The other day a tweet blew up, probably because it resonated with half the population of the planet. It was created by one “@bitteranagram,” and went something like this (the dashes are my substitution; original tweet here):
Before the internet, everyone was as batsh-t as now but thought most other ppl weren’t batsh-t, so most acted as non-batsh-t as they could. Once we could all see how batsh-teveryone else was, we gave up the old charade & now aspire to maximum batsh-ttery.
While I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, I’m convinced this is only part of a bigger story. I am a writer, and I know lots of artists, writers, actors, and musicians. As a neoconservative, I have a lot of practice at keeping to myself what such creative sorts consider batsh-ttery, and expressing my political beliefs negatively by not joining the progressive chorus.
But before Facebook, I always had the idea that, although they were politically challenged, anyone who would be friends with me would likely lean toward the center. After all, my friends seemed reasonable. No surprise in hindsight, it turned out I was dead wrong. Many of my friends were a bunch of leftwing loonies and progressive conspiracy-mongers, some with downright frightening and repressive beliefs.
Yet even the craziest ones aren’t like that in person. If they had been, we would never have become friends in the first place. In that gap lies the only hope for humanity.
I’m not the first one to notice this, of course. There are a gadzillion theories as to why it should be. But I think the answer is neither psychological nor cultural. It’s also not the result of game theory gone digital, a kind of reverse prisoner’s dilemma, which I believe is the notion behind @bitteranagram’s comment. It is economic.
Social Media Hide the Transactional Costs of Friendship
Unlike family relationships, you don’t have to be friends with anyone. The greatest reward you can get from friendship is becoming like family to someone—that is, getting to a point where you can do nothing that will estrange your friend, or they you.
Of course, the ideal is to build on this trust, not abuse it. That’s family, and it often brings its own form of benign lunacy. In fact, for those with go-getter personalities, close friendship often becomes a competition to see who can be most helpful and useful to the other.
Until you reach family status with someone, there is always an economic aspect to friendship, and there are costs and benefits with each trade of affection. Social media do away with one of the costs, the physical nature of friendship. This is not a new observation, but is nonetheless important to keep in mind. You don’t have to read a person’s mood, or deal with his ailments. You can’t see when something you say upsets him.
So everyone begins dropping truth bombs—otherwise known as baseless opinions. You pay no immediate price for this. But then, amazingly, your communication doesn’t have the desired effect: that everyone else becomes convinced you are right, or transfixed by the beauty you emitted. So you escalate.
In physical life, the transactional costs of this kind of presumption on friendship become so great that you risk becoming ostracized if you keep on doing it. So you tone it down and content yourself knowing that your genius is misunderstood.
Not so with social media. Furthermore, with social media, you are effectively dealing not in a single stock of friendship, but in friendship options, leveraging one trade into transactions across multiple friendships and potential future friendships. Without awareness of the market you are dabbling in, you often risk all of your capital on a single exchange.
Social Media Is a Carnival Sideshow, Not a True Market
Social media are rigged markets. They purport to trade friendship or acquaintance for influence and personal enhancement, but use the ancient bait-and-switch tactics of the carnival barker to obscure the real exchange going on: a fleeting boost of worthless clout for a slice of very real friendship.
A genuine marketplace of ideas has been around for centuries. It is quite sophisticated, and moved past the barter stage long ago, with the invention of the printing press. This market is a place where thinkers make actual money for selling work that is intellectually, morally, or aesthetically valuable. Writers, thinkers, and artists should get paid. The investment in developing authentic thought is substantial.
Writing, and all art, is work. It is a craft. That is the one thing that bothers me about my batsh-t friends’ posts so much, especially when they are artists. It’s not that they’re wrong. It’s that their posts are poorly crafted.
Also, their cats are clearly ruthless killers, and they have no idea.
The Importance of Deep Work
A couple of years ago, I read a book called “Deep Work,” by Cal Newport. Certain sorts of method-mad books that promise productivity enhancement are an addiction for me—because, of course, changing my character is too hard.
Newport defines deep work as “activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate. Deep work is necessary to wring every last drop of value out of your current intellectual capacity.” He goes on to say, “The reason knowledge workers are losing their familiarity with deep work is well established: network tools.” By this he means, primarily, social media.
In “Deep Work,” Newport makes a compelling argument for dropping out of social media entirely because social media shut down deep work. So I tried it, starting in the summer of 2016. I’ve never gone back. The relief was so great, the productivity gain so massive, that it didn’t even bother me to discover that nobody missed me back in Facebook-land.
Ideas Have to Exist in a Market to Exist at All
The continual production of ideas defines a market, and nowhere is this truer than in activities that involve creative expression. Figuring out first precisely what you think or feel, then how to communicate that effectively, takes a lot of effort. You are investing treasure every time you write or make something good for an audience. When that audience pays you, it’s an amazing feeling, even if it’s just 20 bucks of respect.
Marketable work is also work that is worth the attention of friends and acquaintances. Because your effort shows, they are far less likely to dismiss your ideas and expressions out of hand. They may still think you are an idiot, but they will respect your labor and not believe you have wasted their time on a whim.
They will also not begrudge a few bucks to pay for the diversion you’ve provided, if not for the life-changing idea you thought you might have finally grasped and communicated. Payment is also an investment by an audience to keep your nose to the grindstone. After all, anybody who works as hard as you do has the chance of one day getting something right, and that will make everyone richer. Social media does not allow this.
Most importantly, by doing deep work and always trying to produce marketable creative expression, you’ll have a better chance at retaining your friends’ respect even when you disagree. You might even find it makes your friendships stronger.