Where Democracy Lives (and Dies) in the Age of Social Media ‹ Literary Center

Let’s get our priorities straight. Another American mass shooting. Yawn. A new Russian offensive in Ukraine. Yawn. The Heard vs. Depp libel case ends with a $15 million payment to Johnny Depp. Wow. OH MY GOD. #justiceforjohnnydepp.

BBC.com’s Wednesday evening homepage reflected these priorities. Above the digital fold of this former mainstream media publication, there was a lot of noise about Depp coming out “ahead” in the Fairfax County courtroom. Buried beneath that noise was information about multiple murders at a medical facility in Tulsa as well as the latest Russian atrocities in eastern Ukraine.

The media’s prioritization of the trivial over the serious is of course not new. Neil Postman reminded us of this in Fun to die, his 1984 Huxleyan polemic against the The best of worlds astounding television. And the narcotic’s inanity reached what seemed, at least at the time, to be its peak in June 1994 with OJ Simpson’s LAPD car chase, a real-time crime drama watched with 95 million viewers.

But in June 1994, there was no social media – no Twitter, no YouTube, no TikTok. The OJ Simpson soap opera was, in fact, an end rather than a beginning – one of the last mass-produced top-down dramas of the 20th century.

Nearly thirty years later, we’re at the start of something both quite familiar and very new: today’s social media era. Rather than the 1994 OJ lawsuit by network TV, we now have the 2022 Heard/Depp lawsuit by TikTok.

We continue to have fun to death. But on a scale and in a form that might even have prompted an OMG from Neil Postman. Unlike those 95 million viewers of the Olympics car chase network, there are now, for example, more than 18 billion views of TikTok videos simply featuring the hashtag #Justiceforjohnnydepp. And these billions of 21st century social media users are radically more engaged than their 20th century network television ancestors.

We need today’s TikTokers to wake us up. But not too violently. For the new cure to become as deadly as the old disease.

Rather than consuming professionally produced videos, today’s mostly young TikTokers remix their own content, distribute their own memes, add their own signature comments. It is a culture of action rather than passivity, of frankness rather than representation, of speaking rather than listening, of youth rather than experience.

In 2013, Tom Standage, the author of the excellent Writing on the wall: social media – the first two millenniaappeared on Want to to describe this new/old era of social media. As Standage argued, we have been here several times in history. From publicly distributed letters from Marcus Tullius Cicero to Martin Luther’s handwriting on a church door in 18th century London cafes, he suggests, we embraced social media because we are, by definition, social creatures. We do social media, Standage argues, because we’re human.

So if Standage is correct, the current social media era of #justiceforjohnnydepp is a throwback to something familiar. What is a historical oddity, however, is the industrial top-down media system that manufactured the brouhaha of OJ Simpson in the late 20th century. And the only new thing—really New– about digital social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok – is their global scale. Close your eyes. It’s not that hard to imagine Martin Luther on TikTok. OH MY GOD. #justiceformartinluther.

Our return to social media – with its youthful culture of direct action and emphasis on talking rather than listening – may be the key to making sense of so much that seems weird in 2020s life. Over the past week I’ve done Want to interviews with some notables from the old media world: Hollywood power broker George Stevens Jr and longtime TV show star, rescue bar, Jon Taper. Both are older white men. But it’s their ideas that, in our age of social media, now seem so absurdly archaic. Stevens remembers what he calls a “golden age” of Hollywood. I guess most TikTokers would disagree.

The so-called “crisis” of democracy today, I suspect, is tied to the shift from network television to the age of social media. Top-down representative democracy seemed like a godsend when 95 million people dutifully listened as OJ’s white Ford Bronco was chased down a freeway by a bunch of Sugarland Express-style LAPD cars. Democracy must catch up with our age of social media.

And like so many others Want to guests have suggested over the past few years, we need more direct forms of democracy, more citizens’ assemblies, more channels to transform Washington DC’s top-down power structures into something more relevant to our social media era.

And I wonder if our public health “crisis”, with its “pandemic” of childhood anxiety, is also both a cause and a consequence of this new era. Earlier this week, I interviewed Kimberly Wolf, the author of talk to her, a guide for fathers to talk to their daughters. There’s a disconnect, Wolf suggested to me on Want to, between the noise of social networks and the silence of the family. So dads (and moms) have to catch up. They must learn to talk to their children. Rather than reading self-help books, parents should probably just log on to TikTok and learn to talk, talk, talk.

As Tom Standage argued in 2013, social media has little to do with technology. It is its noise rather than its signal. The problem today is that pro and anti-social media camps fixate on technology and thereby miss its true meaning.

So, for example, earlier this week, Silicon Valley-based media expert Nirit Weiss-Blatt came to Want to to argue against what she calls “Techlash” and its hostility to social media. But the relevance of today’s TikTok generation is its youthful, straightforward style and creative energy, not its technology. When we talk about technology, we are usually talking about something else. It’s like sex. Or with family.

Last week, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, warned of what he described as “the hurricane that is hitting our economy” caused by inflation and the war in Ukraine. But I wonder if there is another more destructive hurricane that has already hit society. We have arrived in the age of social media without realizing it. This is perhaps the root of our general anxiety, our feeling of an impending apocalypse, our grim pessimism. We live in a new world with old ideas. The challenge is to reverse this trend and live in an old world with new ideas.

I started this essay Neil Postman-style (yawn), lamenting our prioritization of social media’s Amber Heard v. Johnny Depp lawsuit over seemingly larger events like mass murder and foreign wars. Yeah, I’m just another boring old white man too, in my The best of worlds hysteria that TikTokers are having fun to death. I even got bored on the last 1000 words.

So yes, we need today’s TikTokers to wake us up. But not too violently. For the new cure to become as deadly as the old disease. #justiceforhumanity.