Years ago I heard someone say that many arguments would be averted if only we would use the word merely more often. Case in point: I titled my last post “Don’t Be a Relay in the Network.” My point could have been more appropriately stated, “Don’t Be Merely a Relay in the Network.”
The difference is not insignificant. Being a relay in a network is not necessarily problematic. We receive and pass along information, digital and otherwise, all of the time. Problems arise when we function merely as a relay, or, even better, when we function merely as a passive relay.
My concern stems from the habits I felt taking shape as a result of my own online reading practices. I found myself reading not for the enjoyment or value of reading, but simply to have read. I owe this formulation to Alan Jacobs, who, in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, observes that we sometimes read simply to be able to claim that we have read something.
Jacobs had in mind lure of the prestige attached to being known as the sort of person who has read War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time or whatever happens to be trendy at the moment. There’s that, to be sure, but I have in mind the desire to have read which translates into seeing my RSS feed at zero. It is reading motivated by the pressures of keeping up with the digital news feed or fear of missing out.
When this sort of reading is coupled with the desire, variously motivated, to share what has been read, then it becomes reading to have shared. And it’s not just reading, of course. All forms of online content are subject to this dynamic. When this sort of dynamic drives our experience with online content, then we are acting merely as relays in a network. There’s something of Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in this dynamic: we’re shaped by the network, but we have no form of our own. Stuff passes through us, but we remain hollow.
Thoughtless passivity is one of the problems that attends being a mere relay in a network. The pattern of habitual receiving and sharing within the temporal horizons of digital culture tends to preclude the possibility of internalizing the information so that it is appropriated as genuine personal knowledge. Apart from this sort of internalization that is, in part, a product of time and method, what we are left with is a vague, generic awareness that we have at some point come into contact with some information. “Oh, I think I read about that a few days ago” or “I saw a link to that on Twitter” or “Didn’t someone post that on Facebook not too long ago.”
I would go so far as to suggest that the apathy or inaction in contemporary culture that many lament is partially a function of this kind of ambient awareness that does not quite sink in and become personal knowledge. Involvement and action are a product of personal knowledge. The ambient awareness that comes from functioning as mere relays of information lacks the power to motivate, inspire, outrage, etc.
The other danger is what we could call the conditioned passivity of being merely a relay. This describes the subtle temptation to pass along information that will be well-received by your audience. This is not unlike the “filter bubble” problem in which our personalized streams of digital information enclose us within a filter bubble or echo chamber that mirrors and reinforces our prejudices and blind spots. The risk of being passively conditioned when acting as a mere relay arises from the temptation to share and disseminate what will resonate or play well with the audience we’ve fashioned for ourselves. The temptation, in other words, is to tacitly bend to the shape of our bubbles or tune our online voice so as to achieve maximum echo.
None of this necessarily follows from reading online or sharing information through social media; but it is a temptation and it is worth resisting.