keeping an eye on the world outside your head

I was surprised to find out, after the fact, that there was a “controversy” about the Democrat response to the State of the Union. It seems Bernie Sanders did a webcast after Stacey Abrams delivered the official Democratic response to the speech, and this once again showed Bernie’s white male patriarchy or whatever.

I put controversy in scare quotes because the word would typically imply a certain breadth of interest and a certain real-world importance, both of which this event lacked. It appears that something on the order of 47 million people watched the State of the Union. That’s less than 15% of the population right there. I don’t know how many people watch responses to the State of the Union, but it must be a small fraction of what the speech itself gets, right? I imagine Bernie’s webcast got even fewer. And we can assume that the vast majority of people who watched any of it absorbed it passively and did not comment on it.

Pew tells us 75% of polled online users (not just people but people who are online) have never used Twitter to post a political opinion. And like all social networks, Twitter’s engagement looks like a power law distribution, with a relatively tiny number of accounts responsible for the vast amount of tweets produced and (especially) those seen, liked, retweeted, or otherwise engaged with. There are a handful of power accounts and then a vast number of voices shouting into the wind. You know what the median number of Twitter followers is? One. The median account has a single follower. Even among the small population of Twitter users, engaging with people in any political activity is rare. And we have every reason to believe that Twitter inflates its active monthly user totals, for obvious reasons.

If you polled the average American and asked “do you think Bernie’s webinar was the new Jim Crow?,” the response would almost certainly be “what the fuck are you talking about?”, Zack Beauchamp, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, the whole crew over there – does it matter to you that you’re spending so much attention on a purely online issue, one most people couldn’t care less about?

Most people are not political, even fewer are political online, and this is a class-stratified issue.

Political engagement by income

Internet usage in general is highly associated with education level.

The decision to make a story out of the supposed controversy about the State of the Union response is thus a decision to treat the opinions and interests of a tiny sliver of our population, an affluent and educated sliver, as inherently newsworthy while the vast majority are ignored. And of course this is not ideologically neutral. Simply by reporting this story as a story, you perpetuate the notion that Sanders has gender and race trouble, even though the vast majority of women and voters of color are no doubt entirely unaware that there was any controversy at all.

As someone who went from frequent (to the point of pathological) engagement on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to none quite suddenly, this plays out in very odd ways. I am not a news-avoiding monk; I certainly pick up, in time, on what’s going on in national news. But I find it deeply disorienting to speak with people who are compulsively online, as they refer to dynamics and debates that appear totally obscure and unimportant. My generic response to “what’s your opinion on X?” is “…what?” And it’s not merely that people are steeped in this culture, but that they appear unaware that anyone isn’t a part of it. That would be disturbing in general; when it comes to journalists, I find it truly troubling.

The most obvious culprit for our media’s obsessively inward focus is simple convenience. It is very easy to browse twitter, see a half-dozen tweets, erroneously conclude “this is a trend!” and write it up. Budgets for actual investigative reporting – where you look out at the world instead of inward into your own sclerotic social culture – have been drying up. The pace of publishing is relentless. And, you know, I get it. When you’re in the middle of that world, with so many other people’s brains rubbing against yours, it feels important. For some, Twitter helps make them feel like important people.

Well, they should continue to use social media as they see fit. And they are free to take it as seriously as they choose. But it is extraordinarily important that the people who write our culture – writers, journalists, academics, artists – never confuse the intensity of their own commitment to online life with the breadth of public interest in what’s happening online. Doing so is a sure-fire way to distort your vision of the world. Journalists should take care to think to themselves, what percentage of all Americans (not just college graduates, the upwardly mobile, and internet obsessives) is really engaged on this issue?

And were I an editor in chief of some publication, I’d institute a ban on any story that stems solely or largely from what the writer has observed on social media. Just stop writing about that stuff. Because it doesn’t matter.