When he was a Texas Supreme Court justice, Don Willett twitted. His twits are exceptionally witty, and he was adored for them by the many, even if too many were mere judicial sycophants. But what they were not was insightful, other than illuminating the fact that Judge Willett, now of the Fifth Circuit and his twitter account all but abandoned, was a very funny guy. But his judicial philosophy? His view of legal issues, lawyers, the law? His twits offered nothing.
So why was Judge Willett twitting? Maybe he just enjoyed making funnies. Or maybe he enjoyed the validation that came of it. Playing to an audience has become something of a national past time on social media, but as thrilling as it may be to bask in the warm glow of 10,000 “likes,” it can turn into a prison.
Validation can be addicting. You want people to “like” what you say, to “like” you, and I’ve watched as some people who were once smart and bold have self-censored and tailored their social media expression to appeal to their fans. Before social media validation, they would freely express controversial thoughts, complex thoughts, without fear or favor. Now, they’ve moderated their voice, chosen words they never would have used years ago and fed the angry mob only what they want to hear.
In a fascinating post at ArcDigita, Kat Rosenfeld ponders what this need for external approval has done to us.
The point is not to do things; it’s #DoingThings, and making sure people see you doing them. If nobody dutifully taps that little heart icon to acknowledge that photograph you took — at the Grand Canyon, on your wedding day, at your father’s deathbed — were you ever really there? If you look into a work of art and don’t see yourself looking back, how can you be sure the story you tell yourself about your life is true? Consider the accusation levied at the artist who fails to make people feel seen, who makes the mistake of imagining that his work is a window instead of a mirror: not that he has overlooked his audience, but that he has erased them.
If what other people think of you is a threat to your existence, then when they don’t think of you, perhaps you cease to exist at all.
Most of us want to believe that we don’t care, that we would never moderate our thoughts, our beliefs, to appeal to the online mob for its approval. There’s an easy argument to support this belief, and avoid the cognitive dissonance of having to face our own self-delusion. After all, we need say nothing more than, “Hey, that’s what i believe and it’s not my fault if all these other people agree with me.” And that may be true.
But what about when you have some thought that won’t appease your fans? Would you say it out loud? Would you risk their approbation? What if you’re not sure whether the choir will approve or not? Would you take the chance?
A decade ago, Adrianos Fachetti observed that we “are what google says we are.” At the time, the notion seemed ridiculous, as if we, as people, were reduced to the front page of a website. But he wasn’t wrong, and his words have now morphed from google to social media, that we are what twitter says we are. And if you stray from the party line on social media, you can swiftly find yourself a pariah in the hive mind of the unduly passionate.
After all, your value on social media isn’t so much about you, but about what others feel about you. If you have ten followers on the twitters, you ain’t nobody. If you have 10,000 people, you matter. No, not in reality, but in twitter reality, which is the only reality in which you exist to the hordes of people who either validate you or hate you because you’ve failed to obtain their approval.
The irony is that before social media, you would not only never have known most of these people, but even if you had, you wouldn’t have given a damn what they had to say about you. Suddenly, their approval of you matters? If you need to feel “seen,” then it does, your existence is dependent on their continuing approval of you. Are you who you are, or who they believe you are?
Or you can not give a damn, speak your mind without regard to whether it will please or piss off your followers, and take the risk on an existential threat to your online world. If you’ve got 10,000 people following you, telling you to be the person they want you to be or else, will you concern yourself with appeasing them or not give a damn and, should you say something with which the fans disapprove, risk their ire? Are you the “thought leader” you want to believe you are or the captive of your audience for the sake of validation?