Ask Matt Labash

Ask Matt Labash: The social media scourge, embracing the new dumbness, and keeping America mediocre

Matt Labash Columnist
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Dear Matt,
I’m really, really tired of hearing about how great social media is. If you want my opinion, social media is one of the most overrated things of the 21st century. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — and that barely scratches the surface! Why can’t I just stay off the grid? Nowadays, being able to cram thoughts into 140 characters is basically a job requirement. I’m sorry, why do I have to know how to use the Twitter to be good at my job? Do I get any sympathy here?
Tabitha X.

First off, if you have a boss who insists that you need to be on Twitter to excel at your job, I suggest showing him two lists. Here’s a cross-section from The Atlantic’s “Top 100 Figures in American History”: Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Louis Armstrong, Lewis and Clark, Babe Ruth, Frederick Douglass, Jonas Salk, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein, Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison. All of them managed to do what they did without any assistance from Twitter. Now here’s a cross-section of Twitter’s Top 100 Most Followed: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Ashton Kutcher, Ryan Seacrest, Charlie Sheen, Perez Hilton, Khloe Kardashian, Chris Brown, Soulja Boy, Kourtney Kardashian. Instruct your boss to compare and contrast the names on those two lists, then to go kill himself. But before he does, ask him to give you a raise, just for having to endure his mediocrity.

Second off, anyone who publicly slags Twitter specifically and social media generally automatically earns my sympathies and undying admiration. God bless you and keep you. Upon the advent of this scourge, I took immediate and hostile action against all of my friends who joined, attempting to shame them into quitting. Though since America is now a Post-Shame Zone, that had positively zero effect. This, by the way, seemed to encompass nearly all of my friends, since I’m a member of the media. And who is Twitter most ideally suited for, if not middle-aged, insecure media types who feel as though they are living in the Last Days and who therefore must give voice to every thought, tic and wind-breakage to prove their relevance to an indifferent public that is now distracted by loftier pursuits, like playing FarmVille.

Yet as time goes on, I’ve asked the most important question, one I always ask during times of tribulation that pose existential threats to my fellow man: “How does it affect me?” And since Tweeters tend to link to magazine work and other scribblings, for which I’m hypocritically grateful, I’ve decided they’re not without merit. After all, I am a vain writer. And if vain writers wrote with the intention of not wishing to be read, they should just apply for jobs at newspapers. Which I say with sadness, though since many newspaper editors are short-sighted sheeple who pretend that social media will save them as opposed to say, supporting their talent and publishing better stories, many are unworthy of our pity.

Personally, however, I have no intention of ever joining Twitter, not because I think I’m better than those who have, but because it would be a soul-destroying enterprise. Constantly putting out, and then clocking the ripple effects of such outputtings, would get in the way of more important things in my life, like God, family, fishing, and Googling myself. Besides which, I don’t like what social media does to the speed of everyone’s metabolisms. We are getting jaded faster than ever. The Internet tends to be a coarse and ugly place, because we get sick of each other. And we get sick of each other, because we’re never rid of each other. Too much now becomes old news before it’s even become news. The echo chamber is so loud, it’s hard for anyone to hear the sound of their own voice.  Which perhaps is why all voices start sounding exactly alike: #inserthashtaggedtiresometwitterclichehere.

Because we are all so interconnected — perhaps too connected, eliminating what the philosopher Kinky Friedman calls “spiritual elbow room”  — social media may very well be significantly altering, if not completely distorting, the way we communicate. What we used to call intimacy — substantive person-to-person contact through either the spoken or written word  — is now too often turned into a stunt,  “private” discourse for the benefit of an audience, or conversational streaking.

Many times over the last few years, when a friend uncorks a particularly nice turn of phrase in a personal email, I’ll facetiously ask, “Why waste that on me when you could be tweeting it?” Often as not, they’ll send me a Twitter link, since they already have. It puts me in mind of the old Madonna documentary, “Truth or Dare.” After Madonna refused to talk to her doctor off-camera, her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty chimed in, “She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?”

Now comes word that this fetishizing of delivery systems over what is actually being delivered has reached the logical terminus of its own idiocy. The University of Iowa’s MBA program has just announced a $37,000 scholarship based on one application Tweet, as opposed to an essay. “We want {applicants} to show us more about themselves,” the director for the Tippie School of Management said. “This would give us a lot more depth and show us a lot more about a candidate than an essay would show.” Seriously? Sometimes, there are no words. Except for those of my fishing buddy, a man who goes by the name of The Cool Refresher, who is fond of saying to me upon hearing such news: “Embrace the New Dumbness.”

America-haters say that we as a country don’t produce anything anymore. That’s a lie. We do. We produce reality show stars and attention whores, people for whom the entire point of living is to yield those lives up for media consumption. So social media is the perfect incubator for our future leaders, the Kardashian Sisters of tomorrow, who will keep our brand or our country, whatever it’s called now, committed to mediocrity. Aspiring to something better is dead. You can bag it and hash tag it.

Matt Labash is a senior writer with the Weekly Standard magazine. His book, “Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys,” is now available in paperback from Simon and Schuster. Have a question for Matt Labash? Submit it here.