Last month, NPR pulled a pretty masterful April Fools’ prank. They published an article titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” and put it on Facebook. The response was instantaneous. The likes and the comments came pouring in.
The joke was this: Nobody actually read the article they were so eager to endorse. Because if they had they would have seen that it was in fact criticism of how often people pass links along — or worse — comment online about articles without actually reading them. In fact the article was only a few sentences long and said exactly this. But people were too busy sharing it to notice.
In our polarized, outrage-driven society, we’ve become very accustomed to responding to online cues like headlines — we don’t need to even need to see the content of the piece to get going.
The punchline of that April Fool’s joke happens for real everyday. As Ricky Van Veen pointed out in an excellent TED talk, online content producers know to target issues and topics that go to their readers’ identity. This is the Buzzfeed and Upworthy model—it’s not about the content they create that matters (much of which is cribbed from other sites) but the emotion that content evokes.
It’s about producing the reaction—the like, the comment, the stumble, the tweet.
After several years of this at hyperspeed, we, the audience, have internalized these prompts like dogs in a laboratory. We’ve replaced emotions and feelings with micro-actions. We’ve traded important parts of our real life for Second Life.
And now, tweeting feels the same as reading. Commenting feels the same as understanding. Signing a petition feels like making a difference. Liking feels taking a stand. Our reactions are symbolic and themselves often reactions to symbols. It’s unreality.
What this does to culture and society in the long term, I’m not sure. In the short term, it makes us vulnerable to fakery, to manipulation and to pandering. I would argue that this transfers over to our personal lives, as well. These meaningless social network gestures have become a currency in our friendships, in our relationships.
We have come to embody the media outlets we accuse of manipulation. We know which themes will get the biggest response from our “friends.” I mean, Betabeat wrote an article this week about an app that helps you photoshop your selfies! We select and filter the reality we reveal on social media so we can rack up the same karma we casually throw to other people so they think we care.
I used to think that telling someone “you are in our prayers” was pretty much the least anyone could do (as in literally the smallest conceivable effort there is). Especially when you hear it casually from a non-religious person, which means um, that in your time of need they were willing to dedicate a thought to you. Thanks, you’re a great friend!
Now, something happens and we’ll sprinkle some social media karma. Oh, your mother is recovering from her illness? I could drop by and help or ask if you need anything, but I’d rather just throw some “likes” your way. Steve got engaged? I guess it’s time for a “Congrats” comment. You’re having a party? I’ll RSVP because that’s nice (and public) but showing up is something else entirely.
But when we post and don’t get enough likes in return, we’re hurt. Why didn’t anyone heart my photo? It only takes two seconds! Then why does it mean anything to us?
Malcolm Gladwell sparked some controversy a few years ago when he argued that social media activism relied on weak ties between individuals. He compared this to something like the Civil Rights Movement, an organized campaign that relied on strong ties between churches, leaders, and groups.
This is what social media and online news have made easier. Weak ties. And the easier it becomes to build weak ties, the harder strong ties feel. Because it takes real work, in real life.
The real work is what we are becoming more and more alienated from when we are able to broadcast our identity online with a simple click. As the NPR prank proved, our social media system has trained us to signal to other people how we want to be seen–even if in reality we are the very opposite of that illusion.
The most troubling problem with this is there’s no action behind any of it. Our eyes light up, we click, we feel the dopamine rush, and then it’s on to the next one. Maybe the next time we’re pulling the trigger to share or like, we should ask ourselves, “Why?” I think we’ll find that we’ll be sharing less.
Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the recent book The Obstacle is the Way.