The promise of Social Media Land was always, to some extent, an imperialistic dream. The geeks who created this online world were all, to a man, urban liberals who hoped the Internet would bring the light of civilization to Sameville, a mythological small town where everybody’s white and wrong.
The enlightened minds of the multicultural metropolis were going to bring the true gospel of diversity and tolerance to the benighted citizens of Sameville. If these guys had a theme song, it would be a cover of Walter Donaldson’s Jazz Era classic “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” (1919) entitled “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down in Stupidlandia (After They’ve Seen Portlandia)?”
The dream came true. Well, sort of. When I was a kid, there were still people in my working-class neighborhood who believed that if you scared a pregnant woman, her baby would be born with a tail. Ignorance like this of shockingly medieval proportions was everywhere to be found. Few of my friends had a working 20th-century knowledge of human anatomy, much less the natural world. But I’m happy to report that the Internet, and especially Wikipedia, has cleared up much of this ignorance.
My children have access to far more accurate knowledge about things like how a woman gets pregnant than most of my friends did at their age. What’s more, to the best of my knowledge, none of their friends believe in babies with tails. To some extent, then, the Internet has indeed been a force of enlightenment in our world. But its enlightenment has been limited in scope, in part, because the geeks who dreamed of conquering small-town ignorance failed to anticipate the emergence of Sameville’s online doppelgänger: Likeville.
These days, any simpleminded partisan with a political ax to grind can find a Likeville, an online community of like-minded whack-jobs who’ll happily Facebook-like every stupid thing he says. Likeville isn’t just a safe space for stupid, it’s boot camp for bullshit.
Likeville arms its citizens with plenty of ideological ammunition (e.g., bogus stats, pre-fab arguments, etc.). Before long, what was once a more-or-less harmless, single-issue troll has morphed into something far more monstrous and formidable: a veritable Swiss-army knife of bullshit, a perfect storm of bad ideas, a walking Wikipedia of stupid.
There are those who see this as a kind of progress, as a perfect example of the democratization of knowledge in the Information Age. But I think it’s more like giving nuclear weapons to a crazy little country run by coked-up child soldiers. Regardless, what’s done is done, and there’s no turning back: the genie’s out of the bottle. These Frankenstein creations of the Internet are now, as they will continue to be for quite some time, a major obstacle to 21st-century Enlightenment.
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2018)