I came across an article with an interesting quote from Haruki Murakami on why he does not use social media. While I have never read any of Mr. Murakami’s books, I thought that his short and incisive quote regarding social media was worth discussing here. In so doing, I will also revisit several of my past articles which included some points that I think are pertinent to Mr. Murakami’s recent statement.
Before continuing, I must note that I found this week’s article in one of my RSS feeds through my RSS reader. I wrote about using RSS feeds to stay on top of good content in the previous Around the Web article from two weeks ago.
Without further ado, let us jump straight into my primary article recommendation of the week.
SoraNews24: “Haruki Murakami never uses social media, bluntly explains why”
By Casey Baseel. March 4, 2021.
In a recent interview, Mr. Murakami was asked why he does not use or consume social media. As the article headline promised, Mr. Murakami offered a very blunt answer:
Generally speaking, the quality of writing [on social media] isn’t very good. Reading good writing and listening to good music are incredibly important things in life. So, to phrase it from the other way around, there’s nothing better than not listening to bad music and not reading bad writing.Haruki Murakami
Blunt indeed. But is Mr. Murakami’s hot take a good one? Let us explore.
My Vantage Point
I write from the perspective of someone who is interested in the effect of social media on society and how to improve social media in various respects, mostly impertinent to the instant issue. I do not use social media in a personal sense, but I do maintain several accounts on niche platforms to bring The New Leaf Journal to a broader audience.
Had I no website to pitch, I would have no social media accounts at all – just as I happily did not before June 2020. If I had achieved the international recognition that Mr. Murakami has, I would at the very least self-host any social media accounts that I found it necessary to have.
I will explore many issues relating to reforming social media in the future, but for today’s piece, I will focus squarely on Mr. Murakami’s views on the quality of content on social media.
Mr. Murakami is Not Wrong About Social Media Content
“Generally speaking, the quality of writing on social media is not very good.”
Few who have taken more than a cursory look at the large social media platforms will find this statement inaccurate or disagreeable. But the interesting question here is not whether Mr. Murakami is right – for he is – but rather why he is right.
It goes without saying that most people are not particularly talented writers. But social media, which is conducive to short thoughts, does not demand creative writing talent to produce good content.
I published an article last year wherein I quoted the brilliant John Ruskin on the subject of evergreen content vs good content of the moment. Ruskin stated that books are divisible into two categories – “the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” The book of the hour is “simply the useful or pleasant talk of some person whom you cannot otherwise converse with…” Conversely, the book of all time is, to use a more contemporary term, evergreen.
Reacting and Reaction-Chasing Lead to Bad Content
Social media encourages users to seek reactions – whether through self-indulgent commentary and updates or chasing whatever is trending at the moment. Reaction porn is not “useful or pleasant,” let alone something that people would want to read for generations to come. Thus, even posters who may otherwise be recognized for their writing talent can produce awful content on social media. I am not here to name names (certainly not names like “Stephen King”).
Mr. Murakami’s “generally speaking” recognizes exceptions. Some people can and do post good content on social media. I have seen it in my limited exposure thus far. But by in large, the majority of social media platforms today do not incentivize good content characterized by good writing. I discussed this point in some detail with reference to a Jason Whitlock interview in my June article on Twitter.
Mr. Murakami On Avoiding Bad Content
Mr. Murakami’s statement on the importance of good writing and good music is, I hope, uncontroversial. For that reason, I will skip over it and proceed to the final part of Mr. Murakami’s statement: “[T]here’s nothing better than not listening to bad music and not reading bad writing.”
While Mr. Murakami’s quote as recorded is perhaps a bit imprecise, we should focus on the idea it conveys that it is important to avoid bad music and bad writing. That is, the idea that bad music and writing are not only unpleasant, but also actively harmful in some way.
If we remove the “nothing better” language – Mr. Murakami’s point applies well to social media. Consuming poor content on social media can, in fact, be harmful. I do not say this in the clichéd sense about absorbing bad ideas or conspiracies, but rather in a general sense. Good art is, at a minimum, “useful or pleasant.” In its ideal form, it touches on something eternal about the human condition or the nature of things. As my great English professor put it in college – every great work of literature provides the author’s perspective on how one should live his or her life in the book’s world.
The time that one spends consuming and engaging with bad content on social media could instead be spent with absorbing good content – as Mr. Murakami suggests. Furthermore, the big tech social media platforms are designed to keep users engaged with the platform in order that they may present engaged users as products to advertisers. That is, the very purpose of the platforms is to keep people occupied with poor content, which is the most widely available and easiest to produce.
Bad Social Media Content Cultivates Aesthetic Laziness
In June, I wrote the following with regard to bad movies and other similar forms of media. While I was not thinking specifically about social media, I think that the spirit of the passage applies neatly to Mr. Murakami’s point:
[W]e must be active and discerning consumers. Content makers strive to catch our attention and keep us in the sphere of their content. While some seek to do this by producing interesting content, many others seek to take advantage of our boredom and malaise.N.A. Ferrell – modestly quoting himself
With regard to big tech social media, the platforms encourage users to both create and consume bad content, so long as it keeps users on the platform. The response to provocative bad content is often more bad content. Thus, as Mr. Murakami implicitly suggested, distracts people from consuming good content – or content that Ruskin would, at a minimum, describe as “pleasant or useful.”
Bad Social Media Content Dulls the Senses
There is truth to the argument that social media, along with other internet frivolities, dulls the senses and shortens attention spans. That is, continually engaging with trite, superficial content online harms one’s capacity to meaningfully engage with content of any sort, great or somewhat less than. In my article on bad movies, for example, I noted that meaningfully engaging with mediocre art can be meaningful in and of itself, depending on circumstances.. Save perhaps for a researcher or social historian, I do not think that anyone benefits from engaging with bad content on a platform that treats both creators and consumers as products.
The attention point can be overblown, however. I do not think that consuming bad content online necessarily permanently damages people. As I wrote in an earlier article about a brave little tree growing on a tenement building: “Ugliness corrupts, but beauty heals.” Whatever damage is done by the irresponsible consumption of bad content can be ameliorated by the willing and enthusiastic consumption of good content.
Many intelligent people who have dulled their senses with bad content insist that they do not have the capacity to meaningfully engage with good literary content. Nonsense, I say. Or as Epictetus wrote in Enchiridion, imploring people to care for their ruling faculties:
How long, then, will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself?Epictetus, Enchiridion (Carter Tr.)
The Worst Case: Bad Social Media Becomes Real Life
There is an additional harm to consuming bad content on social media that Mr. Murakami did not directly reference. I will preface the brief discussion with a quote from the English dubbed version of the anime original video animation, FLCL. Herein, one of the characters, Eri Ninamori, offers her takeaway from the protagonist’s actions in the classic children’s story, Puss in Boots:
He hides who he really is and pretends to be someone else forever. So in time he becomes that person, so his lie becomes the truth, see? He transcends the mask.Eri Ninamori in episode 3 of FLCL (English dub)
I will reserve the full quote and a fuller discussion of the quote for a future article. Although this episode of FLCL aired in 2000, it aptly describes a problem for people whose lives have become consumed by posting mundane content about themselves and consuming comparable content about others on social media.
The Social Media Horror Story
Take for example the December 2020 blog post by Mr. Cal Newport, “From Instagram to Insistent Goats: Another Life After Social Media Case Study,” which I noted in a previous Around the Web post and used as inspiration for a humorous dialogue about unhealthy social media usage.
Mr. Newport’s post describes a young woman who became obsessed with posting staged content about herself and her family to chase social media likes. She not only tried to sell an idealized version of her own life, but she also consumed similar content from others – participating in a mutual web of like-chasing from which only the big tech social media platforms benefited. She was inspired to take a hiatus from social media when she realized that instead of actually living her real life, she was constantly thinking about how to use her life to garner meaningless social media plaudits.
After her break, she resumed using social media for the sole purpose of staying connected with friends, but “on her own terms.” Instead of posting pictures of her children to social media, which I argued in a prior post is often unethical, she shared those personal pictures directly with “actual friends and family” rather than on social media.
If one assumes bad social media habits as a real-world identity, then it goes without saying that he or she will have no time to meaningfully consume good content, much less produce said content.
Short Thoughts On a Better Way Forward
While I will reserve more detailed thoughts on social media reform for future articles, I do have some general ideas for people for whom Mr. Murakami’s statement struck too close to home.
Content creators should best use social media in a limited and focused way. While it social media may be necessary to an extent for those of us who are not as well-known and well-supported as Mr. Murakami, it should not become all-consuming. I post in only a limited manner to a small number of platforms, focusing on those that do not view me as a product. Even on those platforms, I limit my engagement to liking good content and posting some of our content from The New Leaf Journal.
To this effect, considering alternative platforms to the big tech giants can be useful as well. I have noted that Pixelfed.social, for example, has high-quality photographic and art content – and it is actually enjoyable to use.
Those who are interested in staying in the loop or finding good content should consider RSS feeds, as I noted in the previous Around the Web post. RSS allows you to choose which content is delivered directly to your feed reader. Furthermore, some alternative social media platforms allow people to follow accounts via feed.