Making the World Safe for Banality

Scott Payne has a piece on “glocalism” (the academy’s and my term, not his) that you should really read all of, but on his way to some wonderful (non-curmudgeony!) insights and injunctions he stumbles into an all too typical curmudgeon trope. To wit:

…a meaningful exchange and cultivation of community via platforms like Facebook and Twitter seems to the experiential exception, not the rule. More often than not, the kind of back and forth in which one engages when one these sites is a trade of surfaces and vapidity. As such, many folks grappling with questions about the influence of technology on the way we live are inclined to write these platforms off as nothing but fads…

I think this is trivially true: a lot of people post extremely boring things on Facebook. (Matt Labash has documented this in excruciating detail.) But I wonder what Payne and true curmudgeons like Labash think goes on in old-fashioned, presence-based communities. In my experience, neighborhoods and other communities that produce “rootedness” are overwhelmingly banal places, filled with small talk, gossip and all the other tokens of exchange that perpetuate relationships between members. “Rootedness” is only desirable because it teaches that these things are valuable, that there is wisdom in the everyday, that it’s possible to find fulfillment without spending one’s life wandering the globe searching for it. Why should a Facebook page be so much less banal than a church picnic or a block party?

Of course, man does not live by block parties alone. The relationship of governor to governed can’t be nearly as easily maintained via Twitter, as Ezra Klein noted the other day:

It’s intimacy without communication. (Senator Claire) McCaskill doesn’t actually say anything in 140 characters or less. The illusion of transparency comes because in everyday life, we only hear about the dinner plans of people we actually have a relationship with. What’s useful about intimacy, however, isn’t the exchange of trivia but the access to different perspectives. And I’d really like to hear her perspective! It would be rather nice if senators and congressmen routinely wrote posts explaining their thinking on major issues. A public service, even. Instead, they’ve all embraced Twitter.

I’d clarify that Twitter’s inability to accommodate this type of communication doesn’t signal that meaningful communication is impossible via Twitter, period. (“She said yes,” “I love you,” “Trying to forgive more,” “What boundaries have you tested today?”—all fit easily within 140 characters.) The other problem with the Congressional Twitter craze is that they’re mistaking their audience for their constituents. At the end of the day, the people who need to feel they know the “real you” are the ones registered to vote in your district or state. Twitter may help you build media cred to a certain extent, but intimacy matters less with the media (who will ultimately come to the same conclusions Klein has) than with the voters.

This is only a problem until congressional districts are drawn based on membership in particular social-networking sites, of course.