A Very, Very Brief History of Social Media’s Twisted Values

Some of us were very excited, in the early days, by the idea that the internet was an infinite library of knowledge, that we could log on and learn anything we wanted about any subject under the sun. How Naïve!

We were quickly disabused

Internet culture and experience is based on that of the USA, and US culture retains a traditional cartesian mindset in matters of the separation of the spirit and the body. This perhaps owes something to its puritan roots. 

We are all aware of the historical narrative that charts a causal link from the rediscovery of Classical literature and knowledge to the renaissance and a renewed interest in the human individual and the self, outside the medieval Christian collectivist frame. We’ve heard how this led to the enlightenment, with its idea of spiritual self-realisation as the ultimate goal and aspiration of human endeavour. We know about the reinforcement to these ideas given by the development of the moveable type printing presses and the translation of the bible into European languages, allowing Christians to develop a personal relationship with their god, resist the tyranny of the established church, and replace it with the authority of personal conviction. 

We’ve read how these new concepts and theories, and their fierce, proud independence, were transported to a new continent by rebellious and indignant puritans, seeking the freedom to live, think and worship according their own personal judgements, and how they were translated into the pioneering spirit and the idea of “Manifest Destiny”: the belief that not only was it admirable and desirable, but also morally just and right for an individual to carve out a life and a home for themselves in the wilderness, in direct competition with other, often older, more indigenous claimants to the same territory. The self-satisfied pioneer then has a perfect right to put down self-derived roots, and to enjoy the profits of their own labours, without obligation to other people or to higher authorities, just like The Little Red Hen[1].

This, we’ve been led to believe, has led to the rise of the heroic individual, the self-made man (traditionally masculine), rampant consumerism (literal, financial, mercantile, intellectual) in pursuit of self-fulfilment, Reaganite/Thatcherite economics and the erosion of community and civic responsibility (“Who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families.” Mrs Thatcher, 1987, from an interview in Woman’s Own magazine.)

Of course, such an overarching meta-narrative is far too simplistic to be true for the complexity of human life, with its 8 billion contributors. Yet there is a beguiling explicatory coherence to it. Every one of these ideas echoes and resonates on the internet and social media, not just in the tweets and posts and comments of its billions of users, but also in the ethos and values that seem coded into its most basic programming: its attempts to facilitate a pioneering freedom on a new frontier, escaping those who would restrict and regulate you;  the belief in free speech, in the inherent virtue in rebellion, in staying true to your own beliefs, in disrupting orthodoxy.

[1] Appropriately, this story is American in origin, according to Wikipedia, and was first published by Mary Mapes Dodge in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1874. She claimed her mother used to tell it to her. It may owe something to the Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper and clearly promotes a capitalist, pioneering ethos of self-sufficiency. Wikipedia also draws our attention to the story of The Enormous Turnip, which they claim is a Russiantale, first published in Archanglesk Governorate in 1863, by Alexander Afanasyev. This, significantly, is a chain story, where the whole family and community must collaborate to successfully pull up the titular root vegetable and feast upon it together: much more socialist!

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