The Rise of Anti-social Media

Botswana — Chobe Chilwero Sanctuary

“People invest their IQ in buttressing their own case rather than in exploring the whole issue more fully and evenhandedly.” — David Perkins. Learning to reason: The influence of instruction, prompts and scaffolding, metacognitive knowledge, and general intelligence on informal reasoning about everyday social and political issues.

“The restrictions were based on a simple premise: to listen, we have to hear. To unlock the mysteries of the universe, we have to be quiet.” — Stephen Kurczy. The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence.

Our audio universe, unlike our visual surroundings, is not easily compartmentalized by walls and fences. Outdoor spaces such as balconies and backyards are a shared communal resource when it comes to sound, yet they seldom have agreed-upon rules of conduct regarding noise.

A single person can ruin the serenity of an entire neighborhood as they go about mowing the lawn or playing loud music. Every other neighbor in earshot has to suffer through an often hours-long and excruciating noise disturbance which they have no control over. Add to this the sound of airplanes overhead, construction next door, or dogs barking incessantly, multiply by the number of neighbors in hearing range, and you’ll soon turn any quiet oasis into an auditory hell.

In response, most of us don a pair of headphones and swap our physical surroundings for a more serene one, perhaps listening to music or a white noise app; but this is a band aid rather than a solution. It temporarily blocks out the sound but does nothing to solve the bigger issue. The noise is still there; we’re just choosing to ignore it and go elsewhere mentally. That does not bode well for us as a society.

The above paragraphs were written about physical neighborhoods. Funny enough, they may as well have been written about the current state of our online social media world where partisan arguments and name calling are far more prevalent than constructive discourse, where the noise drowns out the peace, where bullies and trolls ruin the “neighborhood” for everyone else.

Which brings me to my story of community activism, its utter failure, and what that has to do with our current culture of online discourse.

A few weeks ago, I thought I’d found a simple and obvious solution to a community noise pollution problem that has long plagued our neighborhood. We live in a suburban neighborhood with backyards and lawns. Over the years, we’ve ended up with each homeowner mowing their lawns at a time most convenient to them, some choosing to delegate the task to professionals.

As a result, in a neighborhood where we can each hear at least a dozen neighbors, we get to listen to roughly ten times as much annoying noise as necessary. I was glad to find out that even the Wall Street Journal agrees with me, calling leaf blowers “Evil Incarnate”. You can call this a first world problem but the logic applies to any neighborhood and any noise source. I’m just using gardening as an example.

I’ve since deleted the thread but my original post on nextdoor.com, a social media site set up with the explicit intention of bringing neighbors together, went something like this: “Hello, neighbors. I have a simple idea for reducing the noise in our neighborhood. How about voluntarily agreeing to designate a single day per week as ‘gardening’ day, a day when we will use our gas powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Even partial agreement would make a substantial impact in noise levels. Glad to help coordinate if there’s interest.”

Several neighbors responded positively, giving me a thumbs up. Someone pointed out that our city already has a ban on gas powered leaf blowers. A neighbor pointed out that the law was not enforced and almost 100% of homes still use gas-powered tools or professional gardeners who do so. Another chimed in that the law didn’t apply to “unincorporated” parts of town: still part of the city but following county regulations instead.

Great, back to square one. Interesting data and lively discussion but no progress. How about the proposal? Did I mention it was simple and free and immediate and could improve the situation by as much as 6x and that I could help coordinate? Even if only a quarter of neighbors signed on, we’d make a big dent in the noise problem. A few more “thumbs ups” ensued. And that’s when things got interesting.

One neighbor became indignant when someone mentioned they’d bought an electric leaf blower for a neighbor’s gardener. How dare she? Another neighbor took offense and called me a “dictator” for telling her when to schedule a service she had paid for. How dare I? I wanted to remind her that most of us don’t even decide which day our gardeners show up but held my tongue.

I’m convinced there would’ve been a lot more duels in seventeenth century Europe if the internet had only been invented a bit earlier. Trying to clarify the voluntary nature of the effort led nowhere, ending with her telling me to move out if I didn’t like the noise level and finally to “myob”…. which I had to look up: “Mind your own business.”

Someone then mentioned that, while an interesting proposal, of course the right long term solution is electric. Because Climate Change! And we were off to the races. This supposedly innocuous comment led to a heated exchange among two sets of neighbors, one side yelling about the benefits of electric, the other demanding proof of fossil fuel vs. electric industry carbon footprints, arguing about long term effects of battery disposal, etc. We don’t have enough data on electric gardening tools so let’s look at data from the EV market!

All interesting and important topics to be sure, but can we get back to the proposal? Did I mention it was completely free and voluntary? Within hours, everyone on the thread, except me, seems to have forgotten the original post. Climate change being the hot button that it is, we were soon in the weeds with a dozen simultaneous vociferous arguments in the comments section of the feed.

Wait, I wanted to say, what does any of this have to do with designating a voluntary gardening day? Can we at least agree on some simple stuff? Does everything have to devolve into a partisan fight? We yell at each other so much that we forget the original question, exhausting ourselves and each other into a dejected cease fire until the next argument flares up.

“We can have this and we can have that, too”, as they used to say on Seinfeld. We can have a voluntary designated gardening day and move towards lower emissions long term. One is a free short term solution with the potential for 600% immediate improvement to the status quo, the other is a worthy goal but also a long term drawn out battle. Why not both? This is not a zero sum game.

Instead, we argue until we’re hoarse, the hapless author of the proposal finally deleting it in exasperation as the arguments devolve into threats and name calling, and everyone goes back to many hours of joyful lawn mower and leaf blower concerts.

“Turn off, tune out, dive in.” — Benjamin Fathinski, famous seventeenth century Polish philosopher who predicted the advent of anti-social media before mysteriously disappearing into a forest near Warsaw.

Here we are, in the one place I thought we’d all converged as neighbors to do… what exactly? Not collaborate and coordinate and improve our neighborhood, apparently. But to bicker and argue. Even here, on a social media app explicitly designed for neighborly collaboration, we quickly devolve into chaos and partisanship, yelling and screaming, somehow injecting our politics into every argument until we’re all exhausted and give up, the thread dying with no forward progress.

It’s only then that I finally realized: The name “social media” is a misnomer. This isn’t social at all, it’s the opposite. It brings out the worst in all of us sooner or later. So let’s call it what it is: anti-social media; because that’s the type of behavior it rewards and reinforces.

Over the past couple of years, and independent of this particular event, I’ve deleted almost all of my anti-social media accounts. “Thanks” but “no, thanks”. It’s toxic, it’s addictive, it’s time consuming, and guess what: 100% of humanity lived without it until just recently and seemed to do just fine. Fix the rules of engagement to create a more positive and productive environment, then maybe I’ll reconsider.

By democratizing dialogue among all peoples, we’ve not only improved the chances for collaboration but also dramatically increased the opportunity for chatter and confrontation. Don’t blame the internet; blame the lack of agreed upon rules of engagement. The internet is just the underlying information pipeline and delivers tons of positive value as well. It’s the anti-social media apps that are the problem. And they won’t get fixed unless we stop using them as currently implemented and demand better.

If you like this post, please share it on social media!

Ironic, is it not? We live in a world where even an anti-social-media rant needs social media to reach its intended audience. I’ve personally deleted my social media accounts so I’ll need to depend on the kindness of strangers to pass it around. Who knows, maybe we’ll even go retro and start an email chain.

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