“In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.” -Hunter S. Thompson
This past July 18th, Hunter S. Thompson would have turned 80 years old. I originally wrote this post on that date to, as I put it then, “remember the man, whose singular writing and personality I have admired for so long, by writing a post inspired by him.” Today, the Atlantic published a harrowing story of social media addiction among teenagers and it made me revisit this post.
My first exposure to Thompson was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the gonzo-drug-memoir-sports column-great-American-novel to end them all. The book opened my eyes to the possibility of doing something weird and entertaining and meaningful simultaneously. And I think any piece of art should be all those things: different, enjoyable, and illuminating.
The bravado with which Thompson wrote Fear and Loathing has never left me. The book almost dares every other writer to just do the damn thing and put down the thoughts and machinations her mind busily churns out. So, here is the damn thing.
I have been thinking lately about the unfettered nihilism pumped through the American cultural bloodstream on a constant basis these days. From Twitter to Instagram to Snapchat and elsewhere, a large swath of the country is flooded with faux-ironic posturing and comedic disregarding and disarming. The current fad is a careless–borderline reckless–indifference towards everything expressed only in carefully curated, cyber presentations (the real world remains a wasteland of inaction and fearful sheep).
A lot of people wake up to their phone’s alarm bleating out some awful machine noise. They then tap some parts of that little rectangle and call up one of a number of social media apps. These people have not even gone to the bathroom to relieve themselves after a long night of gastrointestinal and renal inaction or had a single piece of burnt toast, yet they consume images, video clips, captions, hyphenated thoughts and jokes, and amateur burlesque auto-photography en masse from the comfort of their comforters. Competitive eating will soon be replaced by competitive viewing.
The content is not great, but it’s easy to get like a McDonald’s burger or a Wal-Mart china set. On its own, the content is harmless enough, but if you scale anything to such an immense size, there will be unintended consequences. Social media is like an idea buffet where you get to choose the chefs, but you have no control over the meals they prepare and you must consume what they make for you. You give up control over your mental thought-stream, emotional stability, and your spirit.
Still, most of the content is aimed at pleasing the consumer: puppies in costumes, inside-joke-esque quips about millenial struggles, fringe politicking, attractive people in various states of undress. The content creators have literary celebrity appeal: their fans rubber stamp everything they do with a seal of approval, even the bad stuff, and absorb these creators as though they are intimately related to the consumer, which of course is kind of true considering most of these consumers spend more time, in aggregate, seeing, thinking about, discussing, and emotionally connecting with the fruits of these creators’ labors.
A special breed of content is the promotion of certain annotations of the content itself: funny or extreme comments, in-fighting in the comments, in-the-spirit-of posts that mimic (or mock) a creator’s style or ethos. This is considered “fan interaction” despite it quite clearly being “appropriating fan creation.” Then again, all social media creation (and all creation for that matter) is to some degree thievery. There are infinite ideas in the world, but only a few good ones. So, creators have to pillage what they can, reform what they’ve got, and lie about everything they’ve done to make it shine and sparkle.
I participate in all of the above activities. I view the posts, the stories, the 10-second clips, the slow-motion dog vids, the funny tweets repackaged as Instagram posts, and the fire comments. I don’t usually comment myself, but I do make posts and snaps and so on. All of this is just dandy in the abstract, I think.
But the issue is the zombifying, nihilistic chasm at the heart of it all. Lately, I have spending a lot of time looking at these posts with an eye to one question: what is the zeitgeist of this shit? In the 90s when fast food and big-box retail was booming, no one really seemed to reflect on it all and, consequently, no one saw the writing on the wall: high cholesterol and bad credit scores abound in the best nation in the world. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the unquestioned pastimes were overt racism, smoking, and war.
So, I thought it would be good to question what’s going on with these platforms and hobbies that we engage with and in so frequently. And my prognosis is not good.
Social media is harmless when consumed sparingly, but when it’s pre-breakfast, breakfast, coffee hour cake, lunch, pre-dinner drinks, dinner, dessert, and a midnight snack, it’s not lethal, but it can hollow you out. Let me explain.
All good social media aims to please. But it aims to please in one oddly specific way: patronizing or coolly disinterested humor. Again, not really bad on its own–laughter is good. But, all of this apathetic posturing and stylized, successful failing is just new costuming on an old, dumb idea: nothing matters, especially the hard, boring stuff. In other words, nihilism.
And nihilism begets complacency, status-quo-maintenance, and opioids. If nothing matters, then why bother grow or change? Why bother put in the hard work to improve your world (or the world)? If the hard, boring stuff is mocked rather than understood, a lot of people are going to think it’s frivolous like spending money on cat toys or detailing your car or touching up your tribal tattoo. And then you end up in the weird place where the heroes of society are the openly (and passionately) lazy and entitled and the dredges of society are the laborers, the earnest, the passionately determined.
The nihilism at the heart of mocking a truism is usually unintended or just a necessary means of extracting a laugh. And in small doses, it’s cool and funny and great. But, in the titanic quantities it is taken in every hour of every day, this nihilism permeates everything. It colors the world.
It reminds me of the class clown always chiming in with his or her two or three cents during every single class period. As adults, we recognize that kid probably has home issues and needs attention to make up for the lack of care and parenting he/she has. Or perhaps, some other behavioral issue drives the acting out. But, regardless of etiology, the kid’s shtick is pretty routine: teacher is giving a lesson and, unfortunately, editorializes a bit about the merits of some person, action, discipline, idea, etc. and the class clown brutalizes teach’ for his/her choice to reveal his/her soft spot. Class clown identifies the thing teacher cares about and just hacks away at that thing mercilessly. Kids (and others) will laugh because of the inverse power dynamic, the boldness, and the animalistic violence of attacking a vulnerability rather than protecting it.
On social media, it’s structurally the same story: a creator finds someone being earnest, genuine, revealing their truth and then frames that soft spot in a incisive, critical, humorous way. If the creator picks a sympathetic target, the creator is labeled a troll. If the creator picks an unsympathetic target or an enemy of his/her audience, praises descend upon the creator like a warrior returning from a victorious campaign across some unknown lands.
But, at bottom, either way, there is no guiding principle or soul to these creator’s creations. It’s all about the LOLs. It’s all about the likes, the shares, the followers, and, maybe for some, the money.
As a result, the followers of these creators only get to see a steady stream of unrecognized nihilism that subtly suggests nothing matters so don’t worry yourself with hard, boring stuff. All that matters is that people like you, people like the posts you make, and people laugh at what you want them to laugh at. If the people don’t like your products, posts, and memes . . .
And look, not everything matters. But some stuff really does. And the stuff that really matters is usually hard and boring: studying for an important test, preparing for a big moment, creating something meaningful and significant, being there for someone you care about, fighting for positive change, voting, looking someone in the eye when you talk to them. Also, some unimportant stuff is really important to do and enjoy: dancing, laughing, singing, reading for pleasure, spending time with friends in-person, taking risks, exploring the world, learning dumb hobbies or skills.
But, in the closed society that is social media, it seems to me everybody (including yours truly) is guilty of aiming to please rather than aiming to share truth. And getting caught aiming to please is actually (and strangely) a punishable offense: you can’t openly seek attention on social media, it has to come naturally.
Eventually, this social media-addicted world will hit rock bottom and it will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. I am going to try to take a step out of that cesspool for awhile. This may make me a Luddite, but, at least, I will find the time to get a library card and consume content I choose.