On May 18, 2022 by Jonathan Zdziarski
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.
The construct of social media is fascinating from the perspective of an investor. While users are concerned with speech, likes, and features, a social media company’s valuation is largely driven by active user counts, which translate directly to advertising dollars and other revenue-based metrics. Cult phenomenon, often driven by celebrities and politicians, can further drive user activity, increasing the value of a company. The more disruptors a network has, the more controversy and virality will exist to improve the metrics that drive valuation. The consequences of designing 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 backstory, 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 theirlens, 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 limited vision of our own experiences, prejudices, and culture. Think of it as a translation problem. When done correctly, the net result 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 very basic thing we all seek today in social media, and often lack in understanding.
Until the twentieth century, 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 relied on the same cultural and historical understanding spanning hundreds or thousands of years. With the advent of social media, such a challenge lies more in reconciling culture, thought, and experiences that form our world of thought in the present. Social media brought about real-time worldwide communication directly into countless different backgrounds, cultures, and subcultures, 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.” The point was, 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 universe. 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 media discourse from the most admired works of art and music, or of timeless writings. 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 form of art and requires 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 more constructive and cohesive forms. Communication was speeded up considerably over the past ten years, as time-sensitive, synchronous, and more ephemeral communication became dominant with services such as Twitter and Facebook. The advent of the timeline shifted discourse from being organized by topic to one temporally constrained, making it difficult to discuss more than one topic at a time. The move to social media’s paradigm short-circuited an important cognitive process: ingestion of content. Reflection, consideration, and response required faster processing in social media than in forums, but also required less frequent and shorter communication than that of chatrooms
Cognitive process then 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 “reposted” something would be attributed for the post and would bear the responsibility of reposting something offensive or ignorant. This came with a level of social accountability for the user, who would be more apt to repost things they understood enough to take responsibility for. A retweet, however, implies virtually no accountability, as the attribution remains that of the original poster. This removes any necessary thought process of assuming responsibility for repeating it.
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, one often interacts with a universe of complete strangers on social media; this is only amplified with retweeted content. Achieving some level of understanding of the user behind a tweet takes the kind of effort that most users aren’t willing to invest, and indeed rubs against the design of the platform itself. It is far more rewarding to insult a user for their views than it is to attempt to understand them. 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”.
Multiply this short-circuit of thought by tens of thousands for every viral post, 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 (sometimes called for by a platform’s disruptors), and other actions that often lack the benefit of a detailed thought process. Regardless of whether the action is justified or not, there has been no transfer or translation of experience. 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.
Social media starves the user of understanding. The sheer design of today’s platforms requires brevity, synchronicity, and transience, all acting as obstacles to understanding. 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, and the manipulation of a person’s social environment to stabilize modified behavior. These factors described by Ofshe can be 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. Psychologist Margaret Singer also wrote 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. Think of it as the social media version of “love bombing”, only helping to drive behavior through the number of likes one may receive (or observe others receiving), rewarding them for a certain type of behavior.
Social media companies are beginning to recognize the problems in understanding, 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.
Developing the correct concepts as the basis of our effort to understand is the first step. Gadamer’s theory of understanding cites four disposition of understanding that are key: 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” to unpack this; 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 in a different context. The pre-judgments we have made concerning a hammer are a prejudice. Now broaden this to the meaning that we’ve given to political or religious concepts, and the pre-judgments both parties bring into other touchy issues. Even if two people are communicating clearly about a topic, the meaning they have internally given to a concept may be radically different, giving each a prejudice that is brought into the conversation.
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 accepting knowledge, but what kind of knowledge 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 applies the prejudices one brings with them, and carries with it the questions and challenges that incite knowledge. How one receives and accepts knowledge today may be a topic at the forefront of modern disinformation campaigns; understanding how the other receives and treats knowledge is crucial to the understanding of the other.
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 tyranny. The realm of authority is particularly relevant 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 in which he is trying 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.” This is not a one-sided effort, however. 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 were 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. As Gadamer warns, 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.”
Approaching news using these techniques can also be helpful at cutting through the bias, and because it is so closely tied to social media, help hone your skills in social media understanding as well. If we agree with Gadamer, tradition – the currency we give to information – can never be escaped; there is no such thing as a tradition-free news station. How the media chooses to treat information, what is important to them, and what questions they ask is subjective to the pre-judgments (prejudices) of the news organization. Many think any given news station might be unbiased, but more often what has happened is the individual has found a news station whose prejudices and tradition most closely mirror their own. This can become a form of confirmation bias if one isn’t careful to critically examine the traditions and prejudices of both the outlet and one’s self. What information does the news channel value the most? What kinds of questions do they most often ask? What prejudices (pre-judgments) do they exercise frequently? What kind of reaction is a piece trying to invoke in its viewers? What can be gleaned from examining common themes in the coverage of particular types of pieces? How does the information conveyed resonate with you – what questions does it invoke? What currency does it carry? What do you find questionable about the reporting? What prejudices have you identified in the station which you also share? The news is, to a careful observer, a hermeneutical effort to investigate the prejudices, traditions, and authorities of each station but also of one’s self.
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 three 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. 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 engender some small amount of critical thought in the process.
Side discussions. Asynchronous and prolonged 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 results are a cluttered timeline, added disorganization, and ultimately driving users away from what appears as a high traffic (and sometimes controversial) feed. A timeline simply isn’t organized to support multiple ongoing discussions. A solution to this is to design a flow 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 mode of discourse. A publicly visible list of side discussions started by the user, organized by topic rather than time, will allow a user to engage with their followers in more lengthy topics in depth (over periods of days, rather than seconds), in a slower-paced environment. 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. There is currently no clean way to do this without leaving the platform or switching to private DM, both of which are insufficient and unattractive solutions.
Attention piggybacking. Social media currently gives visibility to anyone looking to attack you for a post you’ve made by means of your own timeline. This is far more aggressive than retweeting, as a user with no followers may suddenly find their post attached to a user with ten million. For example, simply replying to my post, my timeline suddenly becomes a platform for any troll to piggyback on and trash my comments – visible for anyone else viewing that post to see. Rethinking this functionality so that only people the post author follows will receive this visibility will help to cut back on the viral hate and negativity that often accompany this phenomenon. The post’s author will continue to see all replies, but in this model, their timeline isn’t being hijacked as a platform by a hostile stranger. The hostile stranger looking to blast their opinion would have to rely on their own timeline by quoting the post.
Social media is a different kind of problem than philosophical hermeneutics was designed to solve, but we can glean some 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 for it. Nonetheless, whether you are on or off 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 the one thing most of us struggle with the most. 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