the limit

Alan Jacobs considers the phenomenon of the Twitter tsunami, which crucially is a matter of mutually-acknowledged agreement and, inevitably, transactional.

To me these tsunamisfeel like desperate signaling, people trying to make sure that everyone knows where they stand on the issue du jour. I can almost see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads as they try to craft retweetable tweets, the kind to which others will append that most wholehearted of endorsements: “THIS.” I find myself thinking, People, you never tweeted about [topic x] before and after 48 hours or so you’ll never tweet about it again, so please stop signaling to all of us how near and dear to your heart [topic X] is. 

So, you know: charity FAIL. I know that most — well, anyway, many — of the people tweeting about what everyone else was tweeting about were sincere and expressing genuine interest. It’s just hard for me to handle such exaggerated and repeated unanimity.

Incidentally, I think Alan is a very charitable person. I would just say that there’s an event horizon beyond which whatever discussion happens is fundamentally about the people having it and no longer about the issue itself, and particularly so when the essential moral conflict of the issue seems to have a clear right and wrong side. Beyond that threshold, little of substance escapes. I am not ready yet to declare a timeframe, but I think the arc of the conversation passes a certain apogee, and it’s all over. Alan is smart to note that there is no lack of sincerity involved here. Indeed: sincerity, in these instances, is in abundant supply. What’s lacking is the understanding that good people being publicly sincere makes nothing happen. But what else are you going to do? What am I doing? What can I do? I don’t know. I don’t know.

The trouble with talking about right and wrong in the age of the internet is that our communicative systems are oriented towards communicating only with those whom we wish to. That is not an indictment of the individuals operating within those systems, but a result of the economic incentives for the companies that build these systems. It is the reason for Facebook’s Newsfeed algorithms, the space Google has tried so desperately to invade with the Google+ venture, the reason Tumblr has only likes and reblogs. Narrowing the stream, given the size of the internet, is necessary, and it appears, profitable. But either way, the result is that there is no necessary point where people agreeing about right and wrong becomes people convincing others about right and wrong, particularly given that avoidance is an easily practiced art when practiced electronically. And these systems are so carefully designed by their tech conglomerate creators, and our cultural and social inequality so acutely understood and policed by those at the top of that hierarchy, that it is very easy to mistake these tiny niches for the whole world. You can believe that even if you really, really agree with what people are really, really agreeing about. Perhaps especially then. You can believe it even as you live it.

So once again being good eats doing good.

Update: The problems are just so intractable– racism, gun violence. I don’t know how you can live with it if you don’t talk about it. But how to make talking about it matter just seems less and less clear to me. I really don’t know how or why democracy may have changed but I’m just so defeated lately.