Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Alastair Roberts at Mere Orthodoxy entitled “Twitter Is Like Elizabeth Bennet’s Meryton“.
In this piece Alastair takes a long and critical look at the quality of social interaction and relationship that is prevalent on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. His jumping-off point is an article by William Deresiewicz which analyzes communal judgment as seen in Pride and Prejudice.
Meryton is a small community in the English countryside which consists of a cluster of large mansions and a small town center with a few shops and a tavern. It is this community, the gentry and their families which make up this community, which are central to Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, is a product of this community, formed almost entirely by the ways in which this community talks, relates, and exerts influence. Deresiewicz describes the Meryton community as a “saturated social environment, an environment in which no space exists that is not social”. All the relationships in Meryton have multiple layers. For example, consider Bingley’s younger sister Caroline. She is Elizabeth’s friend, but she is also Elizabeth’s sister’s friend, and she is also Elizabeth’s sister’s love-interest’s sister. That’s three relationships all rolled up into one. And all the other relationships in Meryton are like that. This sort of dense community has its advantages, in that it provides ample opportunity for people to get to know each other deeply outside of romantic relationship, and for genuine, deep non-romantic relationships to form.
But there is a dark side. The community places a very heavy emphasis upon concord and agreement, and cannot tolerate contradiction. If someone says something which is at variance, it is taken up, apparently agreed with, but then pivoted in a different direction to bring it back into the limits of accepted opinion. Thus the conversation is the sum total of all its contributions, and the implicit idea is that every voice is valid. The only voices which can be directly contradicted are those which come from outside the community. In other words, important differences are smoothed over for the sake of social harmony, and contradiction cannot be admitted. This has the effect of stifling careful and critical thought and judgment.
From here Alastair draws the connection to the world of present-day social media. He introduces the concept of “communication of presence”–the idea that certain types of conversation, i. e. “small talk”, serve not so much to convey information as to convey presence, that is, to break the silence and forge connection between people by talking about something–anything. Talking about subjects like the weather, sports, or celebrity gossip can provide an avenue for the sort of bonding that permits the discussion of more consequential subjects and the airing of real differences.
He then goes on to note technology’s influence upon our communication. For example, the telegraph, when it was invented, made possible for the first time communication between Texas and Maine, two places which previously had nothing to say to each other, and thereby made possible the formation of a collective American ideology. If the telegraph had such a profound impact on our society, then how much more so the smartphone and the internet.
These two inventions serve to create an especially saturated social environment. The smartphone is carried with you at all times, and it keeps you connected to the presence of thousands of people who are never more than a text or Facebook message away. It collapses social boundaries in several ways, such as substituting for the mediation of the body, negating physical space, speeding up interactions, and collapsing boundaries between social groups and circles. As a result, we are all brought much closer together, in something akin to the dense community of Austen’s Meryton. Yet there is a dark side: this new virtual community has a much less differentiated social order, without the distinction of social spaces, roles, voices, conversations, and quality of attention required for careful thought and judgment and the development of a robust self-identity. As such, this community is extremely susceptible to all the impulses of herd dynamics, fashions and fads, and collective outrage/violence. In essence, this community becomes an echo chamber in which all our worst prejudices are affirmed and in which any sort of careful, critical thought is discouraged.
This is a lengthy piece, and Alastair is very careful and thorough in laying out his argument, as is the case with much of his writing. But if you will exert the effort to get through it and reflect on what he has to say about technology and social connection and how we can move toward better use of technology in our social lives, you will find it to be worth the effort and you will be better for it.