A chance line jumped out at me while listening to Yascha Mounk’s podcast The Good Fight. In talking with Renee DiResta about social media, Mounck made a comment about the development of the social self. I am paraphrasing and expanding on the conversation that ensued.
Before social media, we would develop our social persona in dialogue with others. We would learn to tamp down elements of ourselves that provoked disdain or hostility, ramp up that which was socially affirmed, and in general attend to the conversation between our presenting self and our inner self.
Along came social media to liberate us. Suddenly algorithms connected us with kooks exactly like us. Even if no one at my school liked medieval castles, I could join a Facebook group obsessed by them. Anyone who hated eye contact, or loved hedgehogs, or disdained women – found thousands to befriend them with no friction.
Even in the best of times, these online connections full of acceptance, understanding, and solidarity were going to be attractive. Add to the mix a couple of Covid years that vamped up the validity of online interaction, and now millions of people find themselves preferring or even prioritizing their online connections over their in-person companions.
It's a story of liberation, of defeating loneliness, and of belonging.
And yet these liberated, uncompromised, authentic humans have developed without ever needing to accommodate others. They have spent their formative years interacting with online clones of themselves. They have strengthened their own sense of self in encounter with people who share their innermost convictions. What happens when they are forced to meet with people in the outside, dare I say, real world?
Compromise, accommodation, acceptance of different opinion become ever more difficult, for three reasons I can think of. First, because these kinds of adjustments require skills and habits that have hardly been formed, the inner muscles of cooperation through self-restraint have atrophied through lack of practice. Second, there's also an ideological resistance to accommodating others’ opinions, since one has spent so much time online with the forcefully certain. But most crucially, as long as my identity has developed in tandem with my ideas, and as long as my ideas have never been challenged as my sense of self emerges, any in-person rebuttal of my opinions becomes a frontal attack on me. The issue is not only ideological, it's existential.
No wonder arguments are difficult these days.
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