I Have Met The Internet And It Is Not Us

Hashtag Heroes and Internet Convos

Posted Dec 26, 2013

December 26, 2013

The internet tugs at my sleeve.  My smartphone vibrates, a bright screen captivates, and I find myself wandering on silicon streets.  I feel the heady excitement of youth, sometimes, this feeling that I’m walking into a bigger world, the sense that conversations I once had in dorm rooms and on campus greens are now capturing a global stage, all in public view.  But then I feel my human frame is being lost on this vast technological canvas that can alternate between inclusion and isolation.

I’m being hashtagged into a Twitter rendezvous, but sensing the destination, or at least the conveyance, is at odds with my human values, I’m a bit concerned.

I am "all over" the internet, but nowhere to be found.
Cyberian exile is complete and profound.
"Connected" to everyone, but alone at my screen -
I'm dissolving into a Silicon dream.

A few weeks ago, 23 year-old graduate student Suey Park captured media attention as she and a cohort of Twitter activists had a conversation around racism and sexism, tied together by the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick.  I responded positively as did other Asian Americans (I particularly liked this comprehensive article by Gil Asakawa), but I also agreed with opinions by writers Kai Ma in Time Online and Jeff Yang in the WSJ blogs that we needed to have tangible goals for a “movement” to be successful. 

Perhaps concrete goals are premature.  Maybe consciousness-raising, and network-mobilization is the first step in this “Occupy Twitter” conversation.  As I start to write this, Ms. Park and others are firing up a hashtag event about solidarity between peoples of color, tentatively titled #BlackPowerYellowPeril.  (Also a great way, as one tweeter pointed out, to “scare bigots”!)  And here I am, pushed by technology to think about the issues they are putting forward, but also compelled to think about the “meta-issue” of Twitter activism in general.  I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent article in the New Yorker from 2010 which essentially sneered at the weak, “network” ties afforded by Twitter (good for retrieving a lost cell phone) compared with the strong ties and accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement, achieved by real, deep and yes, hierarchical relationships.

I’m also remembering that these kinds of conversations happened all the time on my college campus – and through them, I forged both lifelong friendships and deep respect and solidarity with others with whom I’ve lost touch.  Those were life-changing experiences, and I’m ever grateful to those people who made those conversations possible, and the University that brought us together in the first place.  But what does it mean now that the Twitter generation feels that the equivalent of my campus conversation has to go global to be meaningful?  It seems like building a house on shifting sands, to me, and possibly a bit inflated.  But is this the new solidarity?  Can the loose network create anything tangible?  Or is it enough that many, many people participate in the “hashmob”, “Tweeting bee” or “Tweet-in” (is there a word for this already?) and think about the “topic of the day”, and then take that into their lives to act upon in their own individual way?  Is this form of online identity-assertion and networked affiliation necessary or even required in the Age of Social Networks?

Beyond those questions, there’s my feeling that my neurons have been co-opted by issues which are inherently captivating for me (issues of race, gender and class and their effects on psychology and society), but which aren’t necessarily the most important things on my plate at the moment in this way (though they are always, always on the plate).   Moreover, they are not issues that I think can be constrained to a Twitter-debate, with all its problems (trolls, fake accounts, Twitter “jail”, etc).  It’s a little like squeezing an elephant into a thimble, or a million thimbles.  It doesn’t add back up to an elephant.  Now, if Twitter somehow empowered a million elephants (each with a few thimbles of Twitter-juice) that would indeed be noteworthy.  I’m sure the latter is the goal, but that again calls into question the medium, for me.  Do I want this juice?  Do I like the thimble it's being served up in?

Another metaphor for my Twitter feed is “possession by spirits” – and sometimes I feel I need something like an exorcism, just to retain my own soul.  My quiet introvert is always in balance with the declarative extrovert, and neither much likes to be pulled into the declarations of others.  Gandhi said “I want the cultures of all the world to blow through my house, but I will not be blown off my feet by any.”  Twitter can get a bit gusty, and aims to overturn obstacles, but I am wary of letting it blow through my house.  I am supportive of progressive causes; but why must I prove myself by participating in a hashtag?  (This is tied to the question of why people share at all on Facebook, etc.)  This refers to any hashtag, not just the current trending topics.

Microphones are cheap, in this Twitter age, but the art is long.  Is the medium liminal, or limiting?  Are the stream of tweets enlightening in their effect, or simply the latest form of junk mail or internet “leafleting” as one person put it?  Does the fact that I keep having to keep putting a real world metaphor or simile on it (is it like a march or demonstration?) tell us something about how insubstantial this form of communication is?  I keep wanting it to make sense, and this requires metaphor; but the metaphors seem strained, the real world referents so much more powerful, because they involve people I have known and seen.  They involve embodied love and presence, which do not translate across a screen.

The hashtag message cannot convey the depth of the sentiment, thoughts and people behind the message – very unlike a march, or even someone handing you a leaflet on a street corner.  You end up primarily preaching to the choir, I would think – or maybe this is just “gathering the choir” before the concert really starts.  If some leaders gain some renown they get more media exposure and with it the chance to articulate a broader platform.  They will have forged real relationships and their choir will back them up, to whatever extent the individuals in the choir choose.  The Twitter thimbles might translate to stronger ties and a seat at the table, which would be a good thing, perhaps something vaguely akin to the way the Free Speech movement gained visibility at Berkeley in the 1960s.  But that will succeed or fail based on real-world considerations.  

However, one thing I’ve learned from watching the internet, and popular culture in general, is that the squeakiest wheel is not necessarily the one that needs the most grease.  Yet it’s the one that gets the most notice.  We probably have enough spare capacity for a lot of different stimuli, a lot of squeaky wheels and sparkly disco balls, but we are greatly helped by focus.  In the Age of Social Networks, we have to zealously guard our focus, because our boundaries are far more permeable, when they exist at all.  This may mean realizing that we have to find ways to restore our boundaries.  I do this by committing to being as unplugged as possible.  We need boundaries to retain our sense of self.  Unless our only goals are to get attention, accrue fame, and gather an audience, instead of friends in the more traditional sense; an e-self instead of a real-self.

Ultimately, overcoming racism, sexism, and all forms of hatred and discrimination is about being related in a more wholesome and meaningful way.  This will ultimately be achieved by connection, validation and compassion, as opposed to isolation, devaluation and disregard.  My gut feeling is that the internet tends towards the latter. 

For as long as we are stuck behind our screens, we are not truly with each other.  Communicating across a digital expanse with text and tweet is not the same as meeting the eyes of your friend or even enemy.  You can never take me into account with a Twitter account.

I wish the hashtaggers the best – but I’d rather see you IRL (In Real Life).

(I write more extensively on these themes in my new book, Facebuddha:  Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks.  Noted Buddhist author Sylvia Boorstein said "I think the book will be inspiring to many, many people."  If you like this article, and want to know more, PLEASE sign up for a newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com!  If everyone who reads my blog posts signed up for my newsletter, it would greatly help me land a publishing deal and get this important message out.  Or, yes, follow me on Twitter @going2peace.)

© 2013 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.    

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