When I was a kid I used to turn on the TV so early that they hadn’t started regular programming yet. They used to show Industry on Parade newsreels. “Aluminum, Friend to the Housewife.” Even back then I knew what this was. It was propaganda. Advertising created by someone who would profit from selling aluminum pots and pans.
Then, when I went to grade school, we kids would buy bubble gum packs that came with baseball cards. We would then trade these cars on the playground. We guessed at the relative value of each card, and privately gave them value based on the inferred personality of the player. I’m a Don Drysdale kind of guy, but Billy over there is into Curt Flood. Again, we weren’t creating these cards, we were purchasing them and then imagining that this process would help us become like the men people pictured on the cards. Sympathetic magic.
College kids hope that certain bands on their playlist will attract the right kind of friends or mates. My record collection was more important to me than anything else I owned, because it expressed who I was, in case anybody cared to know. On the first warm day of spring I placed my speakers in an open window and blared out Crosby, Still and Nash singing “Four Dead in Ohio!” I was the kind of guy who hated Nixon.
Nowadays, on Facebook, people share political memes that attack certain candidates. We think of this as self-expression. Sure, the recipients of our posts are our “Facebook Friends,” so it’s basically preaching to the choir, but that’s OK. Sharing pre-manufactured memes that come our way is no more an example of creativity or self-expression any more than is collecting baseball cards or downloading other people’s musical output. We are buying into the idea sold to use by product manufacturers and their agents, advertising agencies, that we can be defined by our consumer choices. I’m an Apple person. Me, I’m strictly Microsoft. I’m better than both of you, I’m open-source Linux.
But what do any of us really know about these things we do not create but simply share. Remember, Facebook was created as a social tool to help college students find like-minded friends. So far all this sharing of “news stories” from various sites is neither research nor essay writing. These sometimes powerful and clever memes are not being produced by amateurs. They are the work of paid writers and graphic artists.
When we share a post that says “Share if you’re proud of your son,” or comply with the command “Share if you love Jesus, keep scrolling if you don’t care that he died for your sins,” we’re endorsing an ugly form of literary bullying. Someone is benefiting monetarily from our blindly playing along with this. This sort of activity has largely replaced reasoned debate and considered discourse. We never had a surfeit of those to begin with, but I’m afraid that today one ugly picture of Hillary scowling on Facebook could matter more than anything she may or may not have done or said.