SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS are spaces in which diverse and disparate perspectives can be shared, creating an opportunity for learning, lively debate, political engagement, and greater connections between human beings.
At least, in theory.
According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, these lofty potentials of social media are not often actualized. Using the hot-button Snowden-NSA issue as a sample topic, researchers asked participants in what circumstances they would be most likely to discuss their views. People were more likely to discuss the issue in person than on social media. In fact, regular Facebook and Twitter users were significantly less likely to discuss the issue in either setting – especially if they thought their social media friends disagreed with them. Both offline and online, people were more willing to discuss the topic if they perceived their audience to agree with their views.
Another Pew Research survey from 2014 found that social media is often used in a way that increasingly isolates people within their current perspectives rather than exposing them to different ones. Forty-seven percent of consistent conservatives reported that all or most of the posts they see on Facebook are in line with their political views. Forty-four percent of consistent liberals reported unfollowing, blocking, defriending, or “hiding” friends with whom they disagree on political matters.
While social media holds the potential to be a polyvocal space of engagement and exchange, many of us shut ourselves up in the circle of the like-minded and limit ourselves, when we do speak, to preaching to the choir. (It should be noted that the algorithms used by social media sites to select what news and posts we see reinforce the univocality of these spaces.) We can tease out some of the implications of isolationist and self-censoring practices on social media with the help of Hannah Arendt and her concept of the “space of appearance” as developed in The Human Condition.*
The Space of Appearance
Arendt has an idea of the political that is very different from what we tend to mean today. We might think the political as consisting of specific actions relating to government (i.e. voting or writing to our representatives) and identification with groups (left/right/Democratic/Republican/liberal/conservative/etc.). The political for Arendt, on the other hand, is activity that unfolds from the togetherness of distinct human beings. It consists of speech and action (or, often, speech acts), activities that create the “space of appearance” in which people are affected by and affect one another. Rather than being limited to issues of government and policy, here I’m interpreting the Arendtian concept of the political to encompass anything that takes place when unique individuals come together to create something that was not there before.
To get a better grasp on the various terms we’re working with here, it’s helpful to first understand Arendt’s concept of reality. For Arendt, reality is constituted by different perspectives on the same thing. A lack of exposure to different perspectives shuts people up in a state of “radical isolation” in which they’re “imprisoned in the subjectivity of their own singular experience, which does not cease to be singular if the same experience is multiplied innumerable times. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” Without a common world populated by diverse perspectives, the political cannot take place; there is no “space of appearance” without this interplay of difference and commonality.
For Arendt, to “appear” to others, the individual must “disclose” his unique self in speech. Who we are is made known only when we speak up. Such disclosure is possible, and necessary, because of the human condition of “plurality.” This refers to the fact that while people are distinct, meaning we have different perspectives from which to speak and hear, we still maintain a certain degree of sameness – we’re capable of understanding and being understood by one another. Action occurs when the actor discloses herself to others in her distinctness while creating something new – forging new realities or relationships. In the context of social media use, I’ll say that engaging in conversation about issues of social importance is a form of political action – disclosing one’s standpoint and creating a new situation in which perspectives can deepen, grow, and change through conversation. Since perspective informs our decisions and actions, there’s no telling how many creations may stem from one conversation.
As a space where individuals can disclose themselves and create new realities, I see social media as a potential space of appearance. However, when we refuse to disclose ourselves before others, we fail to enrich reality with our own perspective; when we narrowly limit who can appear in this space by shutting out the unlike-minded, our conception of reality is depleted. It is true that not all perspectives accurately reflect the way things are – some are founded on misinformation or lack of information or misunderstanding or bigotry, representing more a distortion of reality than a contribution to the one that already exists. However, by hiding from such perspectives and disengaging from the individuals who hold them, we distort our own reality, of which they are a part, and, what’s more, we inhibit the possibility of going beyond it to a new reality through conversation.
Arendt acknowledges that political activity is scary because, for one, we’re unleashing our voices and actions into a world of other people’s voices and actions – a “web of human relations” in which the outcomes of our actions can’t be predicted. What will happen if we say what we really think about government surveillance or the release of classified information or the War on Terror or any other issue of social importance? What will happen if people know where we stand? How will this new conversation transpire?
We don’t know. It could go terribly. We might even lose friends. What is more, putting ourselves out there is a frightening act in itself – making our distinctness known, confirming ourselves as unique individuals. Arendt says that appearing requires courage. “And this courage is not necessarily or even primarily related to a willingness to suffer the consequences; courage and even boldness are already present in leaving one’s private hiding place and showing who one is, in disclosing and exposing one’s self.”
Along with the fact that we can’t foresee the outcomes of our actions, we also can’t undo them; they’re irreversible, especially in this digital age. Sometimes, we make mistakes, and the fear of making a mistake may prevent us from appearing before others. This is particularly palpable in spaces where social issues are discussed – the sometimes legitimate fear of being called out or shunned can stifle speech. Arendt says that forgiveness redeems the troubling irreversible nature of political action. Forgiveness is a “release” of an individual from the particular word or deed – not the removal of accountability, but the generosity to allow the actor to move on. “Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.” Encouraging the appearance of others, then, involves a spirit of generosity toward them; in turn, being forgiven comes with the responsibility to be open to changing one’s mind. If this played out in social media and other spaces of discussion, we’d see the end of call-out/take-down culture on one hand and the egotistical sense of incorrigibility that causes some to cling to their current perspectives on the other.
Whether or not social media is a space of appearance or just another mundane distraction of modern life depends on our courage to insert ourselves into conversation and our openness to different perspectives. Ultimately, I think the Arendtian concept of politics as an activity in which we assert our distinctness while honoring our sameness can reinvigorate the desire to participate, to create spaces of appearance. This shift would encourage us to focus less on whether we agree or disagree and more on coming together, showing ourselves, and receiving one another.
*Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958). All quotes are from this edition.