We cannot understand without wanting to understand, that is, without wanting to let something be said… Understanding does not occur when we try to intercept what someone wants to say to us by claiming we already know it.
Users of social media are attracted to platforms supporting free speech and open communication. The business motivations of social media are too, but for a different reason. A social media company’s valuation is largely driven by user activity metrics, from which advertising and media value are derived. The free speech that users value often turns out to be provoked, induced through controversy or cult phenomenon. Platform disruptors help drive up user activity by provoking speech, which benefits the value of the platform. The more disruptors a platform has (and the more freedom they’re given), the more controversy and virality will exist to improve those metrics that drive valuation. Provoked speech isn’t really free. The consequences of a platform engendering controversy and virality can be seen in the obvious de-evolution of social norms online: civility is rare, cruelty is ever increasing, and understanding no longer has the currency it once had. Outrage pays.
Understanding is key to any civil society. In America, we usually don’t take the time to understand one another anymore, particularly online. Without fully appreciating someone’s perspective, we usually end up seeing others through our own universe of norms; through our “own lens” as one might say. But it is that person’s own culture, knowledge and norms that influence their prejudices, their beliefs, and their treatment of a subject. Their experiences – not ours – formed their views. The only correct way to understand someone then is through their lens, treating our own as an impairment begging for a corrective prescription.
One of the great modern philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer saw the study of hermeneutics as a means of gaining understanding of “the other” through an effort to transpose a person’s experiences, prejudices, and culture in a way that it could be uniquely appreciated despite the narrowness of our own. Think of it as a translation problem. When the effort is successful, there is a broadening of horizons to better understand how “the other” formed their network of beliefs, free from our own prejudices and norms. The rather sterile and parochial word hermeneutics might remind you more of Sunday School than social media, or more the type of legal research often used to interpret historical law than explain the psychology of a news cycle. If you were to consult college texts, you’d walk away quite certain that hermeneutics has nothing to do with everyday life and is the thing of dry people doing even drier historical things. Yet the doldrum historical sciences that employ hermeneutics have been grasping at the same basic goal to understand, which we often lack in social media.
Until the twentieth century, the approach to most hermeneutical problems could be characterized as crossing the boundaries of history, such as ancient biblical texts or old legal code. Even modern problems in politics rely on the same cultural and historical understanding spanning hundreds or thousands of years. With the advent of various forms of broadcast media, modern challenges relate more to reconciling culture, thought, and experiences that form our worldview in the present. Social media brought about real-time worldwide communication directly into countless different backgrounds, cultures, and persuasions, each formed by one’s own unique experiences. Online communication often leaves much “lost in translation”, as understanding of “the other” greatly suffers when brevity and ephemerality are the rules of engagement. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall frame the problem almost prophetically when describing the challenge of merely translating Gadamer’s work, “even apart from the inevitable mistakes that reflect limits of erudition or understanding, a translation must transpose a work from one time and cultural situation to another.” In any form of communication, there is so much more to translate than mere words. That is what hermeneutics is about at its core: transposing one universe of norms, prejudices, and experience to a different sphere of understanding. This necessitates rendering a clear picture of “the other” through the impediments of our own prejudices and traditions. Such a task requires patience, self-reflection, and a respect for truth.
Communicating experience is what differentiates cheap social discourse from the most admired works of literature, art, and music. Gadamer describes the true mark of genius of an artist as being able to express fully and transfer the experience of the piece to a modern observer, with the most genius of pieces doing so in transcendence to time and culture. Weinsheimer and Marshall elaborate, “experiences, seen as the enduring residue of moments lived in their full immediacy, are the material artistic genius transforms into works of art.” There is a deep communication conveyed in fine works of art that places the viewer in a position to not only appreciate the workmanship, but to experience what the artist wanted them to experience.
The kind of understanding that can be achieved from another is of a living nature and requires even more work to fully appreciate. Weinsheimer and Marshall again summarize, “the kind of experience is not the residue of isolated moments, but an ongoing integrative process in which what we encounter widens our horizon, but only by overturning an existing perspective, which we can then perceive was erroneous or at least narrow. Its effect, therefore, is not simply to make us ‘knowing’, to add to our stock of information, but to give us that implicit sense of broad perspectives, of the range of human life and culture, and of our own limits that constitutes a non-dogmatic wisdom”.
Before social media existed, Internet technology provided enough runway to attain some level of understanding of one another. Chatrooms and forums were organized differently, allowing them to run at a much slower pace, giving the user the time and attention span to communicate in (usually) more constructive and cohesive forms. The pace of communication was sped up considerably over the past ten years as time-sensitive, synchronous, and more ephemeral communication became dominant through services such as Twitter and Facebook. The advent of the timeline shifted discourse from being organized by topic to one with merely temporal currency, making it both difficult and unrewarding to discuss more than one topic at a time, or with notable depth. The move to social media’s paradigm short-circuited an important cognitive process: ingestion of the subject matter. Reflection and consideration has largely been replaced with reactionary response, created by the need for faster processing in social media, with those responses also requiring fewer and shorter communication than that of older mediums.
Cognitive process declined even faster with an important social media convention: retweets. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt identifies the advent of the “retweet” button (and similar) as marking a significant shift in social media, enabling a single post to go viral in a matter of minutes. Prior to retweets, a user would retype, copy paste, or paraphrase (and attribute) a post. The retweet button further short circuited a user’s ability to think before reacting, turning communication into an instantaneous reaction. Retweets also changed a key ingredient to how content is reshared: attribution. Before retweets, the person who shared something would be attributed for the post and would bear some responsibility in repeating something offensive or ignorant, unless the intention involved criticism. This came with a level of social accountability for the user, who would be more apt to share what they understood enough to take responsibility for. A retweet, however, implies virtually no accountability, as the attribution remains that of the original poster, and the motivations for retweeting can remain ambiguous. This removes any of the necessary thought process needed in assuming responsibility for repeating something.
In most forms of social media, there’s a general lack of understanding of the individuals involved in the discourse. Unlike forums and chatrooms, where people often got to know each other over time, one often interacts with a universe of complete strangers daily on social media; this is only amplified with retweeted content. Achieving some level of understanding of the user behind a tweet takes the level of effort that most users aren’t willing to invest, and indeed rubs against the design of the platform itself. Much of the time, we interact with content, rather than the people who authored it. It is far more rewarding in the short term to insult a user for their views than it is to attempt to understand them; we become content critics rather than participants in a conversation. Since the effort required is so significant, we tend to merely silo and label individuals based on their aesthetic. Musician Victor Wooten once said, “just because you label something doesn’t mean you know anything about it”. J.L. Austin refers to a person’s aesthetic as their “performatory character” writing, “often, we are inviting our hearers to accept what we believe”. Especially true online, an aesthetic is often disconnected from the reality of who a person is. Dispositional analysis would have a deeper look at an individual than merely their aesthetic.
Multiply this short-circuit of thought by millions of users, and it’s not difficult to understand why controversy often arises from viral posts, leaving some topics more emotional than based on reason. It feeds the mob mentality that drives public condemnation (what some refer to as “cancel culture”), mob-based attacks on other users (the digital pitchforks sometimes called on by a platform’s disruptors), and other actions that often lack the benefit of a detailed thought process. Regardless of whether any given judgment is justified or not, there has been no transfer or translation of experience in arriving at it. There has been no dialectic discourse taking place. No attempt at understanding has occurred between the norms or perspective of the other. Gadamer argues that in such cases, we are usually inclined to apply our own norms and prejudices onto the subject, with little consideration to understanding the other. Understanding does not mean agreeing or condoning. It involves taking on a disposition to expand our own narrowness to see the matter from the other’s perspective.
The result of reactionary behavior is that the social media platform starves the user of understanding. The design of today’s platforms require brevity, synchronicity, and transience; all acting as obstacles to understanding. With a reactionary environment, social media often behaves more with the characteristics of a cult. Sociologist Richard Ofshe, in his paper Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change, outlines four factors that distinguish coercive persuasion: intense interpersonal attack to destabilize an individual’s sense of self value, use of an organized peer group to promote reliance on interaction, interpersonal pressure to promote conformity or behavior desired by the controller, and the manipulation of a person’s social environment to stabilize modified behavior. The factors affecting a person’s social environment, as described by Ofshe, are broken down further into several manipulations frequently experienced on social media, including sacred science (where the group’s ideology is faultless, transcending all other forms of wisdom), loaded language (the manipulation of language characterized by thought-terminating cliches, substituting critical, analytical thought), and the dispensing of existence in which those not sharing a group belief are seen as inferior and unworthy. The three possible results of this coercion, Ofshe concludes, “were classifiable as internalized belief change (enduring change), a frequently observed transient alteration in beliefs that appears to be situationally adaptive [unstable and environment dependent] and, finally, to reactions of nothing less than firm intellectual resistance and hostility… The combination of psychological assault on the self, interpersonal pressure, and the social organization of the environment creates a situation that can only be coped with by adapting and acting so as to present oneself to others in terms of the ideology supported in the environment.”
Psychologist Margaret Singer wrote of the similar phenomenon of “social proofs”; a means used to determine what is correct by observing what others around us believe is correct. Singer describes imitation and the assumption that a mimicked behavior is proper and good simply because it is observed within whatever group one is seeking acceptance from. Singer also, seemingly prophetically, refers to a concept she calls “liking”, where those in a group affirm individuals and – in a cult setting – the liked individuals feel compelled through a sense of indebtedness to comply with the group’s values and concerns.
If you’re wondering why some people are so different online than in person, Ofshe observes that the attitudes of victims “tend to change dramatically once the person is removed from an environment that has totalistic properties and is organized to support the adaptive attitudes. Once removed from such an environment, the person is able to interact with others who permit and encourage the expression of criticisms and doubts, which were previously stifled because of the normative rules of the reform environment.” In this, Ofshe happens to also describe the characteristics between an unhealthy versus a healthy online social network, and possibly the antidote to such behavior. Such instability may indeed be a way to identify victims of coercive behavior. As is the case with many forms of abuse, victims can easily become offenders if the issue goes unaddressed, leading to even more coercive users on a platform.
Social media companies are beginning to recognize the larger problems of understanding their platforms have created, and have made small, but useful attempts to address it in the context of controlling misinformation. One response to this problem has been an attempt to give pause to the user by adding interstitials they must click through, along with factual warnings to attempt to engender some form of critical thought. Much of the problem of understanding is left to us to figure out.
Gadamer’s theory of understanding introduces four conceptual dispositions of understanding: prejudice, tradition, authority, and horizon.
Gadamer’s use of prejudice is a neutral one and entails all the fore-judgments we come to the table with. Gadamer builds upon Martin Heidegger’s concept of “fore-structure”; the concept of investigating what has meaning to the other. As Georgia Warnke well summarizes, “things have meaning for us within a web of interrelated assumptions, practices, and activities”. Meaning can be deduced by what experiences the subject has been immersed in, what perspective it has given them, and within what constraints. Heidegger gives the example of our simple understanding of a hammer, and its meaning to a person based on their past utility of it. When approaching something new, we don’t ask what a hammer is every time, but instead we assign the existing meaning we have already placed on it, even if we find ourselves in a completely different context. For example, if someone tells you “this guy’s nickname is the hammer”, you’ve immediately developed pre-judgments about what this means. Now broaden this to a meaning that we’ve given to more complex political or religious concepts, such as “constitutional rights” or “God”, and the pre-judgments both parties bring into such touchy issues. A person’s complex idea of “God” is based on an entire network of other prejudices and traditions that would need to be reconfigured in order to influence a person’s view. Those prejudices and traditions were derived from the person’s own experiences, including possibly other prejudices and traditions passed down to them. These deep experiences in meaning are one reason the tech community is trying to do away with words like “master” and “slave”; while they may be simple technical terms to white people who grew up in tech, they carry much more emotional baggage for others. Finding better terms helps tech to be more inclusive- by removing the barriers created by certain words that resuscitate the emotional baggage tied to them.
Tradition could be described as the foundational condition for one’s knowledge. It establishes, according to Gadamer, individual and collective learning on the acquisition of accrued experiences and practices. It also defines what interests us, and what questions we may ask ourselves in the learning process; therefore, it serves as a filter not only for what kind of knowledge we are receptive to, but what kind we seek out. Gadamer believed that one can never escape from tradition; we all have our own core conditions for accepting knowledge. While we can never rid ourselves of tradition, we can criticize and change it. Children are often raised to accept a certain tradition, and later “make it their own” through the process of critique. Healthy adults also curate their tradition through a critical process of revision over the course of one’s life. Recognizing that we will never be tradition-free, we can investigate our own as well as learn of the other’s. Tradition can influence or be influenced by the prejudices one brings with them, and carries with it the questions and challenges that incite knowledge. Understanding how one receives and accepts knowledge today is a matter at the core of modern disinformation campaigns.
Authority is the power that we give to our tradition; the insights we hold to be superior to the external insights of the world. Gadamer teaches that this is not a universal authority, but the authority we give to our own traditions. He argues that true authority comes by means of acknowledgment from others; without that, it amounts to mere tyranny – either in compelling a tradition upon persons, or by means of self-inflicted intellectual suicide. Consider the person who gives so much weight to what they watch on the news. One might attempt to unpack the underlying reasons by investigating the background that led them there, and how they view the consensus – or at least the illusion of consensus – that gives the information its currency. The realm of authority can be quite poignant today in understanding oppressive nations and disinformation campaigns, and analyzing mob and cult behaviors, all of which can compel a line of thought onto others.
Gadamer’s concept of horizon is a context “to explain how we can have an intellectually vital relation with tradition”. As it pertains to social understanding, the effort involves understanding and bridging the context of one tradition into the other’s, so that the two may mutually understand each other’s overall intellectual context. Gadamer refers to this as a “fusion” of horizons and is an indicator of understanding. Horizons change as people change, and so such an effort to understand is temporal; an understanding explained to you today would likely be expressed very differently if explained to you twenty years ago – not because “the other” has changed, but because you have.
It is not only that historical tradition and the natural order of life constitute the unity of the world in which we live as men; the way we experience one another, the way we experience historical traditions, the way we experience the natural givenness of our existence and of our world, constitute a truly hermeneutic universe, in which we are not imprisoned, as if behind insurmountable barriers, but to which we are opened.
Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method
Attempting to understand the other helps to counteract the emotional, knee-jerk virality of the Internet. As Gadamer suggests, when we genuinely listen to another’s insight, “we discover some validity in it, something about the thing itself that would not have shown itself simply within our limited horizon.” When engaging with one-another, however, this is not a one-sided effort. Gadamer warns, “this gain in insight is only possible where both participants in a conversation grant what ‘is due’ to the subject matter”. In other words, both parties need to have enough respect for the subject matter to engage in meaningful discourse, avoiding the common pitfalls of disrespect or dismissal. This requires civility, patience, and listening.
Such discourse goes well beyond simply discussing the subject at hand. It’s about understanding the psychology behind the other’s viewpoint; understanding why they look at an issue a certain way and consider whether that way of looking at it has some validity. We might be completely offended by someone else’s perspective, yet still find truth worthy of deconstructing and discussing. At the end of the day, we are sophisticated pattern recognizers, and often respond with rejection to any pattern that doesn’t match those we trained on. Gadamer suggests that our perception of truth has “the character of something that belongs to the specific temporal nature of our human life.” In other words, our own view of truth is mediated by our own historical circumstances, where the effort of hermeneutical understanding attempts to draw a truth based on the other’s historical circumstances. If only what we see as being valid is ever correct, then we’re ourselves trapped in the same prison we see the other as trapped in. Gadamer boldly suggests one “must be aware of the fact that their own understanding and interpretation are not constructions based on principles, but the furthering of an event that goes far back.”
As an object lesson, approaching the news from a hermeneutical posture can be a helpful example of investigating these concepts and how they impact perception. As the behavior of news is tailored around social media today, understanding the different dispositions involved may help develop inductive skills in social media understanding as well. The challenge is this: how can one parse and ingest news in an otherwise compromised environment of truth, where all news output is tainted with prejudice and tradition. To do this, one must be willing to examine all news as an information campaign, and identify the nature of it. If we agree with Gadamer, tradition – the way we receive information, and authority – the currency we give to information, can never be escaped and so there is no such thing as a tradition-free news source. How the media chooses to treat information, what internal process determines the factual nature of it, and what questions they ask when investigating and reporting the news is subjective to the pre-judgments (prejudices) of the network or newspaper.
Some may consider a particular news source to be unbiased, but philosophically speaking what has happened is that the individual finds a news source whose prejudices and tradition most closely align with their own. This becomes an exercise in confirmation bias if one isn’t careful to critically examine the traditions and prejudices of both the news source and one’s self. In other words, all news sources are biased – but so are all of us. The news is, to a careful observer, a hermeneutical effort to investigate the prejudices, traditions, and authorities of a news source, but also of one’s self. It is not merely the information that affects us, but how the information is transposed from one set of prejudices to another; from one tradition into our own. Understanding the delicate nuances of translating from one person’s experience into our own requires us looking just as much within.
There are many opinions about how to improve social media, but few that focus on helping users to better attain understanding. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that it must be the focus of both parties to make such an effort, yet there are things that social media can do to help foster this kind of environment. I offer these suggestions.
Replace the retweet. Getting rid of the retweet and forcing users to quote tweets will alter the attribution so that it is again shared between the original poster and the user sharing the post. It will also provoke some form of commentary from the person sharing the post to explain their thought process in sharing it – which means they might develop a thought process. This will give some users pause to consider that it is their name and comment being included in the discourse they are sharing, rather than a blind, accountability-free and context-less retweet. It will also have the effect of greatly slowing down viral tweets and inject some small amount of discourse and thought into the process.
Asynchronous Threads. Asynchronous and lengthened discourse is one way in which we can increase the amount of meaningful exchange we have with one another. The problem in social media is that platforms are designed to behave exactly opposite of this, and so punish users who seek longer, more meaningful exchange. The consequences are a cluttered timeline, chaotic disorganization, the need for multitasking, and ultimately driving users away from what appears as a high traffic, disjointed, and sometimes controversial feed. A timeline simply isn’t organized to support meaningful discussions. A solution to this is to design an entirely asynchronous and topically-driven mode for side discussions, allowing timelines to continue to function as they do today, but also allow the user to break off into a slower, asynchronous threading mode. Such a “mode switch” will avoid the common pitfalls that occur in attempting to do this directly inside of a timeline, allowing the user to continue to move their timeline beyond the topic at hand without losing that state.
Scope of Interaction. Social media currently gives visibility to anyone looking to attack you for a post you’ve made by weaponizing your own timeline. This is far more aggressive than retweeting, as a user with no followers may suddenly find their reply visible to millions. It’s been some twenty years since we thought that reading a stranger’s comments about a friend’s post was cool; the idea hasn’t aged well. Simply replying to a post, the poster’s own timeline suddenly becomes a platform for any troll to piggyback onto and publicly attack their views, post off-topic garbage, or redirect the narrative – visible for anyone else on the platform to see when clicking on the original comment. Rethinking this functionality so that broadcast scope is fair but limited will help to reduce the blast radius of inflammatory and disruptive responses. Nobody wants to click on an insightful comment from Pope Francis, for example, and find “do me daddy” written by some anon immediately underneath the comment.
Identifying coercive behavior. Machine learning innovation has come an incredibly long way from just twenty years ago, yet we only see it in social networking in the form of a mere chatbot novelty. The types of coercive persuasion that Ofshe and others have helped classify should be possible to identify and act upon using a combination of machine learning and community moderation. Rather than filter or block such content individually, such a tool may be used to identify aggressive online accounts and trigger policy designed to act upon the behavior, or even provide some form of relief to the victim in the form of an interstitial or other intervention, if the user wishes. This should be done carefully so as not to run aground of free speech issues.
Social media is a different kind of problem than philosophical hermeneutics was designed to solve, but we can glean many lessons from it nonetheless. Learning to understand each other has always been challenging; it is even more difficult attempting to function in a system that, by design, does not engender proper human interactions and frequently exposes users to mob behavior. It has been five years since I left social media and I have become a better version of myself by not being poisoned daily, but that’s not necessarily the solution for everyone. It also took the work and patience of others that have helped me improve as a person over the course of my life. Regardless of whether you are active on social media, learning how to better expand our horizons in discourse with others is a skill that can make us more well-rounded, intelligent, and kind humans.
Learning to understand “the other” and striving to translate their worldview and experiences into a form that we can understand and appreciate is the core of hermeneutic goals. Without understanding those we oppose, we are all trapped inside the prisons of our own prejudice, too full of our own virtue to see things from another’s perspective. This does not apply to just social media. As divided as America is, refusing to understand each other has already begun to tear us apart. We have been conditioned by the news and public opinion to bitterly take sides, rather than seek to understand. Society desperately needs people who are willing to reach across the aisle and find common ground. It sounds so simple to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, yet it is extremely difficult to put into practice. Seeking understanding is about rescuing ourselves from our own prisons.
Truth and Method, H. Gadamer
Coercive Persuasion and Attitude Change, R. Ofshe
Hans-Georg Gadamer, L. Barthold
Gadamer and the Idea of Tradition, M. Fischer
Hermeneutics, G. Warnke
Gadamer and the Transmission of History, J. Veith
Hermeneutics of Doctrine, A. Thistleton