The thin veneer of one-click approbation

Years ago, I joined LinkedIn because someone said it would be a crucial “networking” tool for my career. The Facebook of the workforce, as it were. And that was when I was just only beginning to realize the vapid futility of Facebook, so I took their advice, and have been receiving emails from LinkedIn ever since. The problem is that anyone who has ever engaged with LinkedIn for fifteen minutes and has even a shred of honesty left in their soul can immediately recognize the service as completely useless.

In my first weeks on LinkedIn, I friended connected with most everyone I “knew” from both my in-person and online life who had also already joined. In the many years since, I have added three times that many contacts. Most of these people I have never met, and certainly never worked with. Of the ones I have met, 3/4 are friends, family, or people I have only encountered in passing. Again…never worked with them. And yet, now every time I visit the site (sucker!), I am asked to vouch for their professional abilities. In a broad range of fields in which I am not qualified, and so cannot judge their aptitude. Assuming I had ever even seen their work. Which I almost never have. Which should make it an easy pass…and yet so many of them have endorsed me, it feels awkward. Note that: I have been endorsed for everything from Graphic Design to Storytelling, and I actually do both of those quite well, but more than 20 people have endorsed me for Graphic Design and no more than eight of them have ever seen my work. Honestly, most of my endorsements are from people who have never seen what I can actually do, and while I refuse to endorse anyone for anything for which I have not seen the proof of their work, it pains me to skip screen after screen of acquaintances who I know have already blurred that line for me.

The bigger problem is that this is systematic of our culture: we’re all so happily playing pretend online that we dilute any sense of truth when we try to apply online activities to the physical world. We have “friends” and “colleagues”, we “support” causes and give “gifts” with neither longevity nor meaning, nor even the value of our time and considered thought in choosing them. As someone who spends much of every day focused on the world online, I’m only too aware that social media is the new God. Everything we build, every effort we make in the online world is marketed to it. We gauge the value of our ideas by it. We make or break businesses based on it. And yet, at the end of the day, it doesn’t measure real opinions, real values, or careful thought…it measures whether something had enough punch to grab our short attention spans for long enough to hit “share” or “like”.

Social media, in all its forms, measures exactly one thing: poor impulse control.

It doesn’t have to be this way; online interactions in no way are defined by being shallow or full of false premises. But if we’re going to save ourselves from this slippery slope of one-click approbation, we need to rethink the way we view and use social media. We need to stop pretending that a click is anything more than a momentary impulse, and come up with better metrics of gauging interest, support, and value. Systems that require processes of thought and time spent in reflection or analysis. Putting the effort into building those next-wave interactive online tools is well worth the rewards in our physical world processes, and possibly even in our own characters and storylines. Imagine if we had tools that actually capitalized on the wisdom of crowds, increased understanding and tolerance, and promoted empathy and careful thought.

Perhaps you think this sounds like a faerie tale, and perhaps it is. Perhaps I just never got over those early, star-struck days of the Internet, when we were all going to become one enormous, interconnected family, with hope, tolerance, and opportunity for all. Or something like that. But the possibility of building an online world that nurtures some of the better human traits is not ridiculous, nor even out of reach. We just have to stop looking for the fast solution, the one-click answer, long enough to craft a better set of tools.

The Bad Guy Epidemic

There has been a slowly emerging trend in fiction over the last fifteen years or so. Replacing the simple goodness of protagonists such as King Arthur and the simpleminded goodness of heroines such as Snow White, we have a growing contingent of more complicated, morally ambiguous characters taking center stage in our stories. Dubious heroes such as Batman and John Constantine exist only to fight off worser evils (and often their “good deeds” are almost coincidental to their battles against their own, personal demons). The traditional antagonists of our childhood have taken on new shades of human character and societal misuse, as in the cases of the Wicked Witch of the West in Wicked or Morgan Le Fay in The Mists of Avalon. We have a bevy of new “bad guys” at center stage, some of them irresistible in spite of their villainy (Thomas Crown, for example, or Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects), and some without any attempt whatsoever to justify their actions through sympathetic moments or incidental benefits to humanity, as is the case with Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player. Why, as a culture, are our stories evolving in such a way? What is the appeal in watching the bad guys win?

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