I recently read Dave Eggers’s excellent new novel, The Circle, in which he assumes that the instantaneous and (when desired) anonymous nature of online communication brings out the worst in people. I think that Mr. Eggers is only partly correct. Social media and other online communications do not make people vicious and shallow; they reveal people as vicious and shallow. Sometimes, that is called “democraticizing the media,” and sometimes it is that. Other times, it’s just giving people enough rope to hang themselves publicly for the crime of felonious jackassery. Many of my more populist-leaning conservative friends are fond of railing against “elites” and “elite opinion,” and that is understandable — but they should give some sober consideration to the alternative, which is the opinion of people who invite you to play Farmville in between bouts of #lookatmeplease.
This is far from limited to politics. In my moonlight job as a theater critic, I am occasionally enraged but consistently perplexed at the habits of New York City theatergoers, from audiences at $200-a-ticket Broadway shows to the self-consciously intellectual types at off-off-off-somebody’s-basement productions: Tourists talking all the way through The Cripple of Inishmaan, hipsters live-tweeting Brooklyn warehouse shows, etc. True disciples of Bishop Berkeley, they believe that if they cease talking then they cease to exist. At a recent performance of Of Mice and Men, with an excellent Chris O’Dowd in the role of Lennie, the Longacre Theater lit up for George’s final monologue — not because the house lights had come on, but because a thousand cell phones were making videos, which no doubt were put up immediately on Facebook pages and the like. To be is to be perceived, and that is, even at the theater, more important than perceiving to narcissistic children of all ages.