(I wrote this a while ago: sorry it's not fresh, but it's certainly still relevant. And while I'm preemptively apologizing: sorry for any typos within. Feel free to point them out.)
I do not have the means to make a vlog without great energy, but (mashallah) I do have the means to write an essay. I wish to reflect herein upon John Green’s vlogbrothers video published on January 9th, 2018, titled “Your Attention,” not only to consider what John is saying, but also to ask: About what is he correct? About what is he wrong? And what precisely should we do about it?
The video discusses the power of social media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Tinder, Pinterest, and many others are not merely trifles of modern society. These social media have immense power on all levels of worldwide society, across gender, class, religion, ethnicity, age, and nationality. How does John Green describe the universal tool of international communication, the modern marvel of the Internet?
"It is an endlessly self-renewing bonfire of outrage and confusion."
This is a far appraisal. “Endlessly” because the Internet shows no sign of stopping. “Self-renewing” because it is we the users who create the chaos of the Internet. “Bonfire of outrage and confusion” because this is the fallen state of mankind; unless we have completely overcome our selfishness, there is no reason to think it will not follow us into every situation.
But why specifically is the Internet bad? Is it the collective fault of mankind? Or is the culprit more specific? Here, John makes a partial error in his diagnosis, for in his praise-worthy attempt to avoid Idealizing The Past, he unwittingly falls into Universalizing The Past. He says:
Admittedly it sometimes feels like YouTube comments never really got better so much as the rest of the internet got worse but still we shouldn't idealize the past. There have always been powerful people who misuse that power and there have always been people who feel powerless and vengeful and use the cloak of anonymity to attack others.
In this, he is correct in part. The Internet is indeed plagued by the Powerful People (who misuse power) and the Powerless And Vengeful (who attack others through anonymity). But John forgets first, that in the earliest days of the Internet, the Powerful People were not online; and second, that we are all Powerless and Vengeful to a greater or lesser degree.
Far more importantly, John forgets that these problems are not the same. There will always be the Powerless And Vengeful, because (excepting a rare few who have attained great holiness, myself not at all included) it is us. But the Powerful People can be kept in check by Justice. We should recognize that there was a time before the Internet became a capitalist farmland, and while this era was not a golden age because of the fallen nature of humankind, it was a different kind of imperfect than now exists. The present imperfection of the Internet is compounded by corporations which feed upon the base instincts of humans to line the coffers of the fantastically wealthy (or for liberals: “improve the economy”). However many trolls there may have been, it seems unlikely the early Internet could have produced such symptoms as John describes:
It's hard to get reliable news online; and the news cycle moves so quickly that it's difficult to follow complicated stories over time; and the architecture of the social Internet often seems to lift up the loudest and most divisive voices over more cautious and nuanced ones. Also lots of undeserving creators and creations reach large audiences. And then the backlash to those creators and creations is so hyperintense that it creates a backlash to the backlash and then a backlash to the backlash to the backlash ad infinitum.
John aptly explains why the Powerful People—private companies—manipulate the system with a particular result in mind: participation. More eyes on more ads. His lion metaphor is roaring (I’m so sorry). He summarizes more briefly with some words that we should drill through our heads:
I do think however that we need to look at the differences between our goals as a species and the goals of the private companies that hosts so much of our public discourse… all of these companies want as much of our attention as they can get, because that is how they make money, which is what they exist to do.
While John and I disagree (radically) on what constitutes “our goals as a species,” we can at least agree that is it not making money for corporations. Consider, as I reflected on above, the extreme international influence of social media. Consider that the only reason you are reading this is due to social media. We should be deeply concerned that “private companies [host] so much of our public discourse.” John’s approach is a little kinder to corporations. He concludes hopefully:
I don't buy the argument that this makes corporations or the people who work at them evil… Algorithms and the companies that control them are big and powerful but in the end each of us still chooses what we watch and listen to and read. Your attention is powerful and it is yours.
I am far more sympathetic to the argument that this makes corporations (if not necessarily the people who work at them) evil. Most know the adage of St. Paul: “money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). And our Lord’s words suggest that those who are devoted to money, despise God (Matthew 6:24).
Regardless, John finds hope in our agency. We the people can fix things by simply fixing ourselves; if we modify our preferences, the market will self-correct. Everything can be fine, if we guard our attention carefully. But this hopefulness ignores that the influence between markets and people goes two ways. The demand of the people may ultimately determine the supply of the market, but bourgeois corporation owners are not researching how they do what is best for people, how they order customers towards the highest Good, or how they can fulfill the profound desires and needs of the proletariat.
Corporation owners exploit customers.
They want our attention, and it is very hard to turn down the feast that they lay before us.
It is no accident that the feast is hard to turn down. It is no accident that they lay before a feast which appeals to the desires of ours which are most difficult to control. Not roaring on cue is designed to be difficult.
Corporations research how to advertise, how to manipulate, and how to control. Though data mining deserves a discussion of its own, the existence of this practice confirms that the last thing corporations are considering is what is good for you. With Net Neutrality on death row and a ballot that is only ever filled with capitalists, it is unlikely that this will change anytime soon.
So is John justified in saying,
But none of that means we should have to accept an internet that sucks.
Yes and no. I propose that his hopeful optimism is idealistic and misguided. Most consumers of online media do not have the virtue (or even the means of attaining virtue) to overcome the manipulation of corporations and wrest control from market forces. In this way, John is very wrong.
But he is right in appealing to our agency. Even if it is foolish to imagine that social media will be made just, we can indeed make decisions to over our own lives. We should John’s closing words as inspiration enough to reform ourselves. To this end, I propose the following ways—all of which I eagerly open to discussion and expansion—in which we might practice this theory.