The longer it’s around, the more it appears social media has the wrong name. It’s really antisocial media.
Be assured this is not a rant about mom, dad, Junior and Sis sitting at a table each engaged on his or her mobile device. It’s not even a lament of all the visceral comments people make, anonymously or otherwise, on Facebook or Twitter. All of that is real, of course, but it’s old news.
This relates more to the abysmal turnout in Mississippi’s primary elections earlier this month.
Our digital worlds are fast becoming where we live; fast becoming our only worlds.
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Granted there were no fiery electoral contests, but wow. It appears only 14 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot. Looking at the returns another way, one of about every 20 Mississippians gave U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker a solid endorsement (their vote) for a new, six-year term. That’s nothing against Wicker; the same could be written about any congressional incumbent.
Here’s what’s going on: Like never before, people are able to define their areas of interest and isolate themselves into those areas.
Say it’s 1980 and a Mississippian is a devoted fan of the New Orleans Saints. On an average day, that person might get a paragraph or two in the local sports section and a sentence or two on the local TV news. There might be a sports talk radio station, but most likely not. Otherwise there might be team newsletter and the fan could also scour Sports Illustrated every week for Saints news.
Not a lot of information. Plenty of time to do other stuff.
Today, a Google search of the internet for “New Orleans Saints” returned 85.9 million links. Detailed information of every player. Hundred of analysts writing about seasons past and future. Injury reports. Photo and video galleries and replays. On and on and on. A serious fan could spend 12 or more hours every day harvesting Saints information and never, in his or her lifetime, consume it all.
A lot of information. No time to do much else, at least for the seriously addicted.
This pattern extends beyond sports. There are recipe junkies, quilting junkies, Baroque music junkies and, yes, political junkies.
The latter group is fed nonstop analysis on live television as well as the internet. Driving wedges is an effective political tool and also works well when presented as suspense on a news set. Don’t discuss the meat of legislation. Instead pose one of two questions: What does this mean for Democrats or what does this mean for Republicans?
Frankly, it’s getting old. And, except for a few diehards, people are increasingly tuning out — spending their waking hours on recipes, football, music or any other of dozens and dozens of entertainments and pasttimes.
And not voting.
Now Mississippians, like all Americans, have been drilled on self-governance and the importance of involvement and their civic duty to vote. When there’s a hot election, such as a presidential contest, turnout is decent. Otherwise, it’s bad — and getting worse. People seem not to realize that a good candidate doesn’t make it to a general election unless he or she makes it through a primary. Primaries, especially, are not enough to draw away from the digital worlds they have created for themselves.
The scholarly term for this cultural shift is self-siloing.
As long as there have been libraries and laboratories it has been possible for some individuals to become so involved in specific topics they have no connection to the world around them. Increased access to the internet and advent of social media have made this exponentially easier for exponentially more people. More and more have gone into the abyss.
Don’t believe it? If you’re old enough, think about your circle of friends. Has it gone from people who knew a little about a lot of topics to people who know a lot about a few topics? Young people, especially, display self-specialization. Put five in a room. One will know a lot about sports, but can’t name a singer. One can instantly name the artist performing any song, but doesn’t know what sport the Saints play.
It doesn’t make a quality-of-life difference for individuals if social media entices them to isolate themselves into a topic or two.
It could well make a crucial difference in the future of self-rule. Democracy doesn’t have an auto-pilot switch. It just can’t work for the betterment of all when only 14 percent of the people are paying attention.