There is a dizzying amount of content on the internet. Although some of that content feels a little more “worthwhile” than other snippets, I will be the first to admit that I dedicated more than a few minutes of my adolescent life to watching this.
It is no wonder, given this superabundance, that most of us have at one time or another resorted to skimming an article, to reading the headline and skipping the article, or to scrolling to the bottom while saying a short, silent prayer for the markings “TL;DR” followed by a snapshot summary.
Another challenge arises when we consider who is producing all of that content. In short: anybody. Right now, I am sitting on my front porch drafting up my thoughts, preparing to share them with you (or “future you” given that it will be a few weeks before publication) as well as anyone else who cares to read them. Like everyone else, I am a pretty complex person whose views have been shaped by my experiences and identities. Although I can recognize my own set of biases (for the most part), it seems a far taller order to ask you to recognize my biases given what little you know of me. Maybe you trust me to be totally fair and impartial, but I would advise against believing that anyone is totally fair and impartial. By virtue of our existence, our race, our socioeconomic status, our ability, our sexual orientation, our gender identity, our relationship status, our height, our build, our affiliation with the military, our age–and the list goes on and on–none among us are totally fair and impartial.
In short, the internet is comprised of a ton of content that is produced by a ton of people who, as a symptom of their living in the world, possess a ton of (unknown) biases. Oh, and we are prone to skimming through this content (or skipping the content save for the headline) before turning around and sharing it with the world along with our thoughts on the matter. What could go wrong?
On April 1, NPR posted an article to Facebook titled “Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?” People commented on the article–many insisting that they do read, while others were waxing poetic about days gone by and lamenting the rise of all of this doggone distracting technology. The joke was on all of them. Those who clicked on the link to travel to the text of the article itself found the following:
Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools’ Day!
We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven’t actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let’s see what people have to say about this “story.”
Best wishes and have an enjoyable day,
Your friends at NPR
This is a harmless, silly example of a much deeper problem: We are unwilling to engage with the details and complexity of issues and arguments, but we want to make it seem that we have. We want to contribute without acknowledging or ingesting others’ contributions. We have opinions–and there are forums to voice them–but in our world of gratuitous selfies and instant gratification, we have stopped listening to one another.
The “success” of satirical websites like The Onion are further proof of this when considering the relative frequency with which people miss out on the joke and take seriously their “news.” The website Literally Unbelievable, though removing the identities of the offenders, serves to publicly share the uninformed words of the individuals who did not get the joke. Some of the things that people believe to be real news are very funny, but there is still that familiar dark pang of concern: How in the world did anyone believe this? With whom else did they share this misinformation? How many of those people believed and shared it? How many personal beliefs and perspectives have been reinforced for folks who missed the satire? (I had many of these same feelings with the movie Brüno was released. In short, what if audience members are laughing for very different reasons?)
There is always some danger in producing satire that folks will not “get it” and that it will serve the exact opposite end than that which was intended. Again though, especially in the case of The Onion, it seems “literally unbelievable” that anyone who actually read the articles, who engaged with the content, could possibly walk away believing that the stories constitute real news. Even if they were persuaded that these stories might be real, is it too much to ask to open another browser window to fact-check something that seems a little… strange? We need to wrestle with our media instead of letting it wash over us unquestioned–especially if we plan to share what we “learned” with others.
Sure, these examples are a little silly and extreme, but the point stands: we have stopped engaging with the content. We have traded in critical thinking for passion and sensationalism. We have been taught that it is more noble to defend our perspectives than to consider that we may be wrong, or at the very least, that there are alternative views worth considering. The production of knowledge is in jeopardy as we irreverently boil down and defile astute arguments before hurling them into cyberspace, hashtags attached, where they will achieve an undeserved (and dangerous) immortality.
Even worse, these attitudes and actions are mirrored in how we carry ourselves through the world. We are not listening to one another. We are texting while you speak to us. We want the SparkNotes version of Hamlet. We are either on the offensive or the defensive at dinner parties. We contribute in class based on the Wiki and not on the course text. We see disagreement as divisive, as the smoldering ashes of all would-be future invitations.
We need to stop and step back for a minute.
We need to consider a few big questions: Where are we getting our information? Why do we believe what we believe? What do we value? Then, we need to consider one issue about which we feel passionate, and we need to imagine someone whom we love and respect taking a different stance on that issue. Where does their argument have merit? Which piece(s) do you fundamentally agree or disagree with – and why?
We need to stop thinking of issues as having a “right” side and a “wrong” side, and instead, start working together to achieve a fuller understanding of the complexities. This is not a tug-of-war. This is that really cool gym class parachute. We each have our own position and perspective that is uniquely ours based on our experiences and identities. Someone who does not share our exact view should not necessarily be seen as working against us. We are each doing our part, and it would serve us well to recognize the value in our multiplicity of perspectives.
We need to care enough to take time to read and digest information before responding to it. We need to admit when we change our thinking on something. (This often gives other folks permission to let their guards down and do the same.) We need to relax and remember how to engage in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. By today’s standards, the aforementioned process will not produce sexy media, but it may steer us toward a more engaged future.
We are each the products of our own identities and experiences, and I really believe that we should seize the opportunities for discussion and growth that this digital age affords us. We have an amazing platform to tell our stories and to share our pieces of the puzzle, but before we do that, it would serve us well to quiet down and listen.