Daily Bread for 5.30.23: Institutions Are Upstream, Social Media Are Downstream

Good morning.

Tuesday in Whitewater will be partly sunny with a high of 87. Sunrise is 5:19 AM and sunset 8:25 PM for 15h 05m 44s of daytime. The moon is a waxing gibbous with 76.4% of its visible disk illuminated.

On this day in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is dedicated in Washington, D.C.

If a broken clock is right twice a day, then Ross Douthat of the New York Times can be right at least once a month. In his column on Musk & DeSantis, How Twitter Shrank Elon Musk and Ron DeSantis, Douthat is right, or at least in the vicinity of right. There are lessons for small towns in all this, too.

Douthat observes that   

The actual launch of DeSantis’s presidential campaign, in a “Twitter Spaces” event that crashed repeatedly and played to a smaller audience than he would have claimed just by showing up on Fox, instead [of a savvy move] offered the political version of the lesson that we’ve been taught repeatedly by Musk’s stewardship of Twitter: The internet can be a trap.

For the Tesla and SpaceX mogul, the trap was sprung because Musk wanted to attack the groupthink of liberal institutions, and seeing that groupthink manifest on his favorite social media site, he imagined that owning Twitter was the key to transforming public discourse.

But for all its influence, social media is still downstream of other institutions — universities, newspapers, television channels, movie studios, other internet platforms. Twitter is real life, but only through its relationship to other realities; it doesn’t have the capacity to be a hub of discourse, news gathering or entertainment on its own. And many of Musk’s difficulties as the Twitter C.E.O. have reflected a simple overestimation of social media’s inherent authority and influence.

Douthat is right that social media are downstream of other institutions. Social media reflect the quality of the institutions in their target communities.

(Twitter, by the way, was never a platform popular in small towns. Never. Trump used Twitter to mock the press, national politicians, and cosmopolitan liberals, not connect with rural Idaho. There’s not much left of Twitter now, and many of us who enjoyed the platform are on the hunt for something better, but no one on Twitter joined for small-town influence, because Twitter never resonated in small towns.)

It’s Facebook, not Twitter, that is the pre-eminent social media platform for small-town America. There are three observations one can make about Facebook’s role.

First, most small-town institutions do a poor job of communicating with their residents. Institutional press releases and dedicated websites are ill-read and what’s published there is ill-written. Facebook didn’t make officials grandiose in thought and florid in prose. They were and are like this on their own. 

Second, although Facebook is good at sharing general information to its users, it’s a failure as a vehicle for more advanced discussion, especially about politics. Too many trolls, too much sway of algorithms that promote the most inflammatory claims. 

The third observation is the most significant: as these social media are downstream of other local institutions, they reveal what a poor job these local institutions are doing. If native-born Facebookers too-often write about politics in fractured English and egregious fallacies, it’s because public and private K-12 education in their schools has failed them. 

Politics on Facebook is both over-heated and under-thought, ill-advised and ill-expressed. 

That’s not because rural Americans are dull-witted; on the contrary, people are very sharp, performing hundreds of complex tasks each day. They have, however, received less — and expected less — from their K-12 experience than they should have. 

Empty and nutty small-town ideas like boosterism and toxic positivity would not have taken hold in rural communities that expected more of their high school graduates. 

Facebook? That downstream medium would be clearer if upstream institutions weren’t so muddy. 

These Sheep Have the Perfect Summer Job Cleaning Up Governors Island:

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