TL;DR: the art/absence of debate
It’s probably no secret to anyone that the Internet is slowly destroying the concept of informed debate. We certainly live in polarizing times, with current issues that were inconceivable as short a time as five years ago, the most glaring being children of asylum seekers in the United States being separated from their parents, who are being prosecuted as criminals. As usual, online arguments have clogged news feeds that demand our attention, but what kind of attention are the majority really giving to these problems?
Part of the problem is ingrained in how social media works, and along with it the invention of things like TL;DR, which, for the uninitiated, stands for “too long; didn’t read”. The short attention span that comes with engaging in social media demands snack-sized, meme-length arguments. This is not just a 280-character Twitter problem anymore—Facebook posts consist of a headline and maybe one or two lines of text that are immediately visible. Who has time to follow through on all these links and read what might just be a well-written article? How do we know that any of these articles have any truth or research behind them?
The difficulty here is that too few people are willing to dive into an article that is based in fact, buried as it can be in the multitude of opinion pieces and base rants, but—when did the length of a piece of writing become an automatic deterrent?
I use a popular app called Flipboard. As the Internet has become a never-ending stream of information, I’ve found that there are great articles out there that, if I don’t read them immediately, disappear from sight, never to be found again. Flipboard allows me to save the ones that really grab my interest for later, if I don’t have the time to give it a proper read. Think of it—everyone is so busy these days that we don’t always have time to stop and read. But it can be archived for later—I can catch up with these saved articles when I do have time, before bed or in the evening after dinner, or even (we all do it!) sitting on the toilet. My Flipboard is now a blender mix of think pieces, opinions, and news articles. I can even go back and re-read articles long after they’ve fallen off the Internet’s ever-shifting visibility, allowing me to get a sense of where we were on a specific issue a while ago and compare to what’s happening today. I also have a two-binder collection of printouts so that I can keep some stories safe.
We have reached a point where debate on any subject is reduced to headlines and knee-jerk reactions to that headline. Activism has been reduced to slogans, memes, and small factoids. We’re willing to hold on to our beliefs at any cost, and this is made easier by reducing our view of the world to easily digested chunks, which can be broadly (mis)interpreted and can easily avoid explanations based in fact, right down to the simplest response of “fake news”.
It’s become cliché to draw comparisons of modern times to George Orwell’s famous novel “1984”, but an important point can be made. The concept behind “Newspeak” involved reducing the vocabulary and structure of the English language to remove the possibility of being able to idealize any political concept that didn’t fall in with the dictatorship’s line. In today’s reality, it’s not the vocabulary that is being streamlined, but our own attention spans and our desire to either read or write in great detail. Even good journalists are being directed into a state of redux by their corporate owners in order to retain reader engagement. It allows us to completely skip over content that doesn’t fit in with our world view so that we can be told what we already believe.
Complex issues require complex engagement. When we’re no longer allowing complexities into how we debate, it turns opinion into fact and news into propaganda. If we’re ever going to effect change in this increasingly fascist world, it’s time to get complicated, to think for ourselves, and remember how to debate effectively.