The humanities transmit, through time and across cultures, diverse expressions of the human condition, allowing us to contextualize, illuminate, and pass on an essential legacy of culture, history and heritage. They are an ages-old, ongoing conversation about the human condition that enables us to understand our place, our times and our spirits. Without the ability to share and bequeath the humanities, mankind would be adrift, lost in a singular, meaningless moment without the guidance of all that has come before.
But is the vital discourse of the humanities in trouble in the Internet era? As more and more of our civic and cultural dialogue moves online, especially through the tools of social media, it begs the question: Are the new modes communication introduced by the Internet a good thing for the humanities? Are we really expanding our collective interaction and social reach, as cheerleaders of social media would have us believe, or are we limiting and devaluing our conversation about ourselves by the narrow and limited format of social media?
I fall in the second camp: I believe that social media poses a grave threat to the humanities because it lacks the depth, nuance and permanence that make genuine, meaningful interactions about the human condition possible. If we are entering a world of communicating largely through social media, as some have predicted, and if Neil Postman is right, “the medium is the metaphor”, then we risk becoming a world without the comprehensive communication tools needed to keep the humanities alive.
Everything that social media communication represents- immediacy, impermanence, collectivism- is contrary and harmful to the thoughtfulness, permanence and individualistic experiences necessary to humanities discourse. Social media is creating a hive mind, a group think that devalues the human condition in favor of the immediate, the marketable and the shallow. In social media, there is no difference between us and others; we look the same, we talk the same, we fill the same space.
What do I mean by social media? While Facebook is the most obvious poster child for social media, I include any online tool that purports to foster a digital conversation. Countless websites or online application such as Yelp, Linkedin, Twitter, Digg, Flickr can be considered social media. The supposed benefits of social media are the imagined instant feedback loops between content creators and content consumers and the shared connections between content consumers based on common, identifiable interests. But the real purpose of social media is to gauge, measure and ultimately control the behavior of the crowd for marketing purposes.
And as social media, and its values of pliable, identifiable collectives based on mutual interests, migrates from the Web to become more ubiquitous in our everyday lives–try attending a movie or buying a meal or filling up your gas tank without being exhorted to connect via Twitter or Facebook–the reductionist conversation that it engenders comes with it.
The first negative impact that social media has on the humanities is a multiple-choice format and physical structure that allows only for a very limited, narrow type of communication. This parsing of available vocabulary drains the lifeblood of nuance, metaphor and complexity from the humanities. There is no room for individual creativity or representation; options for expression and interpretation are restricted to the choices circumscribed by the gatekeeper. Social media users are not allowed “fill in the blank” options when publicly describing themselves or their interests.
Social media experiences are shared and consumed solely in black and white: there is only a “like” button and no, “Well, based on my extraordinary experience as a human being, I have complicated and often contradictory emotions and reactions to this that may evolve over time” button. If the social media generation learns only to express themselves in absolutes, without the option of individual creativity or nuance, the humanities, and the complexity it takes to express and understand them, face a bleak future.
Humanities also require background and context to impart ideas but social media is an equivalency and framework vacuum that decontextualizes and trivializes information in a way that renders it nearly meaningless. The brevity of communication through social media precludes explanation and circumstance; it is impossible to capture the human condition in 140 characters or less. News is delivered one line at a time and disappears into a memory hole the instant a new line is created; a clear or permanent connection is never made between the information. The act of mediating and contextualizing experience, so necessary to the humanities, is being lost.
Within social media, all information is equally important. There are no little or big facts; all data is expressed in compact bites of equal weight. What someone had for lunch is given the same prominence and delivery as the announcement of a family tragedy. The inability to separate the trivial from the significant leaves us unable to glean consequential substance from what we are saying to each other: the very purpose of the humanities.
Lastly, social media creates and archives no history. (quick: what was your best friend’s status update six months ago today?) The humanities are about expanding, describing, understanding and transmitting through the generations, the human condition. Social media, at its very heart a marketing tool, is about reducing the human condition and the emotions involved into smaller and smaller pieces that can be analyzed and used to market products. The purpose of social media is to understand ever larger groups of people at the expense of the individual. Humanities is exactly the opposite: understanding the individual at the sake of the masses.
In the end, how will we know what the human experience was like in this epoch if Twitter becomes the source material for future humanities? Information and communication are flying past us at a dizzying speed and we are simply consuming it without absorbing it or carrying it with us. And we risk leaving our humanity behind as well.