Social Media is the McDonalds of the Public Sphere

Will Samson No comments exist

I don’t eat fast food. Not because I’m some snooty foodie (although I am). No, I stopped eating fast food because it doesn’t make me feel good, eventually. As a human I love sugar, fat and salt, so the first hit off a Whopper makes my lizard brain ecstatic. But, an hour or two later I feel sluggish, drained of energy and queasy. Just plain gross. That fast food meal had what I wanted, but not what I needed.


Yesterday on NPR, Shankar Vedantam presented research to make a point I have written about before, that social media isn’t very social. We think it should be – I mean, it has the word social in it. Social media should make us more connected and deepen our relationships. Instead, research shows that it increases our social anxiety and heightens our jealousy of other’s lives, even if what we believe about their lives is a curated impression that doesn’t match reality. Like fast food, social media has what we want, a perception of community, but not what we need, which is true kinship and connection.

As individuals we need relationships. So it makes sense that a society comprised of those same individuals also needs connection and community. We desire a world where our needs are met and our wants can be achieved through our efforts. That conversation about how the world should exist – who should govern, what values should they bring to governing, what should we spend money on – is something social scientists refer to as the public sphere.

Nerd word alert: the public sphere is just one way of thinking about the way we decide what the world should look like. Historically, these conversations have taken place at coffee houses, town halls, churches/temples, and yes, in our state houses and federal buildings. But not many people are talking politics at Starbuck’s these days, and partisanship may be greater in our halls of power than it’s ever been. The most significant public sphere conversation today is happening on Facebook.

Just like a Big Mac, political conversations on Facebook give us what we want. It’s easy to spend our time only talking to people who think like us, so it allows for the quick release of dopamine we get from confirmation bias. It is a mostly unmediated platform, so it allows us to believe and say whatever we want without pesky editors. It allows us to block or unfriend those with whom we disagree, something that’s harder to do in person.

But is it giving us what we need? Well, you tell me – how happy are you with the world as it exists today? This question is the great unifier of left and right, red and blue, Democrats and Republicans – most people think we’re in trouble. Like the nausea that follows a White Castle hamburger, our nation is experiencing wide spread malaise brought about by fast democracy, the fast food version of politics afforded by social media platforms in general, and Facebook in particular.

So, what do we do about this? If I had an easy answer I’d be marching to patent it. But here’s where I think we can start: we need a slow politics movement. The slow food movement arose as a response to the horrible choices afforded by fast food. Here are some the elements that I think should be part of such a movement:

  1. Commitment to Local Communities – I don’t know how to fix Washington, and I darn sure don’t know how to fix Syria, North Korea or the Middle East. But my local community gardening initiative has weeds that need to be pulled. I should start there. (If you’re in Lexington, start here).
  2. Commitment to 40 Years of Purpose – at the risk of offending someone, 40 days of purpose is the fast food of culture change. The problems we are facing today are whole generations in the making. To make our world better, we need to start committing to bigger timeframes.
  3. Commitment to Agile Strategy – this may seem antithetical to the last point, but to solve the big problems we need small steps. For anyone working to make their local community better, I would encourage you to check out Strategic Doing as a model.

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