The Feedback Loop

I hate to speak ill of social media. It is after all how you got here, and the vehicle by which this post is delivered. There are many good voices out there who are trying to “redeem” this fledgling infrastructure, and in some respect I hope to be one of those. But in order to do that, we first must face the realities of how social media has impacted our culture, and be honest about how it has affected each of us.

After almost 2 years of marriage, Laura and I have settled into a good morning routine of devotion, prayer, breakfast, and a brief glance at the news to make sure the world still hasn’t fallen apart. So far so good. But the news has become a curious creature these days. I can’t officially throw down the old man card yet, but I do remember a time when the news was closer to a true “medium” (singular of “media”), which by definition is an intermediary to exchange something from one party to another, in this case an exchange of information from the story-maker to the story-consumer. In short, the news was simply an information broker, with some pretty faces thrown in to make the bland palatable. As I powered up the TV one morning this week, the first item I saw was a Facebook poll for the viewers to vote on whether or not they call it a “button-up” shirt or a “button-down” shirt, with the ongoing poll results displayed on the screen. Yes, valuable air time was devoted to this. I turned off the TV and washed my plate.

I know, I’m a child of the 80’s so my perspective is vastly different. But I don’t think it takes a giant leap to see how social media is evolving the original media. True, public opinion has always impacted how information is reported. “Give the people what they want”, the old adage goes. We would hear the news then react, each in our own way, which would then drive the next news cycle. Now, reaction is the news. We’re equally (if not more so) interested in the reaction of others as the information itself, so that their reaction becomes the basis of our reaction. I first noticed this phenomenon several years ago when those “reaction videos” began to pop up on YouTube. For instance, a new movie trailer would be released to all the usual fanfare. But then people would post videos of their own reaction to watching that trailer, each with differing levels of oddity and humor, which in themselves would garner multiple thousands of views.

Reaction is our new craving, and it’s vastly different than information. Reaction is raw and emotional. It’s in-the-moment and constantly refreshed, because one reaction always builds upon the previous reaction. In music we call this a “feedback loop”, which usually happens when a microphone is placed too close to a speaker. When sound enters the microphone, it is then processed and amplified by the sound system, then sent to the speaker to be heard. But if the microphone is too close to the speaker, then that amplified sound goes right back through the microphone, where it is amplified again and again. Since this all happens at the speed of light, the amplification-upon-amplification occurs within milliseconds, producing that beloved piercing squeal to all within ear shot.

For many, social media has become that piercing squeal. We no longer hear, or choose to hear, the full story, but only enough to elicit a reaction, and that reaction draws other reactions, and so on, until the actual story is overpowered by the feedback loop of overreaction. But if social media will ever mature, we must mature first. Primarily, we have to revive the “social” part. How many “Facebook friends” do you have that you don’t even know in the flesh? How many people know about an important event in your life only because you posted something about it but didn’t actually take the time to tell them? We are less enamored with maintaining a physical presence than an online presence, where we can more easily hide behind beautiful photos and vile comments without the pain of face-to-face interaction.

God has built us for relationship, with all the good and despite the bad that comes with it. However, one of the lesser-noticed benefits of relationship is how it helps regulate reaction. We can’t hide behind an anonymous avatar, but rather must engage in dialog, forcing us to take the time to listen and consider, getting to know the person across from us. In that environment, reaction is restrained as anonymity dissolves in the light of accountability.

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