The Frankenstein's Monster of Social Media

Georgia Tech students Sarah Malis, 20, left, and Marcela Moreno, 20, sit around an Apple laptop computer at a Starbucks store
Georgia Tech students Sarah Malis, 20, left, and Marcela Moreno, 20, sit around an Apple laptop computer at a Starbucks store Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011 in Atlanta. Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and former CEO who invented and masterfully marketed ever-sleeker gadgets that transformed everyday technology, from the personal computer to the iPod and iPhone, died Wednesday. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

"I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots."
--Albert Einstein

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein exposes the dark side of brilliance. Our most original and powerful creations, left unchecked by morality and responsibility, can become enormously destructive. Genius without maturity can lead to disaster. Victor Frankenstein learns to harness some of the most mysterious forces in the universe -- he is, as the novel's subtitle suggests, the Modern Prometheus -- but he never ponders or learns to control the dangerous implications of his own creativity, and the result is disastrous for him and for those about whom he most cares.

Enthralled by what he can do, Frankenstein never pauses to ask what he should do.

He would have been at home with Twitter and Pinterest and probably a reader of The Huffington Post. About The Drudge Report I am not so sure, since even mad scientists have to draw the line somewhere.

Social media, I believe, are in danger of becoming the Frankenstein's monster of our historical moment. Brilliant people have created powerful tools that allow us to do things unimagined even a decade ago, yet it is fair to ask whether those tools have done more harm than good and whether they are being wielded with a sense of responsibility. Have we ushered in the start of a new and better age, or have we through our own genius created forces whose destructive power is leaving us diminished and less prepared to make wise decisions?

Certainly, like Shelley's protagonist, we are enthralled, in our case by the stunning capabilities that have arisen in this brave new digital world. We get more information. It comes at us more rapidly. It can be accessed more simply and inexpensively. We can talk to almost anyone about almost anything, and we can find people to agree with or shout at with nearly effortless ease. This is remarkable stuff, and to those who, like me, have been adults for more than a couple of decades, it has seemed to come upon us with a swiftness that is hard to fathom.

But I would contend that our excitement at what we can do has gotten far ahead -- dangerously far ahead -- of our consideration of what we should do. In an age that is being shaped in so many ways by the creation and evolution of new forms of social media, I have been struck by the infrequency of serious discussion about what we have gained and what we have lost or are in imminent danger of losing. We seem caught up in the creative frenzy of Victor Frankenstein, whose "discovery was so great and overwhelming that all the steps by which I had been progressively led to it were obliterated, and I beheld only the result."

Here are some things that I think our present condition has left diminished. They are important. Whether they are worth sacrificing for the benefits brought by new technologies, and indeed whether such a sacrifice is necessary, are matters about which more of us should be talking.

Privacy. While there have always been those who were willing to violate the tacit expectation of privacy, I believe that the prevailing assumption prior to the rise of social media was that written communications between individuals about personal matters were "private," by which I mean that they were to be shared only with permission and with discretion. Those who violated that assumption were considered to be, well, violating something. The assumption no longer prevails. My experience has been that many of those who are active users of social media assume instead that any written communication can be posted on Facebook or on a blog, unless there is an explicit request not to do so (and sometimes even if there is such a request). This public sharing of person-to-person correspondence is seen by these individuals as wholly appropriate.

Honesty. Because of the omnipresent possibility that private communications will be made public, those communications have become more circumspect and guarded. Any frank expression of opinion or provision of information that has the potential to cause embarrassment or damage if widely shared is much more likely today than in earlier times to be withheld. I recall being advised when I became a college president to imagine that every conversation I held, even those in private settings, had the potential to be broadcast through a megaphone. Now all of us need to bear in mind that potential.

Civility. I am not unrealistically nostalgic for an earlier age of universal politeness. Nastiness has always been a prominent part of our public discourse. But it has gotten worse, stoked by the new ability to be, at the same time, anonymous, public, and loud. I dare anyone to read the on-line comments section of any blog or news site that permits anonymous submissions and not come away dispirited by the capacity of human beings to heap verbal abuse upon one another when afforded both a stage from which to declaim and a mask behind which to hide. Generally I am told that one should not read these comments. But not reading them does not alter the fact of their existence and explosive growth, and dismissing them as unserious underestimates the damage such commentary is doing to our ability to speak seriously with one another. A recent study by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele of the University of Wisconsin has shown that perusing nasty and ad hominem comments actually alters for the worse a reader's understanding of the article at which those comments are directed. Put simply, exposure to this stuff makes us dumber and more polarized.

I would contend that when undesirable things like violations of privacy and anonymous invective reach a point where they are taken for granted, it is time to become concerned.

Truth. Traditional forms of media are of course imperfect, but typically they have made at least some attempt to obtain verification before reporting something as a matter of fact. Today such attempts seem almost quaint, like decorating a room with antiques. We exist now in an echo-chamber of blogs and Facebook pages where "my friend told me" is a sufficient form of fact-checking and where a demonstrable misstatement of the truth can move from one person's web page to a search engine to a very large audience quite literally in a matter of moments. And once released, as we all know, the genie of misinformation is pretty much impossible to put back in the bottle.

Compromise. Nate Silver has argued convincingly that many of our predictions have become less accurate as our access to data has increased and that those with conflicting opinions become less rather than more likely to reach agreement when exposed to more of the "facts." Though this may seem counter-intuitive, upon reflection it makes perfect sense: confronted with enormous amounts of unfiltered information, we are inclined to choose from the gigantic whole those bits and pieces that confirm rather than challenge our preconceptions. In the internet universe one can find confirmation for virtually any opinion or belief, no matter how outlandish. Distinctions between the expert and the amateur, between the reflective thinker and the bloviator, are blurred by the sheer volume of material and the difficulty of tracing its origin. It is absolutely no accident that the internet age is an age of startling political paralysis and partisanship. Our access to information has outpaced, at least for the moment, our ability to process it and to draw upon it to reach agreement on matters of consequence.

Self-examination. Two of the prerequisites for careful reflection are time and silence. Our age affords us little of either. The consequences of a clumsy statement or an error in judgment are more swift and public than in any previous era. What once might have led to self-scrutiny and moral or intellectual growth now provokes chiefly damage control. We have far less space than ever before within which to be fallible and therefore, I would contend, far fewer opportunities to become better and wiser.

While there is no easy way to change the manner in which social media are currently used, there may be some reason for hope. It is common for both social science and social norms to lag behind the evolution of new technologies, and studies like that of Brossard and Scheufele, along with books like Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones, a chronicle of bullying that highlights the problematic role of social media, suggest that the science at least is beginning to make some progress.

According to the Pew Research Center, the most frequent users of social media sites are adults between the ages of 18 and 29. This happens to be the demographic by which I am surrounded on a college campus, which is probably why I feel awash in a sea of Facebook protest groups and petitions, many of whose signatories had not actually heard of Macalester College until they decided to join a protest against its egregious behavior. But 18- to 29-year-olds eventually become 40- to 50-year-olds, and I suspect that it is this initial generation of heavy social media users that will, as it ages and matures, help to establish behavioral norms that are more appropriate. In the meantime, all that each of us can control is our own behavior, meaning that we can model a more responsible level of discourse and, when necessary, push back against the worst violations of accuracy and decorum.

When considering a matter of consequence, I never dismiss the very real possibility that I am wrong. In this instance, the enormous potential of social media to do great things like spread education, effect political change, and bring people around the globe closer together might far outweigh those side effects about which I am concerned. Yet the history of technological progress should by now have taught us that in the quest for greatness we should never abandon human goodness. We have done so before, to less than beneficial effect.

It is entirely possible that we are living out the creative aspirations of the brilliant Victor Frankenstein and that future beneficiaries of the age of social media will "bless [us] as its creator and source." Better this than the alternative: that we are giving birth, in the famous words of Mary Shelley, to a "hideous progeny."

Or maybe I should say #hideous progeny.