There’s a (somewhat) old saying, “Opinions are like a**holes. Everybody has one,” and it’s as true now as it was forty years ago. What’s different now is that you have to hear everyone’s opinions; all of the time; whether you want to or not.
Perhaps ‘all of the time’ is a stretch. If one eschews online activity and restricts one’s consumption of news to physical newspapers, it’s possible only to encounter the curated opinions of a handful of random strangers in the Letters to the Editor section. But for the ordinary non-Luddite, who has a modest one or two social media accounts and consumes his or her news online, the barrage of opinions from every conceivable person on every conceivable subject is heavy and unrelenting. Sure, you could meticulously mute, block, etc., all of those people who want to weigh in passionately on everything (always passionately), but this involves no small amount of labor and only works to a limited degree. If you occupy online social spaces to any degree, you inevitably are going to be overrun with people’s opinions as if you were being chased down the street by a megaphone-brandishing mob. And it doesn’t matter how innocuous or insignificant the organizing topic of that social space is – knitting, young adult literature, CGI-loaded popcorn movies – you are going to find out everyone’s opinions, about everything, and in the most aggressive – and if you’re not 100% on board, hostile – fashion possible.
I understand some of this to some degree. Academics, for example, are used to people paying money (and often, quite a lot of it) to hear our views on things, within our areas of expertise, so one can at least comprehend why we are inclined to publicly opine. What we fail to grasp, of course, is that no one gives a crap about what we think outside of our areas of expertise, a failure that seems worst among academic philosophers, who confuse their expertise on a body of literature for expertise regarding actual things, of which we generally have little and often less understanding than the average person. Philosophers notice that chemistry professors who read and write on chemistry are experts on chemistry and think that this means that because we read and write on morality, we are experts on morality. (Rinse and repeat for “knowledge,” “reality,” “beauty,” and the like.) Another mistake is the vehemence with which we peddle our opinions online. If you wouldn’t grab one of your students by the collar and throttle him into thinking Peter Singer is right about animal welfare or some other such thing, why would you do the discursive equivalent to some bewildered stranger on the internet?
But what about the overwhelming majority of public opiners? The ones who have no (good) reason to think anyone but their closest friends and family gives two f*#&s about what they think about anything? What’s up with that?
Online social spaces have created a false sense of intimacy among those occupying them, despite the fact that they are even more indiscriminate than the physical public spaces we inhabit on any typical day. Ostensibly, they may be organized – or customizable – around “common interests,” but they are still global in reach, given the ubiquity of cyberspace and social media platforms, and the inclusion of “re-transmit” functionalities means that even spaces formed around the narrowest interests will be as porous as sieves. So, talking on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., isn’t merely like shouting through a megaphone in a subway station or shopping mall, it’s like doing it through a communications satellite orbiting the earth. The trouble is that it’s easy to forget this, and as one is afforded some measure of anonymity in cyberspace (at least from casual onlookers) and the effort required is so low, a person who would never run across a bus station or shopping center shouting his views at the top of his lungs is eager to do it online, where he is “running across” the entire planet.
The question is, why would anyone want to do this?
We all have opinions, and it matters to us that they receive some hearing. Gripes, enthusiasms, resentments … we always have needed to express them to someone. In the era before ubiquitous mass communications, this was done with one’s family, friends, and some work associates. Politically-speaking, you might have attended a rally or canvassed or written a letter to the editor for a newspaper that might get published but probably wouldn’t. But the idea that this need to be heard should be satisfied amongst the general public – with complete strangers, chosen indiscriminately at any and all times of the day, week, month, etc. – was not something the ordinary person contemplated, at least not prior to our current moment. Of course, everyone has spoken louder in a conversation at one point or another, with the juvenile hope of some momentary and exceedingly local (i.e. within earshot) celebrity. But this is not the same impulse as the desire to broadcast messages to millions upon millions of people. And it’s this desire that I find mystifying: the need to share so much with so many people whom one doesn’t know and never will.
I understand sharing musical likes and dislikes with your friends. I understand unloading your resentments and fears on your loved ones. But I don’t understand telling random strangers that “The Atlantic Monthly needs to be held accountable!” and “No one should do business in, move to, or live in [fill in state]!” or inviting everyone on the planet to “Imagine x-ing, y-ing, and z-ing,” where x,y, and z are whatever you are incensed about at the moment. In short, I don’t understand the predilection to publicly broadcast one’s jealousies, resentments, and spite in a never-ending, ever-refreshing, global scream. Nor do I comprehend the desire to minister to/advocate on behalf of/rally the world’s broken and downtrodden, as if one has been commissioned as a global therapist or public-relations spokesperson.
So what to make, finally, of “opinions in cyberspace?” Outer space is filled with floating detritus (apparently, there is so much junk surrounding the planet that “space sweepers” are required), and our air is loaded with pollen, dust, soot and all other manner of crap, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that cyberspace is junk-ridden too. Like the kipple in which the dying cities of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are buried, online social-spaces are filled with the throwaway opinions left by people you don’t know, won’t know and don’t want to know. But while space detritus can crash the next spaceship you launch, and air pollutants make it difficult to breathe, random opinions in cyberspace are only irritants if you pay attention to them. And given that they don’t matter in the slightest, why would you do that?