Saturday, November 4, 2023

Social Media = Mob Rule

When what you read and hear and see is based on a popular vote, you will see the lowest common denominator in terms of content.

Back in the 1960's, we had three television channels - ABC, NBC, and CBS.  Sure, you might get a fuzzy "UHF" station with "Public Broadcasting" on it, but that barely came in and they had yet to develop any quality programming.  Broadcasters had a limited amount of bandwidth (quite literally) to serve a nation of 200 million people.  So much of what was broadcast was, well, kind of stupid.

When television first became a "thing" the broadcasters tried a lot of highbrow stuff - broadcasting ballet, symphonies, Shakespeare - that kind of thing.  The only people watching were the wealthy few who could afford a television set - so they catered to that demographic.  Over the years, it dumbed-down as the audience became larger and more plebeian.  There were still things like The Philco Television Playhouse or Playhouse 90, which would present live drama to the audience.  But over time, those went away, and pre-recorded shows became the norm.

Game shows were initially highbrow - the $64,000 question, for example, was (nominally) touted as a test of intelligence and intellect (before it was revealed to be rigged).  What's My Line? featured celebrities not known (publicly) for their arrest records or drug abuse, but for their sophistication and erudition.  That was probably the last time a book publisher was considered a "celebrity."  Today?  We have "Family Feud" and "The Price is Right!" and "Let's make a deal!"   Even "celebrity" shows are brain-dead, with lame jokes and low-brow humor.  Match Game PM was no What's My Line?

By the 1960's, however, television was in every home, not just those of the wealthy.  Color television was becoming commonplace (although my Dad refused to buy a color TV until 1976!).  And television programming became more idiotic.  I suppose it started in the 1950's with shows like The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy, where the plot every week was pretty repetitive and forgettable.  What scheme will the boys come up with tonight?  And will Ricky ever let Lucy in his show?  Canned laughter sealed the deal, telling you what was funny and what was not.

By the mid-1960's, a nadir was reached.  We were treated to such intellectual fare as Gilligan's Island, or Hogan's Heroes.  Then there were the "country" shows such as Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies.  Cop shows - also having their roots in the 1950's, became popular, particularly in the 1970s until today.  The modern "crime drama" has instilled a sense of paranoia in the minds of most middle-class Americans, who, having witnessed thousands of horrific crimes on television, are convinced that they will be robbed, raped, or murdered, at any given instant.

Television is an example of how the mob rules - how the lowest common denominator must be catered to, particularly as they are consumers of wealth, not accumulators of it.  Thus, they are prime targets for advertisers, particularly of trivial things like fast-food meals, soda-pop, various forms of soaps and detergents, and of course, cars (and today, medicines).  You never see yachts advertised on television - wrong audience!

The Internet, at first, seemed like a respite from the onslaught on the brain that is television.  Sure, you can turn television off, but you will see it in every waiting room, bar, restaurant, and even on your gas pump.  The Internet, at first, was just tech geeks exchanging information, and for a while, at least, it was something interesting and useful.  AOL was probably the first harbinger of evil.  Facebook sealed the deal.  Twitter will write its epitaph.

Social media, as a whole, turned the Internet into television.  Most social media sites have some sort of mechanism to upvote and/or downvote postings or comments.  Whether it is an "upvote" or a "like" or whatever - in some instances, even a view counts as a vote - the end result is that what you see on a social media site is what the lowest common denominator decided they liked.  And what the hoi polloi likes is, well, dreck.

Take Reddit, for example.  I noted before that it seems most of the postings these days are AI-generated things along the lines of "My Sister-In-Law ruined my wedding!" or some other sort of white-trash trailer-park drama.  This is what people like, hence reality television.  But what is really interesting is that when someone asks a serious question, the first 25 responses are jokes and puns and referential humor.  You have to scroll way down the list to find a thoughtful and accurate and detailed response to the question - which shortly will be "downvoted to oblivion."

Other sites are not much better.  I recently sold some old golf cart tires and I (reluctantly) set up a facebook account to put them on "Facebook marketplace."  Oddly enough, I actually sold them on Craigslist before I even got one bite on Facebook.  I quickly closed my Facebook account, which required scrolling through a dozen screens, answering "YES" to "are you sure?" ten times and even then, the account won't disappear until December 1st!  They really want to get their hooks into you.

What was interesting, the brief time I was on there, was the nonsense they wanted to put in my "feed" - which was mostly two-bit drama and utter bullshit.  For some reason, Facebook thought I was black, or at least recommended that I "friend" no fewer than 60 black people, I think mostly from the Atlanta area.  I am not sure why this is, other than my "IP Address" being based on a WiFi hotspot, often shows that I am in Atlanta (a six-hour drive from here!) as - I am guessing - that is the home of the AT&T hub for the State of  Georgia.  It might also be that "Bob Bell" is a somewhat famous black name - the name of a football player as well as a car dealer.  I am not saying Facebook is racial profiling, but, yea, they are.

Other social media sites are getting a lot of flack because what the mob wants is not necessarily good.  Tick-Tock - the arm of the Chinese Communist Party - not only monitors what you do and say and where you go, but promotes the worst sort of behaviors.  "Prank videos" float to the top of that cesspool and some of them are not actually staged.  In other situations, horrible things happen to people (such as the assault of a Korean woman, recently) and no one bothers to help her, but rather they all get out their phones to record the incident - not for the police to use to catch the perpetrator, but for delicious, precious, imaginary Tick-Tock points.

Years ago, there was a story about a woman who was murdered in New York and the neighbors did nothing to help her.  Some revisionists have questioned the veracity of that account.  Maybe it didn't happen as they said it did.  But today?  We see daily these horrific things done to humanity and people standing around recording the mayhem, but doing nothing.  Maybe the bystander effect wasn't real in the 1950's, but today it is - only instead of doing nothing, bystanders record.

It is easy to bash the pranksters and recording bystanders as being the source of this evil, until you realize you watched the video five times and then commented on what an outrage it was (after all, you are a decent person, right?).   By clicking on these "rage-bait" videos and postings, you end up promoting them - adding to the thousands or even millions of "views" which in turn puts these postings and videos before a larger and larger audience.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

It is rare that a posting online is something beautiful, positive, life-affirming, or wholesome.  What we see is brutality and outrage because that is what the mob wants.  Bread and circuses - the slaughter of gladiators in the arena.  The Romans knew how to appease the mob.  So do Facebook, YouTube, Tick-Tock and Twitter.

We become addicted to this nonsense, too - whether we like it or not.  I do not have a Facebook account, nor a Tick-Tock channel, nor a Twitter "handle" - yet we all see and read about these things, as other media outlets link to or reproduce their content.  Journalists, in particular, latched onto Twitter as some sort of pulse of the nation.  For four long years, the "News" consisted of "You'll never guess what outrageous thing Donald Trump tweeted today!" and indeed, this still goes on today, as if the random comments of a deranged man had any real meaning or impact.

Newsweek - which used to be a magazine - is the worst at this.  "Former assistant to the Janitor at the Office were some Lawyer who knows a guy who used to represent Trump says that the Ex-Prez is going to jail tomorrow!"   It is almost comical how "Newsweek" now panders to Trump-haters with these horrible click-bait articles.  Again, you can blame Newsweek, but you have to blame the people who click on these articles, too - which includes you and I.

Sadly, most "mainstream" media has fallen down this rabbit-hole as well.  Even the staid New York Times and the formerly staid Washington Post, have resorted to click-bait titles and sensationalist articles.  And again, you can't blame them - no one reads real journalism anymore.  It's not interesting!  Too time-consuming!  The only real "investigative" pieces they do anymore are just slanted articles that start out, "It was cold that day as little Jimmy pedaled his way ten miles to school to give his book report..." - and ten pages later you find out he is a serial killer but "it was society's fault we failed him."

That sort of shit sells - Netflix is going to a new format of just "wrongfully convicted" docu-dramas, because people love to watch that shit.  I guess it started with Call Northside 777 and yea, some people are wrongfully convicted. On the other hand, producers seem to make it a game to get a guilty person released, as if to show their power.  Bernie killed someone, no matter how nice Jack Black made him out to be.

We're right back where we started, it seems, watching re-runs (metaphorically or literally) of Gilligan's Island on our smart phones.  This level of discourse is what we see, because it is what the mob wants to see.  People arguing, fighting, being horrible to one another.  Horrific events occur and the first thing people want to know is, did someone get a video of it?  Because if they did, they literally will get paid for their efforts, like a modern day Weegee.  And like that famous photographer, if they can't find some outrage to film, well, you can always stage or create one.

So what's the point?  I am not sure, other than sometimes it is better to read curated or moderated content.  Back in the day, newspapers catered to the mob mentality, to be sure.  But news organizations also felt a need to tell us things we should read or hear - even if we didn't like them.  Sites like Wikipedia, which indeed have their own issues, try to at least be informative and impartial, even as that pisses some people off.  But even that site is a function of mob rule - although by a different mob.

I recall trying to edit an entry about the summer camp I went to in the Adirondacks. I visited it during on trip a few summers ago and noticed that the lakefront property had been turned into private home sites.  The Wikipedia entry said that the camp had closed for "unknown reasons" and its fate was "unknown."  I tried to update the entry to note that it was now a housing development but was shot down and blocked from Wikipedia for a month because they felt the term "housing development" was "prejudicial."   OK, whatever!

So maybe there is no point.  Maybe we are doomed to engage with the lowest common denominator in our society - a level which appears to be dropping with each passing day.  I suppose one way is to not engage or at least limit engagement with social media.  But again, as I noted, so much of "mainstream media" is just barfing up the latest Tweet or Tick-Tock - and indeed, "mainstream media" gave up a long time ago and just resorted to click-bait to stay alive.  The local newspaper cannot afford to hire reporters, so they just have a kid read Twitter and report on the most click-worthy Tweets.

So maybe I am just ranting.  But I think we lost something along the way - and lost control of our own culture as a result.  We are riding this social media juggernaut all the way down, it seems.  Today, we are having serious discussions of not only whether Nazism is bad (an issue I thought was decided in 1945) but whether the world is flat (something I think was resolved by 1492 at the latest).

I mean, where are we going with this?