My gloss on Chris Bail’s excellent new book (introducing the idea of the “Social Media Prism”) is that the primary mechanism by which social media drives polarization is by letting us observe other people.
This observation is distorted, as Bail argues effectively, by how the attention economy produces a “race-to-the-outrageous” and how both global spirals of silence and local eddies of apathy cause the disengagement of moderates from political discussions. This post is about another dynamic, one that would exist even if the social media looking glass were crystal clear:
Millions of Americans are miserable. The internet has “gotten worse” because Americans are not ok. Near-universal internet access means that there are immiserated, lonely people spending many hours a day online. The breakdown in the social fabric, climbing "prime-age" unemployment and high rates of addiction and mental illness manifest themselves in our mutually-constructed online spaces. There is a misery that wants to make itself known--to inflict itself on the world--that social media enables. We are reaping what we've sown; the interconnectedness enabled by the internet and the gains from open communication/cooperation cannot succeed while so many are left behind.
Mary Gaitskill, one of the clearest-eyed observers of the American condition, describes living near a squalid community recently decimated by Hurricane Katrina and ignored by the government in her essay Somebody with a Little Hammer. After watching some quotidian cruelty committed by a desperate, downtrodden neighbor, she reads to her English class an excerpt from Chekov's famous story Gooseberries: