Social Media and the Gossip Phenomena

I remember when Mark Oppenheimer announced he was quitting Facebook and most social media. I think he said he was just going back to email. I remember how surprised I was to hear that someone I kind of respect saying they were doing that. Oppenheimer writes for Slate and. produces my favorite podcast, Unorthodox.

  • But when I reflect on my own adventures in social media and how they intersect with my real life, working and doing organizing in the community, I am feeling more and more inclined toward that nuclear option Oppenheimer chose. I don’t think I can make that choice personally but I can definitely think about what social media is and how it works, and try to wrap my head around how it does or doesn’t actually intersect (again) with my actual life.

Social media is many things. It is a fantasy, an illusion, it is an extreme form of gossip. It feeds delusion and ego about identity. I understand it is also a lifeline for survival sometimes. The things social media is not is a reconstruction of reality. It is not real and it does not actually influence how real people in the real world actually use power. Even within our own microcosm of our own personal communities it is not a reflection of how real people use even personal power.

It is a revolution in ideas and it is an amazing new world but it needs to be unhinged from the old world and understood in its context. Social media is really an opportunity to step into something new in the real world and if it is understood as a tool, as useful as books or a pencil or a wheelbarrow, if it is understood as a tool that works at the speed of electricity that engages with every corner of how we use our brain then it can be really amazing, but when it is seen as a fantasy or another extension of television it is not so useful.

There really is a revolution happening in communication but it is not transforming capitalism or the military industrial complex or religion or even patriarchy. Social media inspired the Arab spring and then it was used to undo it. It can create nightmares out of our personal experience of community and it is mostly useless for real interpersonal experience and real community building which mostly happens the old fashioned way when people sit down and talk to each other in real time and in real space.

I don’t think I can choose what Oppenheimer chose but I promise I will be thinking about it because I don’t believe social media is real anymore than I believe in fairy tales or the flying spaghetti monster but I do think social media is real to the people who use it and it helps to shape how people see everything around them so it is important to understand the rules of how social media is reconstructing human relationships and community.

The last thing I will say is that my wariness about social media has most to do with how it inhibits the natural formation of community. I see so many spaces where all the right elements are in place for actual real space community to begin to materialize but social media creates this layer of censorship over the actual formation of real community and relations between people. In that sense it kind of spoils our five senses and our natural social curiosity and gives us this electronic cheat sheet which really works against our own interest.

We can’t really say what the world will become, the forces at play are unpredictable and deeply rooted in our evolutionary structure but when we have the right conditions amazing things happen even on a personal level, I just hate to see social media spoil the magic of discovery that happens when we have new experiences and realize something that we didn’t think was possible.


Anna Thompson is a writer, artist and cat lover who lives in Portland Oregon with her partner and six cats. She loves writing about sex, gender and religion.

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