back lash. Her post wasn't vulgar. It wasn't a cheap shot. It was undeniably clever. But what did it accomplish? Did it sway anyone? Did it inform anyone of anything? Was it worth doing in the first place?

Before the Internet

In hopes of deconstructing Marissa's true motive, I tried to imagine the situation without the Internet. "If Facebook and the Internet didn't exist, if this conversation happened twenty-five years ago, then would it have been a polite interaction?"

Marissa wrinkled her nose and laughed. "Where did people even go to do that kind of thing?" she asked. "I never did that kind of thing, I just avoided talking politics with people in person."

Marissa's question reminded me of Todd, a good friend of mine in grade school. Todd invited me over to his house for dinner. There were cloth napkins and shiny silverware set out on the table. His mother and father sat at the head chairs. Reading the room, I perceived that their family took etiquette seriously, and so I kept my elbows off the table and remained sharp with my please's and thank you's. After cleaning our plates, we stayed at the table a little longer to indulge in small talk with dessert.

"Can I tell a joke?" said Todd. We listened silently while Todd recited his joke from memory."

A man dies and finds himself in Heaven. St. Peter greets him and takes him through the pearly gates. To the man's surprise, St. Peter opens a door and leads the man into a room full of clocks. There were clocks all over the ceiling and walls of the big vaulting room. "What are all these clocks for?" asks the man. St. Peter replies, "each person on earth has a clock of their own. And whenever they tell a lie, the clock ticks one second." The man stared around the big room in wonder. "Every person?" he asked. "Babe Ruth?" St. Peter pointing to a clock near the floor on the opposite wall. "That one right there is Babe Ruth's clock." The man clapped his hands with glee. "How about Abraham Lincoln?" asked the man. St. Peter pointed to another clock. "He was an honest man," said St. Peter. "Barely moved his whole time on Earth. In fact, all of America's Presidents are on that wall." The man studied the neat row of clocks, and noticed that one of them was missing from the sequence. "Whose clock used to be there?" asked the man. St. Peter pointed behind him. "That's where Bill Clinton's clock used to be, but we moved it to the rec room. It's hot in there, and his clock helps circulate the air."

After Todd had finished his perfect recitation, his father cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably. He painted over his son's faux pas with some nervous laughter.

Todd's joke lives in my memory almost twenty-two years later. Not only is it clever, but it serves as a good analytic sample for what discussing politics felt like before the Internet. Todd's joke is wordy and polite because it had to be. The set-up was long, and by the time he reached the punch line, we had to sit with the uncomfortable silence. A Mexican stand-off of dinner table etiquette where we each silently deliberated whether or not to reward the performance with a laugh.

But how would his joke land on Facebook? It's just too wordy I think. Most people would see a wall of dry text and scroll right past it. On Facebook, politeness is drudgery, and a good viral post leverages the fact that there's no dinner table decorum to preserve.

Perhaps I'm just jaded, but I can't imagine a single place on the Internet where constructive, open-minded political discussion is taking place. And if such a place did exist, it sure as hell isn't anywhere near Facebook. Facebook is not a forum for real discussion. It's an unruly mob huddled around a fist fight in the parking lot. It's a sea of disembodied eyeballs scouring the Internet for contrived situational poetic justice. People don't use Facebook because they want to learn. We just want to see the people we don't like get exposed, embarrassed, and - in the parlance of the Internet - get owned. Could this be why we bother talking politics on Facebook? Are we just bullies in search of people to bully?

Building a Brand

"You don't think I was virtue signaling," asked Marissa. Her face wrung with pain, like she was disclosing an embarrassing medical issue.

To me, the term virtual signaling perfectly captures everything that feels wrong about social networking on the Internet. One night, following the term into a Wikipedia rabbit hole, I discovered that it was coined around the same time as the Ice Bucket challenge.

"Do you remember the ice bucket challenge?" I asked Marissa.

"Oh yeah," she laughed. "Of course. That was when you posted a video dumping water on yourself, and then you got to challenge your friends to do the same. I don't remember what it was for."

Nobody remembers the point of the Ice Bucket challenge. Even though it was started by a charity collecting donations for ALS research, most people who participated in the fad didn't donate to the actual cause. It was just a virtue signal.

Sometimes I wonder if political content makes it way to places like Facebook by way of its users' pervasive need to curate an online identity. Social networks have a way of grooming us into dutifully tending to glamorous, ultra-pasteurized products distilled from our uneventful watered-down lives. We feel a constant bombarding pressure to craft pithy observations for our twitter, stage beautiful meals for our Instagram, and drop razor sharp, scathing truth bombs for Facebook.

A Legacy in Data

"I don't think you were virtue-signaling," I said, consoling Marissa. "You're not a shallow person, and the fact that you're still thinking about this after the fact makes me sure of it. Maybe you're just thinking about your legacy."

Nothing on the Internet is ever truly deleted. Even if you delete your Facebook post out of regret, you can't delete people's screenshots of your post. You can't stop people from copying your post and sharing it elsewhere. You can't even trust Facebook to actually delete it. In software, the jargon term soft delete describes a process in which you delete something from the visible user interface while leaving it completely in tact behind the scenes. The truth is once something is shared on the Internet, it lives forever.

And where data lives forever, we have to grapple with the uncomfortable truth that it will inevitably be studied forever. Historians a hundred years from now might very well used archived records from Facebook and Twitter to better understand how our history unfolded, and there's no reason why they wouldn't have access to a swelling wealth of data.

Being raised on the Internet, young people understand this better than most, and not all of our actions are driven by a need to curate an artificially glamorous version of our mundane lives. Some of our actions are driven by wanting to be on the right side of history.

"I guess I wanted to 'get on the board'," said Marissa. "Like when our kids, and our grandparents read about us, I want them to know what we believed in. I want them to know I was bold and courageous."

"I know what you mean," I said. "Sometimes while writing a journal, I feel the need to verbally interact with something big going on, like the election. And it feels kind of inorganic, and I wonder if I'm bringing it up for the wrong reasons. But I also want to keep a complete record. A vivid record."

Marissa, being a curator of both herself and the paintings she makes, has a choice to make. She can keep her cards close to the chest, veering clear of politics and personal convictions. She can choose to decouple her personality from her product. She can hide behind her gentle smile and her innate Minnesota born niceness, carefully making herself appealing to people of all political inclinations.

"It's your choice," I said. "You can avoid talking about it, and sell more paintings to more types of people - and that would be fine. Or you can share what you believe and sacrifice your wider appeal - that's admirable too."

Motivations are Complicated

The truth is that there are many reasons to post something on the Internet. We can be motivated by a depraved need see someone lose their composure. We can be moved by pressure to put our best foot forward and appear intelligent and cunning for Internet admirers. But we can also be moved by a desire to be vulnerable, authentic, and remembered for who we actually were.

People's motivations aren't discrete. We're motivated by different things all at once, and often we act before we get a chance to sort through the mess. Sometimes the best we can do is examine our actions after the fact, and if there are still lingering doubts, just try to do better next time.