This is not a happy story, so I have decided to build it around a more frivolous topic. For now, I need to begin with a joke:
You know you go to Wesleyan when you see a sign at a conference that says “the Twitter hashtag for this conference will be…” and you think “fuck you, we’ll make our own hashtag.”
This actually happened to me today, and I want to take a moment to explain why that kind of thought is so terribly, terribly wrong.
Some readers may not agree with my original premise — that this is a popular mode of thought at Wes — and that’s fine, because it has no impact on my real argument. After considerable thought, I have decided not to explain exactly how I arrived at that premise. You can work that part out for yourself.
Ultimately, setting one standard hashtag from the get-go is useful for everybody.
All of the tweets get organized in one place where readers and tweeters can collectively converse. Competing hashtags allow for interested people to miss out on part of the dialogue, or, at least, discourage multiple conversations from interacting. The organizers of the conference spend the time and energy creating a good hashtag (short, relevant, decipherable) and the attendees spend time creating and building good content. The whole conference achieves better organization, better publicity, better viewership, and better dialogue. It’s a win-win for everybody.
Those were the thoughts that popped into my head immediately after that joke. Why? Because that’s not how I am trained to think. I am trained to question authority. I am trained to question the prevailing paradigm. I am trained to worship the masses. Twitter is about democracy, dammit! The people get to decide what’s trending, and they should be the ones to decide what to call it.
“Fuck you, we’ll make our own hashtag.”
This is wrong. Let’s break this down into parts:
We frequently believe that our opinions correspond with that of the majority (note my intentional use of “we” here — it’s not my typical ‘we’ to mean me and the reader), that everybody agrees with us except for those idiots on the other side. We don’t have to actually hear people agree with us — then it just becomes the “silent” majority. For our core beliefs and our gut opinions alike, we too often cement them with an inherent assumption that ours is the voice of the reasonable, the righteous, and the numerous. I frequently hear people at Wesleyan explicitly claim, with complete seriousness, to express the opinion of the “silent majority” (real quote) — with no evidence of any kind to back it up. That emotional mechanism for belonging is extremely powerful, and fabricates ghosts to echo our own opinions.
But the simply isn’t ever a given, at Wesleyan or not. (If one thing is true about Wesleyan, it’s that everyone disagrees on something about everything, including the one thing that’s true about Wesleyan.) I always try to catch myself when making the assumption that most people would agree with me, but it still happens too often.
So when I say “we” in the context of hashtagging, I am making the assumption that others also reflexively reject authority and want to build what’s needed through grassroots popular mandate. There are two things wrong with that. One, that assumption is just flatly false. And two, ‘grassroots popular mandate’ is much more fractured, much more Darwinian, and much more Machiavellian than my knee-jerk ideal.
There is no white knight ‘we.’
2. “our own”
We have a problem with ownership, at Wes and elsewhere. In my experience, most people want to be the leader at all the wrong times (when there’s a good one already) and want to follow a leader at all the wrong times (when there aren’t any). We sometimes carry a rather curious discomfort with allowing someone else to define the playground, and we become unnecessarily consumed with haggling over structure rather than putting our energy into product.
This habit becomes especially strange when, as occurred with me this morning, I took (momentary) issue with the structure developed by someone far more qualified than I — the conference organizers. Sure, I wasn’t consulted about it — and everyone loves to be consulted — but why should I be? The end result is more or less the same, if not better: one common hashtag for everybody to follow and to add to.
We do not need to own everything.
3. “fuck you”
Some of you may be thinking “well, duh, the ‘fuck you’ is just totally unnecessary.” You are absolutely right. But the problem is bigger than that.
I find myself starved, really starved, of productive and calm intellectual conversation on any topic directly relevant to the participants. Wesleyan (and the world) may be teeming with intelligence, but much of that intelligence is fundamentally tarnished. True intellectualism, in my opinion, requires the acknowledgement of other intelligence that generates a different conclusion.
We all live alone, each in hir own Plato’s Cave. We all see the world differently, and we all have myriad different motivations, and we all therefore conclude upon different courses of action as ‘best.’ Collaboration is successful because — when — it generates communication between caves, sharing perspectives, and collectively reaching a new, reinforced path forward.
In that sense, we don’t collaborate much. Intellectual interaction, I have found, commonly devolves into a struggle of perspectives, not a connection. One cave wins over another by force (often involves shouting). In a society where this is the norm (Wesleyan is one such society, in my opinion), every opinion becomes morphed into an attack plan. Battles of wits turn from discussions to literal battles.
Oh, and that’s another thing: everything suddenly becomes existential. A way of the mind is the way of living, and so a critique on an opinion suddenly explodes into an attack ad hominem on a way of life. Then the ‘fuck you’ is really just the icing on the defensive-reflex cake.
Can we all please take it down a notch?