Philosophers and Social Media: A Comment

Those who read last week’s note will probably say, “Wow, that was a short break!” This is a comment, though, not a stand-alone essay like many of its predecessors. This despite it’s getting longer than I intended.

Should philosophers “do” social media? Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown University) says yes, they have much to gain — especially younger philosophers (for a very short excerpt go here). She is not my favorite academic philosopher. I explain why here. She is among those I label pseudo-marginalized.*

Some of her observations on social media usage are interesting in their implications, however, as are Brian Leiter’s. I’ll confine my observations to Facebook, since I’ve used it more and know it better than any other social media platforms.

Some people, academics or not, despise Facebook and refuse to use it. Their reasons aren’t all that clear. Facebook has become a corporate empire, one of many in the tech world, but that’s not necessarily a reason to avoid it. It’s being in bed with the CIA, the NSA, and probably a dozen other shadowy federal agencies, may be more telling. Facebook stores your information, but it’s hardly alone in doing that. If you refuse to use Facebook out of fear for your privacy, you are naïve. Privacy went out the window with email.

Does Facebook censor? Of course it does. I’ve known people put in “Facebook jail” (their term for it) for politically “insensitive” posts, especially about Jews (surprise, surprise). I’ve not had a problem, maybe because I don’t post about the “Jewish problem.” This despite defending Donald Trump from what I consider myopic, incompetent criticism. I’ve penned countless exposés of academic political correctness and corporate media dishonesty.

What I suspect: the upper echelons of the Facebook world disdain political discussion generally. I’m not sure I blame them. The platform wasn’t designed for that. Moreover, the research is coming in: social media are among the dividers in American society. People have a tendency to congregate with those like themselves, who share their beliefs and opinions, especially in politics. Facebook unintentionally encourages this. Its system of friending, liking posts, commenting, etc., sets up feedback loops of positive reinforcement. Don’t like a friend’s posts. Ignore them and eventually you won’t see them. Or unfriend him or her. Thus the formation of echo chambers, whether of the right or of the left or anywhere in between.

Some Internet users, moreover, had become “keyboard commandos” who found it easy to insult or bully those outside their echo chamber before Facebook was around. Now, it is as if the differences between online and offline worlds have begun to blur. Public incidents we would never have heard about 30 years ago are now filmed on mobile devices, uploaded to social media, and viewed almost instantly by millions of people. Victims of this sort of thing become involuntary celebrities. Or perhaps better, celebrities-in-reverse, since we aren’t celebrating them but shaming them. Online shaming has almost become a sport!

I think this is a reason we are living in a more hostile society generally. While pundits (Steven Pinker comes to mind) tell us how much violent crime has dropped during recent decades, such measures don’t reflect cyberbullying, personal attacks, shaming incidents, etc., none of which are illegal (some may enter what is, at best, a gray area).

Left and right, unaccustomed to opposition due to online lives in their echo chambers, are more and more willing to demonize and confront one another violently. To be clear: my boots-on-the-ground sources tell me it is usually the left that gets violent first. But those on the right are increasingly willing to get in their faces. The latter aren’t afraid of guns like the former. Were a situation like those we’ve seen in Portland, Ore., and yesterday as I write this in Berkeley, Calif., to get out of control, there’s no reason to think leftists would win even if they have superior numbers.

Facebook did not create our current divisions, of course. But it set the stage for accentuating and aggravating them.

All that said, Facebook has advantages. Through its networking possibilities I’ve formed a few strong friendships with people I would never have heard of otherwise, rediscovered folks I went through high school and college with, and maintained friendships that would have fallen by the wayside when I relocated geographically several years ago.

There are, moreover, hundreds of private groups on Facebook devoted to every conceivable subject, including philosophy. Many of these groups are closed, and don’t allow insulting other members, or bullying, or trolling. Their administrators post rules up front and do not hesitate to expel those who refuses to follow them. Such groups can be useful venues for conversation, advice on mundane problem-solving, support for those coming to them with more serious issues, and more.

Many who use Facebook, just use it to announce family events (vacations or anniversaries) the way we used to do with photo albums in the pre-Internet days. I think Facebook’s algorithms are more attuned to such usages. At the start of the month I posted an anniversary photo taken of my wife and me four years before on the day we got married. It received over a hundred “likes” and dozens of congratulatory comments. I’ve seen this happen countless times.

On the other hand, my political posts rarely get more than five “likes,” unless I’ve shared a video. Somehow, that increases the number, probably because watching a video is less demanding than reading something. Absent a video, with just a link to an article or story and a paragraph or two of commentary, many don’t seem to be seen at all. (I’ve no means of knowing, of course, how many people “lurk,” i.e., read my material without doing anything to announce their presence.)

Enter Rebecca Kukla, who (speaking of social media generally) calls it “our main opportunity to craft our public persona and to forge connections with other philosophers.” She adds that staying off social media “can actively harm your career, while using it wisely can actively help you, and can enrich your professional and intellectual life.”

There are no a priori reasons it can’t do this. Her discussion converges on Facebook, where many of her observations parallel mine, in that it creates space for professional contacts that open doors, especially for younger scholars, by having “created a vast set of interlocking philosophical communities.” She continues:

Through Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) I have been exposed to, had conversations with, and formed friendships with a dramatically wider range of philosophers than I otherwise would have. My philosophical community is no longer bounded by geography, by job status, by age or social identity, by type of institution, or even by subfield or methodological approach. I expect most of us tend to disproportionately make Facebook friends with ‘people like us’ to some extent, but there is just no doubt that social media has broadened many philosophers’ exposure to different kinds of scholars, issues, and conversations. Junior philosophers who give these communities and exposures a pass are missing out on something that could enrich their intellectual and social lives, and they are forgoing crucial networking opportunities.

This makes sense, but there are dangers she wants readers to be aware of. One of the features of the Facebook world (this was true of the online forums that preceded it) is that you never know who might stumble across it, or even seek it out when they want information about you. We all know this, but how easily we tend to forget it “in the heat of the moment” (my quotes, not hers). Hence the environment, she says, “is fraught with peril. An online fight with the wrong person or a post that rubs people the wrong way can do real damage.” The norms are still evolving, she adds. Posts intended for a particular audience that will read them favorably might be read quite differently, and negatively, by readers outside that loop.

All entirely correct. Kukla thus assembles a list of online best practices for younger philosophers, especially those struggling with a hostile job market or perhaps dealing with rejection from an academic journal. Don’t sound off about it online. It makes you sound bitter and uncollegial. She advises against posting trivial stuff — or material likely to be seen as trivial or juvenile by those a jobseeker may be trying to impress. She suggests creating a separate Facebook account for family, friends you went through high school with, and nonacademic friends generally.

But here’s a thought: is it possible to “do philosophy,” i.e., do more than simply try out ideas or banter about philosophical issues, on Facebook or other social media platforms. Kukla again has many valid points about the latter of these; she says little about the former. What she says is to refrain from dismissing entire areas of philosophy or dismissing philosophers who are well thought of or engaging a given philosopher’s post without doing some basic research to find out who they are (an easy mistake I once committed).

One must ask whether this kind of platform is really suitable for philosophical research (as opposed to networking, testing out new ideas on colleagues, etc.). Why? Because most of us originally majored in philosophy in order to “do philosophy,” not merely banter about it. Facebook wasn’t invented with that in mind, though. Nor was any other social media.

“Doing philosophy” on an independent blog such as this is hard enough! I have not done as much as I intended. I did not plan a news site like Leiter’s (who can compete with him on that, and why would anyone want to?). The Internet is simultaneously liberating and limiting! It is liberating in the sense that I don’t have an editor or referee board making trivial criticisms that I’m using this or that term “unclearly” when the truth is, he dislikes my main thesis or conclusion. On the other hand, the lack of oversight means taking full responsibility for what appears here, and seeing to it that what results is as good as I can make it! A couple of extra pairs of eyes would be helpful, but as an independent scholar with a different occupation, I don’t have that luxury! What limits me is a paranoia that what I have is not good enough! Hence a trove of things sitting in Word files!

Blog entries, moreover, no matter how thoroughly they argue a philosophical thesis, tackle a quandary, or how well they play by the rules of citing relevant literature, etc., are never cited in journals or in The Philosopher’s Index. Much of academic philosophy’s reporting system on the philosophical work out here is still stuck in the pre-Internet era. Having said that, yes, you will find philosophy on blogs that is simply lousy: unoriginal, poorly reasoned, etc.

But all this is aside. Social media is here. We might as well use if we can, if it solves certain problems like networking. But do we need to use it to advance philosophical conversation?

Leiter observed that the areas of philosophy he is most familiar with (e.g., philosophy of law) don’t make much use of Facebook. Younger philosophers will say he’s dating himself, as am I, for I am thinking he may be right. Most of us, of the generation now in its 50s and 60s — the first “lost generation,” some of us, anyway — grew up without computers. My generation had no social media when we were graduate students. I don’t believe researching the material that went into my dissertation the old fashioned way — hours of library work, consultations limited to senior faculty in my department red-penciling my work — was significantly hurt by this. We may have been limited by technological doors not yet built much less opened. Would Facebook have helped? I don’t know. Given that we were a rambunctious lot who rarely hesitated with our opinions, and in a “nonranked” department to boot, Facebook might have been disastrous for us.

What “Facebook philosophy” I’ve seen has been superficial, sometimes reinventing the wheel, sometimes taking positions that have been argued against effectively outside their preferred orbits, sometimes arguing theses so kooky and outlandish no one is going to take them seriously (e.g., about how we can know there are extraterrestrials among us). Much political-philosophical discussion, frankly, very much fits into the universe I described at the outset, in which bodies of like-minded folks have congregated because they work essentially from the same ideological premises. Academics are no less prone to the echo chamber effect than anyone else. Kukla — again: surprise, surprise! — eventually falls into this trap, advising readers:

…don’t trust people with fundamentally terrible values. The misogynists and the bigots and the Trump voters on your page are likely to harm you, because they are harmful people with no moral compass. Arguing across such large divides is emotionally exhausting and pointless anyhow. Just get rid of them and protect yourself.

Who gets to decide whose values are “terrible”? Is it obvious who has a legitimate grievance versus who is a mere “bigot”? How many “Trump voters,” I wonder, has she actually met and engaged, online or otherwise? Some of her neighbors may be “Trump voters,” after all. Is she saying that 63 million of her fellow Americans “have no moral compass” because they voted for Donald Trump?

This, of course, is the sort of arrogance that alienates career academics from their fellow Americans, even if their tenured status enables them not to have to care. It vitiates some of her earlier advice, while confirming what the research tells us about what social media might be doing to us.

What conclusions should be drawn from this? Kukla is right that academic philosophers — and those who aspire to be — have opportunities to use Facebook or other social media exercising caution appropriate to their personal situations. They can bring their work to the attention of others. This can have positive results. They should be aware that what they say online can have negative repercussions, however.

Nothing in my experience suggests that social media is of any help in “doing” philosophy. It sounds pedantic, but those who built the Western tradition, and later the various schools (analytic, continental) did just fine — and probably much better — without it. The problems with producing quality philosophy today have little or nothing to do with social media, though, and everything to do with the structural problems of academia and of a prevailing political economy in both academia and the larger society that is hostile to values presupposed by philosophy.

Real philosophy is difficult to produce, which is why we see so little of it these days. Discussions of fundamental philosophical problems, developments of extended arguments and counter-arguments against one or more premises of someone’s attempt to tackle such a problem, are bound to be far more involved than is possible on Facebook — which does have a limit on the length of a post or comment (as I’ve discovered by running up against it a few of times). Substantial contributions to philosophical debate cannot be composed in one sitting, like the majority of Facebook posts. They are not off-the-top-of-your-head events.

Again, and in sum, social media were not designed with long, involved, nuanced essays and followup conversations in mind. These call for concerted attention and effort on the part of both writer and readers. If anything, research is also showing that social media is actually shortening users’ attention spans. Blogs open some possibilities, but even they are limited as I’ve discovered. Are those of us who blog about the philosophical and larger academic community, events in the larger society that might impact on intelligent conversation, etc., really parts of an independent intellectual vanguard as we like to think of ourselves, or are we just borderline-narcissists venting in our private echo chambers?

Time will tell, but however many contacts I’ve made or maintained on Facebook, I don’t expect to see any major philosophical breakthroughs there, or on any other social media platforms.


*The pseudo-marginalized:

(1) invariably have tenure, typically at influential institutions almost guaranteeing visibility. Georgetown is not an insignificant university;

(2) strongly identify with identity politics, and hence can’t write without constant reminders to readers how prone to mistreatment they are, and how mistreated are those in their preferred group(s);

(3) are often bullies, without being aware that this is how they are seen by those not in their preferred group(s); Kukla’s blithe disdain for “Trump voters” is a case in point, as was her attack on philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne, someone whose work we theists find interesting and valuable;

(4) have no sense of the contradiction between their privileged status (tenure) often attained by their institution’s preferential policies, and their wearing the mantle of victimhood almost as a badge of honor; and finally,

(5) are mostly clueless about how power really operates in industrial and post-industrial civilization, and from where (what sorts of institutions) it emanates? As long as they are swinging broadsides at windmills of white-maleness (or straight white-maleness or straight white-Christian-maleness), we can expect their cluelessness on such matters to continue.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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