The March Of Trivialization

Historians used to write and talk about the “march of civilization.” You can find books by that name on Amazon, and learned quotes that use that phrase on any search engine. The underlying notion was that the story of humankind was a continuous upward journey from barbarism to the glories of the modern world. And the implication was that the march would inevitably continue to ever greater heights of achievement and refinement.

I don’t think the “march of civilization” concept holds true anymore. The idea presupposes that human beings will continue to work hard and focus on bringing on the better world with its greater accomplishments and magnificence, and these days it seems like we are a lot more interested in being distracted than in knuckling down. You might say that we are in the midst of a “march of trivialization” instead.

Consider what happens when you go to the Google app on your phone to look for something. Before you can type in a word you’ll see snippets of a series of curious stories, like the ones shown on the screen shot at the top of this post, that are designed to pique your interest, get a click, and divert you from what you were going to do in the first place. And the stories that are featured are breathtakingly banal and ultimately pointless, like the story above about the “viral video” of a woman stepping out of an Amazon truck and how people you don’t know on social media have responded to it. Typically there are multiple stories about social media videos or feigned outrages, photos of celebrities and members of the British royal family, sports world “reactions” to a play or announcement, and speculation about when a fourth (or fifth, or sixth) “stimulus” payment might be made. If you went solely by the stories on the Google front page and tried to draw inferences from them, you probably would conclude that we live in a world where there are no real, significant problems that constitute news, which is why TikTok videos and celebrity fashion dominate.

Of course, that inference would not be correct. There are lots of actual problems out there that could be the subject of the Google front page stories–but they aren’t. Why do you suppose that is the case? Is it because Google once tried to feature actual news and saw that it garnered far fewer clicks than the junk stories, or that Google figured at the outset that people typically use Google for trivial purposes–like trying to find the actual name of the character called “the Professor” on Gilligan’s Island–and therefore would prefer the amazingly inconsequential fare that we see today?

Whatever the reason, the march of trivialization continues, distractions ever multiply, and the insignificant crowds out the significant. Social media has replaced religion as the so-called “opiate of the masses,” and is keeping people from paying attention to what actually counts. It’s a weird and troubling feature of modern life.

Faceboss

I don’t really spend much time on Facebook. I post blog entries to my Facebook page, take a look at what’s on my page when I’m doing that, and try to pay attention to birthdays. But that’s about it.

But boy—do I ever get a lot of notices on Facebook. And a lot of those notices seem, well . . . pretty darned bossy. Facebook will tell me that it’s been x number of days since I’ve been to the page for a Facebook group I belong to. Facebook will call up old photos from years ago to say it was the most popular post of 2015, and ask if I want to post it again. Facebook will try to prod me to do x, y, or z using various Facebook tools. And sometimes, when one of my Facebook friends adds to their Facebook “story,” Facebook will notify me of that and explain that I can either respond or react to the new “story” post. No duh! It’s as if Facebook thinks I’ve got the mental abilities and savvy of a four-year-old and constantly need reminders and explanations to navigate through the Facebook World.

Of course, Facebook wants to encourage people to be on Facebook as much as possible—that’s how it makes money. And Facebook is also trying to monitor and curate the contents of its pages. But in our overly politicized world, where social media is a kind of public forum like the town square of days gone by, we need to be mindful of Facebook’s paternalism and somewhat overbearing attitude. As we move closer to the next set of elections, we’ll have to pay attention to how Facebook, and other social media sites, regulate their content, react to the simple expression of political views at all points on the vast American political spectrum, and instruct us about what they’ve done, and why.

I may need to be reminded to visit a group page I’ve neglected, but I don’t need to be told how, or what, to think. I’d like to believe I’m perfectly capable of sifting through the simple, unadorned political views expressed on social media and deciding for myself.

First Amendment Lessons

The Supreme Court issued an interesting First Amendment decision yesterday that is worthy of note on multiple levels–both for the important lessons it teaches about our modern social media society, and also for what it says about the boundaries of what public officials and school administrators can and cannot do, under the First Amendment, when somebody says something that they really don’t like. You can read the Supreme Court opinion here.

The facts are straightforward. A high school freshman tried out for the school cheerleading squad. She didn’t make varsity, but was offered a spot on the junior varsity. She was disappointed and angry about the decision, particularly since another freshman made the varsity squad and–like so many teenagers (and adults) these days–she took to social media to vent her apparently considerable frustrations. She took a picture, at a location off school grounds, that showed her and a friend with middle fingers raised and a caption with the Queen Mother Of Curses used in connection with the school and the cheer squad, and sent it to her 250 Snapchat “friends”–which included some other students who were members of the cheer squad. They took pictures to preserve the Snapchat post, which then was shared with other students, the cheerleading coach, and eventually the school administration.

And there’s the lesson in today’s social media-saturated world: don’t post or share something that you wouldn’t want to be circulated to everyone in town or printed on the front page of the newspaper. If our kids were still in school, I’d have them read this decision about an ill-advised social media effort that had immediate consequences and eventually ended up in the United States Supreme Court, and suggest that they think about the disappointed cheer squad applicant the next time they wanted to send an edgy, racy, or profanity-laced tweet, Snapchat, or other social media posting. And adults, including me, would benefit by reading it, too, as a useful reminder about how intemperate language launched in the heat of the moment can have lasting, and unwanted, ramifications.

In this case, the student apologized for the vulgar photo and crude language, but the school administration found that she had violated team and school rules by using a profanity in connection with a school extracurricular activity, and she was suspended from the cheer squad for a year. The student and her parents sued, claiming that the school’s disciplinary action violated the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that it did.

The Court’s decision is not a license for students to flash the middle finger at teachers during class or cuss out the assistant principal in the school hallways. The Court noted that while students aren’t stripped of their First Amendment rights when they go to school, reasonable adjustments to freedom of expression must be recognized to accommodate the special school environment. A key fact in this case was that the photo was taken off school grounds, but even that fact is not dispositive; the Court recognized that, in certain circumstances, schools can still properly regulate speech and conduct off-campus–such as in dealing with bullying or responding to physical threats against teachers. On the other hand, certain kinds of speech, such as the expression of religious and political views, will merit special protection against disciplinary action. And, because circumstances can change, the Court declined to articulate a broad rule about which off-campus speech and conduct scenarios can be regulated by schools, and which cannot. Those contours will have to be established by later cases and their specific factual circumstances.

Interestingly, the Court also cautioned school districts about understanding their role in making sure that students–and school administrators themselves–truly understand what the First Amendment is all about. The majority opinion states, in language that those of us who believe strongly in the value of free speech will applaud:

“Our representative democracy only works if we protect the “marketplace of ideas.” This
free exchange facilitates an informed public opinion, which, when transmitted to lawmakers, helps produce laws that reflect the People’s will. That protection must include the protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need for protection. Thus, schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

In applying these concepts to the would-be cheerleader’s Snapchat post, the Justices concluded that, vulgarity aside, the student was simply criticizing the school and the cheer squad coaches–and protecting our ability to criticize our public officials is one of the core purposes of the First Amendment. She spoke off-campus, used a private communications mechanism, and didn’t target the school or any teachers or coaches by name, all factors that weighed in favor of First Amendment protection. Her right to criticize outweighed the school’s professed interests in promoting good manners among its students, in avoiding potential significant disruption of school activities (the Court noted there was no evidence of disruption caused by the Snapchat), and in protecting the morale of the cheer squad members.

The Court concluded: “It might be tempting to dismiss [the student’s] words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.” Those are thoughts that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I hope that others–from public officials to the people who are readily offended by opinions they don’t agree with–also take that lesson to heart.

But what of the student whose ill-considered Snapchat started this kerfuffle and produced the Supreme Court’s ringing reaffirmance of the importance of the First Amendment? I bet, deep down, she wishes she had never sent that stupid, angry Snapchat in the first place.

Upper Arm Display

The combination of COVID-19 vaccination sweeping the nation and social media being a primary form of communication in modern America has produced an unusual situation. We’re seeing a lot more of people’s bared upper arms these days–either displaying the Band-Aid signifying that they’ve got their shot or actually getting stuck by a needle.

This is unusual because the upper arm is a part of the body that normally is blissfully covered by clothing. In pre-COVID times, it would be rare indeed to encounter a friend and have them expose their upper arm in greeting you. There’s a reason for this. Unless you’re a bodybuilder who is working on getting ready for next year’s Arnold Classic, you’re not really paying much attention to that triceps area.

Oh, you may have noticed, with a sad realization of the regrettable realities of aging, that as you’ve gotten older that upper arm area has become saggy, with a flap of loose skin and jelly-like flab that hangs down and sways in the breeze when you hold your arm out. But you thought that, in the priority list of body parts that demand attention in your personal fitness regimen, the upper arms fall well below, say, the waistline, because they are simply not as visible and obvious to the casual observer. That is, they weren’t as visible and obvious until posting vaccination photos suddenly became de rigueur.

We weren’t prepared for this new reality, which is just another way in which COVID-19 has upset our well-ordered, pre-pandemic world. And now I wonder: will the increased visibility of the upper arm cause a surge in people hitting the gym and performing push-ups or other exercises designed specifically to tone those triceps areas, to make for more attractive vaccination photos when the COVID booster shots inevitably hit the market in the future?

In the meantime, we can all be grateful that vaccination shots are given in the upper arm, and not in the belly.

Vacci Nation

In the history of modern medicine, there probably have never been as many people talking about vaccination, or as many news stories about vaccination plans, or as many charts and updates on the number of vaccinations, as is happening in America right now. When I was a kid and regularly went to our family doctor to get the next vaccination on my personal vaccination card, for example, I don’t remember there being much talk about it. You needed to get vaccinated, you went to the doctor and got your shot, and that was all there is to it.

But that’s not the way things work in the world these days. Between the extraodinary impact that the coronavirus has had on the world, and the hope that the vaccine will not only protect against the vaccinated individual getting COVID, but also finally move us to achieving “herd immunity” and getting back to normal — whatever that might be right now — people can’t help but talk about vaccination. And, thanks to social media, we’re being treated to lots of pictures of masked people getting their shots in real time or proudly displaying their upper arm punctures. The social media frenzy is so great that some people are actually posting “selfies” of their COVID-19 vaccination cards — leading the Federal Trade Commission to warn people that doing that isn’t a very good idea, because fraudsters could take the information from the cards and use it to achieve identity theft.

I had a virtual happy hour with some friends from the firm on Friday, where the conversation is typically limited to office chatter, sports, bad attempts at humor, and general bitching about the world. But on Friday, vaccination crept into the conversation, too. It’s safe to say that it is the first time this group has ever talked seriously about vaccination. What’s next on the agenda — the importance of dietary fiber?

It’s understandable that people are talking about the vaccine, and when they will be getting their shots. But for me, we’ll know that we’ve really returned to normal when people have stopped talking or posting selfies about getting vaccinated — or COVID-19, period.

Comic Relief

In the midst of a cold, dreary winter and a continuing pandemic and quasi-lockdown, I really enjoy a good laugh now and then. So lately I’ve been trying to use Facebook to join groups where the posts are likely to give me a smile.

My two favorite comic strips, ever, are The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes. That opinion apparently is shared by many people out there in social media land, because there are lots of Facebook groups just for fans of those classics from days gone by, where the participants can post favorite selections from those legendary strips. By joining the groups, I now get a regular feed of Gary Larson’s takes on cows and dogs and insects and scientists, and Bill Watterson’s treatment of Calvin’s Mom and Dad and disgusted friend Suzy again. And a recent post made me remember how much I enjoyed the Calvin snowmen strips like the one above — which seems apt, right now, with those of us in Columbus being in the middle of a frigid, snowy period.

Social media obviously has some pluses, and just as obviously has a lot of minuses, too. I figure it makes sense to reorient and exert some personal control and direction over the whole Facebook experience, mix some humor in with the politics and the ads, and try to put the social media world to better use.

The Social Media Echo Chamber

I honestly think we may be living through the weirdest period I’ve experienced in my lifetime.  I think the jumpy, panicky reaction many people seem to be having to the coronavirus — a jumpy, panicky reaction that has now extended for multiple days — is pretty much unprecedented.

We’re in a curious, alternative universe-type world where people react to news about a virus by going out and binge-buying toilet paper and multiple other items that have nothing to do with the medical condition at issue.  Even in a city like Columbus, where there have been no reported, confirmed cases of COVID-19, people have overreacted in ways that just aren’t rational.  Why is this so?  In the past we’ve live through medical scares, stock market plummets, and even terrorist attacks where people behaved more responsibly.  Why is the Great Coronavirus Crisis of 2020 so different?

I find myself wondering if social media plays a role.  Could social media be acting like a colossal echo chamber, taking individual concerns and amplifying them in ways that have contributed to the panicky reactions?  If people see posts from their friends on things like empty grocery store shelves in the toilet paper aisle, does that cause them to think that maybe they need to go out in a fruitless search for toilet paper, working themselves into a kind of frenzy even though they’ve got an ample supply on hand for the foreseeable future?  Are the standard bits of misinformation that frequently finds their way onto social media sites, where they are passed off as relevant, contributing to the jittery atmosphere?

It’s all very weird, and makes me wonder how people would respond to more significant issues.  We’re still figuring out coronavirus, to be sure, but if you go outside you will see people driving their cars, sweeping their sidewalks, doing their jobs, and going to restaurants and bars.  The NCAA Tournament and the Masters may have been cancelled, but for the vast majority of us life goes on — if we’d just peek out of the foxhole and recognize that.

I’m hoping that, over the weekend, people take a deep breath.

Capturing The Moment

Every once in a while a TV commercial aptly captures the prevailing zeitgeist and popular culture of the moment in a way that ponderous news articles or pontificating academics simply can’t match.

So it is with the classic, current “sunset heart hands” commercial for Taco Bell, which makes me laugh every time I see it.  It’s not only hilarious, it also deftly skewers the phony, social media-obsessed, it’s all about the photos world in which we now live.  Faced between a choice of eating some tasty chicken rolled tacos and taking another pointless Instagram photo, what self-respecting person wouldn’t opt for the tacos — even at the price of a snarling girlfriend?

A Reason For The Ratings

Apparently some people on the conservative side of the spectrum are noting that the ratings for the impeachment hearings aren’t very strong. They cite the ratings to argue that the American public at large just isn’t interested in the proceedings.

They’ve clearly overlooked one obvious reason for the viewership statistics: why watch during the day when you can come home at night and get utterly unbiased and objective reactions to the proceedings from your Facebook friends, left and right?

We may be living through social media’s finest hour!

Nick Bosa, Leon Trotsky, And Editing Your Own History

Nick Bosa is a very talented former Ohio State defensive lineman who will be participating in the upcoming NFL draft.  He’s also someone who’s been a regular user of social media and Twitter, where he’s expressed some opinions that other people disagree with — such as saying Black Panther is the worst Marvel movie, calling former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the movement of players kneeling during the National Anthem, a “clown,” and expressing support for President Trump.

But, as the NFL Draft Day nears, and Bosa is being considered by teams for one of the very first choices in the draft, he’s begun scrubbing his social media presence and Twitter feed and deleting the tweets and comments that might be deemed controversial and, conceivably, might affect his ultimate draft position.  The New York Times recently published an article about Bosa’s effort, and whether his more contentious views would make any difference in where he is drafted, anyway.

leon-trotsky-mediumIt’s an interesting aspect of today’s social media universe that allows users to do what the Soviet Union did after Leon Trotsky became anathema to Stalin and the other Communist leaders:  edit history, and carefully remove the blackballed (and eventually assassinated) Trotsky from official records and photos, the better to present the correct, sanitized “official history” of the Russian Revolution and the early days of the U.S.S.R.  Through the miracle of modern computer technology, users who regret their past ill-advised tweets or Facebook posts can go back and change them or delete them entirely, and hope that nobody notices, or cares, or kept some kind of record of the prior statement.  Nick Bosa’s scrubbing effort is newsworthy, but how many other people — people who are getting ready to run for office, people looking for special jobs, or people who just aren’t comfortable with something they said before — are going back and reshaping their own on-line histories, to delete anything that might be a problem in the future?

Of course, Trotsky disappeared from the official version that Soviet children learned and Soviet leaders espoused, but it didn’t change the reality of Trotsky’s existence, and records kept outside of the Soviet Union just exposed the whitewashing effort.  People who are editing their own social media histories similarly have to hope that somebody, somewhere, didn’t keep a copy of the controversial tweet.  If you are a political candidate who’s done a scrub job, I expect you’d always be a little uneasy, wondering whether a screen shot of the disagreeable statement might turn up somehow — which might just make your editing effort look like a cover-up.

I guess the better course is to think twice before you post things in the first place.

UJ And Man’s Best Friends

Regular readers of this blog will remember my brother UJ, who has posted occasionally about his adventures and travels.

52812917_2017707298284358_42568911224307712_nLately UJ has been volunteering at the Franklin County Dog Shelter, where his principal activity is walking the dogs and, in the process, giving them a little bit of the human attention that dogs seem to instinctively crave.  Then, he posts about his exploits and the different dogs he has met on Facebook.

UJ had not previously indicated, from outward signs at least, that he was a big dog lover.  For example, I don’t think he’s ever had a dog of his own since he left our parents’ home, where we had a cantankerous “teacup dachshund” named George.  However, when one of his friends suggested the volunteer activity at the Shelter he gladly took it on, and it’s clear that UJ and the Franklin County shelter go together like hand and glove.  The Shelter has acknowledged UJ’s dedicated volunteer work with some posts of its own, like the photo to the right.

It’s interesting, too, that the focus of UJ’s Facebook posts has changed somewhat since he started his volunteer work.  After a few posts about what he was doing there, it really became all about the dogs he was walking and their desire to be adopted.  UJ will walk the dogs, take some pictures and video, and then post something about the dogs and how good-natured and easygoing they were.  And, UJ and his Facebook posts publicizing the dogs he’s walking have helped the dogs at the Shelter who are up for adoption find homes — including homes with some of UJ’s Facebook pals.

I’ve been a critic of social media, and I still think it has contributed mightily to our current polarized political situation.  But UJ’s efforts at the Franklin County Dog Shelter show how a little volunteer work and some social media attention can really have a positive impact.  I’m proud of UJ’s good work, and I think his use of Facebook to help orphan dogs find a human family illustrates what is the right role for social media in civic affairs — to let people know about what’s happening in their communities, and how they personally can make a difference.  Kudos to UJ!

Think Before You Write

The on-line world once seemed like a fun, open place where you could easily and happily keep track of your friends’ trips, kids, and birthdays.  But as it has developed it seems to get angrier, and weirder, and creepier every day — to the point where many of the thoughtful people I know have decided to retreat completely from “social media” and avoid the on-line world like it’s a dangerous dark alley in the low-rent part of town.

7c7c8b97667c29573fc3c794bc33d0ca-night-time-night-photographyWhy have they decided to abandon Facebook and remove themselves from the internet to the maximum practicable extent in today’s on-line world?  Consider this story, about a woman who posted a negative on-line review of a local tavern where she’d gone for a bachelorette party.  She says she and her friends were well behaved and were inexplicably treated rudely by the bartender, so she gave the bar a bad rating, and some highly critical comments, on Yelp.  Other patrons of the bar, and the bartender, say the bachelorette party group was drunk and disruptive.

If we simply had a disagreement about what actually happened at the bar when the bachelorette party arrived, there would be no story here — we all know that there are two sides to every story and people’s perceptions of events can differ.  But this story took a sick and twisted turn when some people started reacting to the bad review by posting ugly, sexually explicit comments about the reviewer, found her Facebook page and where she worked, and even went on her wedding website and RSVP’d that they would be attending.  It’s a classic example of over-the-top, alarming cyberbullying that, unfortunately, has become increasingly common on-line.  And you never know what might trigger such behavior; a comment that you consider to be fair under the circumstances might push a cyberstalker over the edge and make you their target.

My grandmother used to say, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  It’s not bad advice to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to write something negative on-line.  These days, who knows where a few harsh words might lead?

Off The Hallmark

Walking home from work yesterday, I saw a new sign on the side of a building on Third Street, just across from the Ohio Statehouse.  I greeted the sign with an audible groan and a mixture of horror and resignation — horror, because I’ll now have to endure the building equivalent of a Hallmark card every day for weeks to come, and resignation, because that’s just the way the world is these days.

What’s next — a sign saying that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” or maybe a picture of some cute kittens with a supposedly clever saying about work?

It used to be bad enough with greeting cards, where some anonymous writer labored in a back room to draft trite, generic sayings attempting to capture the sentiments evoked by important events like marriages, birthdays, and deaths, but with the internet and social media we’ve reached a whole new level.  You can’t go to Facebook or other social media sites without seeing some meme or posting that is like a bad Hallmark card writ large, and always with the “share if you agree!” command.  And now, apparently, even buildings are going to serve as platforms for vapid platitudes that presume to reduce complicated, multi-layered, quintessentially human concepts like friendship and love into a single banal saying that’s supposed to make us nod knowingly and perhaps feel a throb deep inside.

And what’s really appalling is that the tag line at the bottom of the sign is “#AMillionLittle Things.”  That’s apparently the name of a new ABC TV show that I won’t be watching.  But does that mean that, after this sign is taken down, I’ve got 999,999 more hackneyed sayings to go?

By the way, I don’t care if this is shared or not.

A New Personal Best

This morning I got up a little before 7 a.m. and got right to work on a long list of chores. I was so busy cleaning, organizing, assembling, and rearranging that I didn’t check my email, internet news sites, or any social media until 11:49 a.m. — nearly five hours later. In fact, I didn’t even touch my iPhone during that dead zone.

It’s got to be a personal best for me, at least in the years since the advent of smartphones and immediate access to email and the World Wide Web with a few taps of my thumbs. And you know what? The world didn’t end while I was in social media silent mode. I’m confident no one noticed my absence. And focusing exclusively on completing simple, somewhat mindless chores, without trying to “multitask,” was pretty darned enjoyable.

With my vacation underway, I might just try to establish a new personal best tomorrow.

Big Zucker

Today I followed my time-honored morning routine.  I got my cup of coffee, pulled out my cell phone, and checked my work email messages.  My Facebook app was showing there were messages there, too, so I clicked on it.

“Good morning, Bob!” the Facebook page read, a little too cheerily.  “Skies are clearing in Columbus today, so enjoy the sunshine!”  It also gave the temperature in Columbus at a spring-like 25 degrees.

03facebook-xlarge1I recognize that, as a 60-something male, I’m not in Facebook’s target audience.  Perhaps 20-somethings feel warm appreciation for the fact that Facebook is so tuned in to their lives that it gives them personalized weather forecasts and wishes them a heartfelt good morning.

Me?  This increasingly cranky old guy gets a case of the creeps that Facebook thinks it knows where I am and presumes to provide weather forecasts for my assumed location and addresses me by my first name.  It also bugs me that Facebook does things like prepare slide shows of Facebook posts that happened in March, or videos celebrating the “anniversary” of the start of a Facebook friendship.  I feel like Facebook needs to back off and butt out.

The fact that Facebook has been implicated in the Cambridge Analytica story heightens the risk arising from the mass of data that Facebook is compiling about the people who use it.  Rather than making me feel warm and fuzzy that Facebook cares about me, Facebook’s little devices, like the weather forecasts and the slide shows, just remind me that Facebook holds all of that data and can use it however it wants.  It’s not an appealing prospect.

Perhaps George Orwell’s 1984 should have been written about huge, data-compiling social media companies like Facebook, rather than the government.  Instead of Big Brother, maybe we should all be worrying about Big Zucker.