selfie-shame

There’s a thin line between being anti-Internet and anti-intellectual

Last night I was at the CC Club, and I found myself looking at a beer ad that proudly proclaimed, “140 characters—that’s a party, not a tweet!”

The sponsors of the ad clearly were looking to score some easy points with Internet-haters—including Internet-self-haters—by suggesting that their glorious brew (I don’t even remember what it was, so there’s how well that ad worked) was meant for people who know when to  put their phones down and have some good old-fashioned in-person connection. The ad copy must have flown past their communications people, because who would argue against a little Internet bashing? Everybody’s doing it!

The ad is part of the much larger anti-Internet discourse that also includes selfie-shaming and other species of hate, but that beer ad particularly rankled me because I saw it as anti-writing. By calling attention to the format of a tweet, it pointed directly to the fact that tweeting is a form of writing—and then argued that we should all put our phones down and use booze to forge some IRL connections instead of wasting time with words and letters.

The new movie While We’re Young both sends up and celebrates this anti-Internet tendency. In what’s already the most-discussed segment of the film, a pair of Gen-X characters are shown to be tied to their technology while their carefree Gen-Y counterparts use their phones only when absolutely necessary. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach demonstrates the absurdity of the extreme hipsterism he depicts—a young man waves an older man off (“Let’s just not know!”) when the older man reaches for his phone to fact-check via Google—but it’s also true that Baumbach makes the younger characters look happy and carefree, and the older characters come to envy them.

One reason the scene is attracting attention is because it reverses the usual way of things, in which older people shame younger people for their frequent Internet use. The fact that such an attitude conveniently ignores the reality that allgenerations are hooked on technology—your dad probably uses Facebook as much as mine does—hasn’t much undercut its social currency, because it’s laced with more potent strains of discourse including reverse ageism (that is, the opposite of what Madonna’s experiencing), sexism (Google image search “selfie,” and you’ll see a more than two-to-one ratio of results with women versus men), racism (God forbid anyone not use the Queen’s English while texting!), and that great American pastime, anti-intellectualism.

That’s right, it’s possible to bash selfies and intellectualism in the same discourse, which is all the more reason that discourse needs to be stopped. Phones, like anything else (including beer), can be used rudely—but to wantonly phone-shame is to shame the idea that there are other people, elsewhere, who might have more interesting things to say right now than you do.

When I think back on my pre-smartphone youth, what really strikes me is how provincial it felt: it was so much harder 25 years ago to connect with people outside your immediate social sphere. I’m sure there were some benefits to that (I’ll never know whether I would have been cyberbullied or been a cyberbully)—but for someone who has always liked communicating via the written word, pre-Internet life felt so impoverished compared to the feast of ideas that are available now via that damn iPhone that anti-Internetters of all generations so casually mock.

I try to practice what I preach: when I taught college classes a couple of years ago, I encouraged the free and open use of phones and laptops, though some of my colleagues banned them. I figured, if what was happening on the Internet was more interesting than what was happening in my classroom, that was a challenge for me to step up my game—not for my students to get on my level, wherever that was on any particular day.

The fact is that we all use the Internet (by definition, if you’re reading this), and most of us are, in our own individual ways, thriving (excuse me, #thriving) on it. If you don’t want to bring your phone to the bar, that’s your prerogative, but don’t judge those of us who do—because ultimately, the mobile Internet is the friend of human interaction, not its enemy. The last time I looked, too, people on Twitter were still drinking beer.

- Jay Gabler