Twitter, Facebook, the Election, and VR

A cultural discussion is underway about whether and/or how Facebook and Twitter influenced the election. The New York Times has two pieces out today, Facebook, in Cross Hairs After Election, Is Said to Question its Influence and a think piece by Farhad Manjoo called Breaking Up with Twitter.

Marshall McLuhan

When you step into an argument about the effects of mass media, it’s useful to arm yourself with the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who was once present enough on the cultural radar to appear as himself in a Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall). McLuhan’s often cryptic aphorisms have generated a fair amount of chin-stroking and head-scratching in undergraduate Communications departments over the years, but his most celebrated statement bears repeating: The medium is the message.

This is to say that the form in which content is delivered itself dictates how we interpret and interact with that content. Reading Stephen King’s The Shining isn’t the same as watching Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and not just because Kubrick changed a few details of the story. The very act of sitting in a chair reading a book at home is fundamentally different, on a cognitive level, than watching a movie in a theater among other people, or even at home on your sofa. These various methods of receiving a story engage different parts of the brain. (In case you’re a media nerd like me, theorists Neil Postman and Sven Birkerts have also added to McLuhan’s ideas in thought-provoking ways.)

The story of twentieth century politics is entwined so intimately with the story of media’s evolution that they can seem almost inseparable. The ways that media itself influences how we interpret reality dwarfs the power of whatever messages are being relayed within individual mediums. Again, the medium is the message. We understand that Hitler’s rise was facilitated by radio; the Nazis insisted that every German household have one in order to listen to his speeches. And it isn’t simply the words Hitler used in his speeches that resulted in the rise of the Third Reich. It was that when you listen to the radio, your imagination fills in the missing visual information. Which meant that when Hitler described Jews as vermin, his listeners could imagine human beings as actual rats.

The 1960 American election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon turned on one televised debate in which Nixon showed up unshaven and sweaty-looking and Kennedy came across as far more handsome on the black-and-white sets of the day. Reagan, a show business veteran, understood camera placement and lighting better than any candidate before him. I always thought that Bill Clinton clinched his election when he played saxophone on Arsenio Hall, a signal of pop culture savviness that appealed to young Gen X voters. Obama’s team understood the organizing capacity of the Web just before it went mobile. And with this mobility came the predominance of the tweet and the feed. Which brings us to You Know Who.

Who can argue that Donald Trump isn’t an absolute master of Twitter? Twitter is designed to provide a little dopamine bump the more your tweets get shared, and the more followers you amass. It doesn’t matter at all what the contents of those tweets are. The point of Twitter is to get followers and get them to like and spread your max-140 character missives. And nothing spreads through Twitter better than carefully crafted messages that induce gleeful outrage. If you still doubt that Twitter was one of the most relevant elements of this election season, go back over the debate transcripts and compare how many times Twitter and tweets were mentioned as compared to climate change and nuclear proliferation.

The actual contents of the tweets don’t matter as much as the reaction they generate. Trump understood this better than anybody. Every outrageous statement he made was greeted with predictions by the mainstream (televised) media that this would be the gaffe that would sink his campaign. And yet over and over again, we watched his poll numbers stay the same or climb. Trump understood that you don’t counter a horrifically misogynistic or racist statement with a mea culpa or public apology; you counter it with three more statements that are even more outrageous. When these statements got the talking heads clucking,  vast swaths of the American electorate who felt their voices were  shut out by the punditocracy saw a candidate who ruffled the feathers of the very media figures they resented for their holier than thou pontificating.

Facebook, meanwhile, is being faulted for the proliferation of false news stories in its feeds. Mark Zuckerberg this week expressed incredulity that Facebook had a hand in the election turning out as it did, saying, “Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

This ignores the fact that reading your Facebook feed is itself a lived experience. Lived experience means receiving information through Facebook and checking your phone for new messages every five minutes. That’s how most of us live now. If lived experience means one’s personal interactions and relationships, Facebook is central to lived experience in 2016.

And when it comes to Facebook, let’s not forget the intriguing subplot of Oculus founder Palmer Luckey’s bankrolling a pro-Trump “shit posting” organization this year.

Which brings us to VR.

What Will the First VR Presidential Candidate Be Like?

One day soon a president will get elected because they better understand immersive media. We’ll get a VR president just as we got a TV president (Kennedy) and a social media president (You Know Who). If you want to know what qualities this president will embody, just think about what qualities in human beings VR amplifies.

By now we all understand that VR is a medium that encourages or facilitates empathetic states in its users. Lately I’ve been getting tired of the word “empathy,” though. Ever since an audience member of a panel I conducted at RenCon pointed out the difference between empathy and sympathy, I’ve been wondering if there is another way to talk about those feelings we get for others inside VR.

The word I keep coming back to is intimacy. I think VR allows us to have more intimate encounters with each other. I’m not talking about porn, but rather that feeling of being inside someone’s personal sphere. I suspect the first presidential candidate to understand VR will be one we feel we know personally, more than any other candidate before. It’ll be someone whose body language communicates comfort in small group settings rather than power at big rallies. It will be someone who says, “Hey, come hang out with me in VR and let me tell you about my health plan.”

I suspect we’ll view this past week’s shocker of an election as the symptom of media growing pains. America is hurting right now and we appear prepared to embrace new ways of exchanging information that acknowledge and emphasize what’s human and common between our warring tribes. I believe that virtual reality is a medium capable of healing those wounds.