The Real Problem with the Internet's Fake Conversation

Conversation on the Internet is vast, lightning-quick, clever, and hollow. But don’t blame algorithms: The fault in our "cultural conversation" is in ourselves.

By Nathan Pippenger

If you have a Twitter account, your bookmark probably takes you straight to your feed, bypassing the login page that greets outsiders and newcomers. It reads: “Welcome to Twitter. Start a conversation, explore your interests, be in the know.” That last, tantalizing offer—to be in the know!—promises, to those who sign up, membership in the ranks of the clever, the knowing, the fake.

That’s the argument of Karl Taro Greenfeld, who confesses ignorance about many recent Internet obsessions—Jay-Z, “Game of Thrones,” Pope Francis—but, like many people, is more than ready to opine on them. Greenfeld argues that social media has created a “constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate,” while simultaneously making it easier than ever to fake that knowledge. Didn’t read the book, watch the episode, or make it through the article? No matter. Read the indignant blog post about it. Or, if you don’t have time for that, the highly opinionated tweet. This “pastiche of knowledgeability” confirms our membership, however hollow, in the cultural conversation.

In his worry about the state of that conversation, Greenfeld refers to a pair of 1987 books on the topic: E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. These thinkers were worried about the social fragmentation that threatens to occur when a society no longer shares cultural reference points. But strangely, shared reference points are precisely what we do not lack in the Internet age.

Quite the contrary, in fact. The nervous participants in the Internet’s pseudoconversation are, by and large, consumers of the same narrow slice of pop culture. They are not separated by the cultural gulf that horrified Bloom; they’re mostly huddled on one side of it. Hirsch and Bloom worried about loss of a common heritage and a fracturing of America into subcultures divided by mutual incomprehensibility. But pop culture, for Greenfeld’s smart set, has the opposite effect: There’s plenty of overlap between people who care about HBO and pop music, between those who read (or think they should be reading) Malcolm Gladwell and those who watch (or want to be the kind of person who watches) a Wes Anderson film. The problem described by Greenfeld is not, in other words, alienation and disconnection. So why are we unhappy with our cultural conversation?

The answer requires a hard look at responsibility. “Who decides what we know, what opinions we see, what ideas we are repurposing as our own observations?,” Greenfeld asks. His surprising answer: “Algorithms, apparently, as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the social media postindustrial complex rely on these complicated mathematical tools to determine what we are actually reading and seeing and buying.”

This is almost entirely wrong. Yes, algorithms try (with varying success) to sell us products on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. But they don’t chose our Facebook friends or Twitter feed; we do. And it’s the people, not the algorithms, who spend their time on those forums “desperately paddling, making observations about pop culture memes.”

Their problem is not that they lack a common culture; it’s that they’re forced into unceasing commentary about that culture in order to appear knowing and quick-witted. The Internet moves at lightning pace, and at times the cult of up-to-the-second cleverness feels vital and fun. But it’s a hollow exercise, and it’s sobering to realize, when the fun subsides, that you don’t know anything: You only know the half-baked reactions of other people about those things. If online culture hasn’t eviscerated your intellectual self-respect, that’s when the stress ought to set in. It’s a good time to take a deep breath, move away from the screen, and practice saying: “Oh, I don’t know what I think about that yet—I need to read it first.”

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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