• Daniel Ethan Finneran

The Tension of Wanting Attention

August 2018

For those of us inclined toward social media and its addictive—though rarely nutritive—use, there exists a constant tension. We who shamefacedly find ourselves gripped by it and the enticement of its Siren’s call know the draw only too well. It’s one in whose tangles we suffer daily, from the peaking of the sun to the luminous rise of the moon, from a swipe right to a left double-click as the screen enlivens us and makes us into who we’ll be. It sheds light on our instincts. It dissolves our gentler manners. It retires our hard-won civility and geniality and brings to the fore our crude and vulgar ids.

On the one hand, the Facebook user, the Twitter scribbler, and the Instagram photographer wants his voice heard. He wants his face seen, his vicarious life lived. He wants his effect (regardless of its artificiality) to be felt, even if he’s truly insensate and an empty person himself. In the minds of others, he’s fulfilled.

He wants his ideas—so novel in their conception and cleverly arranged in their enunciation in pithy tweets and garrulous posts—to stick in the minds of his distracted and endless “friends” (of whose hundreds he might be able to identify a dozen, should he occasion to meet them one day in the street). He wants his quips to cut, his hashtags to trend. He’ll slash whomever stands in his way to reach that end. He wants likes, up-votes, subscriptions, and comments and popularity in this most impersonal of realms. He wants to live the life of the bon vivant—a Byronic figure of whose romantic and dark endeavors all will be made jealous. He wants to put on airs of a life better lived. He wants to be combative. He wants verbally to joust, as if a noble and contemporary Quixote in the modern age, like a raconteur behind a shield made of a screen. He wants to sally witticisms worthy of a piquant Voltaire, counter-arguments second only to a trenchant Hitchens.

Provoking for provocation’s sake, such a social media user relishes in the prospect of getting under another’s skin. Insofar as he’s triumphant in this pursuit, he acquires the honorific of “troll”. It’s the equivalent to a doctorate in the practice of annoyance. The troll stands atop the hierarchy of controversy—the summit of scurrility. His aim is to elicit a response at any cost, but again, most lesser trolls and common folk usually settle with merely being known. To linger, to interlope, or to simply stimulate or exasperate or infuriate another’s mind without ever really being present beside him is what it’s all about. It’s all about the convenience of being able to prod a finger in another’s eye without having to look that now cyclopes in his gaping hole. It’s an impersonal and amorphous parry and thrust, and the wounds—to which our one-eyed victim can attest—are very often real, even if absorbed by way of a notification on a blinking screen.

So, you see, from the one side there’s to be found yanking at our impish friend’s coattail the desire to be heard. This much is ineradicable in the spirit of this socialite’s age. It’s weaved into his millennial fabric and carved into his bone. Yet from the other, there’s to be found pulling an opposite and sometimes equal force. Seldom subscribing fully to the third of Newton’s laws (which we rank number three, but tend always to remember first; that is, the law that an action is only as forceful and commensurate as its response) is the compulsion to be politically correct. This side pulls less vigorously, but it’s always there. It’s this side of the tension to which our social media user must, grudgingly and from time to time, return.

Whence this side pulls and from whose arm it tugs is often unclear. The standards of that which is or is not deemed politically correct have a dizzying propensity to change. More Einsteinian than Newtonian, such standards are apt to undergo nuance in an almost imperceptible way. The energy of a movement, the mass of a crowd, the speed of communication, and the enlightenment of the soul can change the politically correct into its alternative in the way E becomes m in the blink of an eye.

But just because the odious terms and conditions of political correctness invariably change from one minute to the next doesn’t mean that those who breach them (when they do take new form) aren’t in the wrong. There’s nothing exculpatory about adhering to one’s old opinions in the face of a changing environment and a shifting acceptability of polite or impolite conversation. That won’t get our user off the hook. Therein lies the other pole of the tension. One must bowdlerize so as not to offend. One must be not only author and creator of his work, but editor as well. To be a social media user then, is to treat your art as if headed by a triumvirate; each part of the three must have equal say. He must apply to his work a circumspection and wariness about the propriety of what he writes.

Too infrequently is this the case. Instead, without forethought, most people just close their eyes, purge their discretions, fetter their hesitations, and go ahead and post. They let loose their bubbling convictions incautiously. They make known their latent conspiracies without a shred of truth. All sail and no anchor, they excoriate another and exonerate themselves in a fit of passion with a gale at their back. They speak their piece—be it prejudiced, racist, or some other form of indecent.

And they crash. And they should. From New York Times’ editors, to Major League baseball players, to Hollywood actors, and major studio directors, those who post indecorous things should suffer the penalties. I maintain that they should suffer even if the message is years or decades old. We all should be made to answer for our past opinions. The task hence should be to assure our inquisitors of the evolution of our thought.

More importantly than that, though, we should be more mindful before we tweet—less myopic before we post. Caution and attention ought not be tossed so insouciantly to the wind. In many ways, so much as we are our actions, we are our words. Our words, after all, are our thoughts made manifest. Our thoughts, if we’re to continue along this path, are our deepest convictions, sentiments, and morals. To give them voice is to sculpt your very being. And, as that Irish-idealist Bishop Berkley once said, to be is to be perceived. The perception of us creates us, but it can just as quickly destroy. There too rests social media’s irreducible tension: indecent creators can be destroyed.

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