There’s a moment in Netflix’s new “American Meme” documentary when Instagram celebrity Josh Ostrovsky (“The Fat Jew”) asserts that “real life” and the internet have “become one.” That seems like an obvious point. I’m just not sure we fully understand it.
The dichotomy between The Online and The Offline used to exist in starker contrast. Of course, reality is everything we experience, on a screen or otherwise. But most of us lived for years with one magical portal to the internet perched on a desktop in our home office. Now the internet is on our wrists, in our pockets, accessible by voice command. Again, this point is an obvious one. We’re familiar with the story because we’ve lived it. But have we adjusted accordingly?
The best way I’ve ever heard Twitter described is as a video game. The colorful interface is almost cartoonish, bright and dotted with numbers keeping score of our successes: Post a provocative thought or video, rack up retweets, likes, and new followers, master the challenge. (With the exception of Snapchat, I think it’s fair to say most social media platforms operate similarly.) While it’s what we’ve come to expect from apps over the past decade, it’s a dramatically foreign way for humans to interact with one another.
The experiential similarities between video games and social media also condition us to see our online behavior differently, as though it’s less consequential, constrained to the boundaries of the screen. This is exacerbated by the way we cling to outdated refrains like “Twitter is not real life.” Yes, it is.
Ostrovsky is right. Somewhere along the way, our mundane online behavior became much more consequential. (To be clear, some people, myself included, often complain that Twitter is not real life because its user base is nowhere near a representative sample of the population. That’s correct and important, but it’s not helpful language.)
It’s true, for instance, that false or unkind words posted in a forum circa the early aughts had “real” consequences. But the viral mechanisms baked into social media—and its increasing consumption of our time—heighten the impact, shattering our ability to compartmentalize on- and offline activity, dissolving whatever semblance of a line existed between the two realms in the first place.
This is among the myriad lessons to be gleaned from the Covington Catholic controversy. Many people elevated misinformation about the event with maybe 30-seconds’ consideration and the click of a like or retweet button. It’s something we’ve all been guilty of at times. But every like and retweet and response contributed to the dissemination of a false narrative, and the unfair treatment of these teenagers. That’s a very real consequence, both for their lives, and for our national self-image. We were all powerful enough to help make this pain possible.
Of course, the news media (both blue checkmark journalists and actual publications) failed spectacularly in its duty to check facts and overcome political biases on this story. The blame rests primarily with them. That’s an important point that deserves to be explored exhaustively. But it also doesn’t mean it’s okay for anyone else to spread bad information rather than wait for more context.
Experiencing how people use social media in times of tragedy has been personally shocking to me: It’s not the blatantly hateful messages that are surprising, it’s the more banal and insensitive ones, sent deliberately from seemingly normal people straight into the feeds of others who are suffering. By design, social media cushions us from the weight of those actions, capitalizing on the perceived distance between users. It’s easy to say or do something bad to a person who exists as a tiny square on your screen.
This is something nearly every high-profile social media influencer featured in “The American Meme” grapples with intensely. I think that says more about us, the people producing that hurtful content, than it does about them. In the same way it’s easier to tweet something crazy at Paris Hilton than say it to her face, it’s easier to say something hurtful to another non-celebrity user— or even to spread loaded content you wouldn’t stand behind so immediately to an implicated party’s face.
I hope this is a growing pain rather than a permanent feature. We’re merely adjusting to rapid shifts in technology. That’s why the wall we continue to fortify between social media and “real life” is an insidious influence.
On some level, of course, we obviously understand platforms like Twitter exist in reality. But the more we condition ourselves to see any significant distinction between reality and social media, the more likely we are to sustain an internet culture that allows these existing rules of engagement to fester. Twitter is indeed real life; just ask the boys of Covington Catholic.