"Virtue Signaling" Re-examined
Updated: May 19, 2022
Lately, there has been a specific kind of backlash on social media against social media about social media, where people take to social media to wax cynical about using social media instead of actually doing things that make a difference in the world. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is.
Social media is still in its infancy stage. It has barely been around for one generation, and while we’re beginning to learn about some of the effects it’s having on us, we probably haven’t even scratched the surface, although much virtual ink has been spilled on the subject.
Virtue signaling is a phrase used to describe the act of posting a value-based message on social media, which seems designed to blast a message about its author to the effect of: “Look how noble and idealistic I am!” instead of engaging in real life activism and action-taking. It’s also associated with herd-following the popular cause du jour, rather than doing one’s own research and forming individual opinions.
Of course it makes sense that actually rolling up our sleeves and volunteering, or opening up our wallets and donating is more necessary than “posting” or as it’s also called: “slacktivism” or “performative allyship.” And the insufferable self-righteousness that echoes through cyberspace can be infuriating, especially when laced with pompous or conspicuous ignorance. As the old cliches say: “Talk is cheap,” and “actions speak louder than words.” We’ve been skeptical of those who seem to be “all talk” since well before the internet.
Yet, with the backlash, I wonder if it goes too far, and misses an important reality. (Not to mention that using social media to deprecate the importance of social medial is an inherently paradoxical move.)
Whether we like or not, respect it or not, believe it or not- social media looks like it’s here to stay for a while. And it’s the language of the next generation, this generation, already- and to a large extent, of the world.
Great writers of the past- philosophers, social commentators, journalists, and great novelists have shaped minds and societies through the power of the pen, and earned respect for it. Fiction and nonfiction works alike have influenced hundreds of millions by introducing and analyzing ideas about values, politics, religion, society, and relationships.
Social media is a new genre of influential literature. It's the contemporary vehicle of ideological impact, a virtual marketplace of ideas which spread instantly across the Earth. Sophistication, inspiration, academia, pop culture, truth, theories, lies, and the lowest common denominator converge on the relative equalized stage of the “world wide web.” It can feel like a popularity contest for our eyeballs, brains, and hearts.
The potent psychology of marketing and advertising is unfolding before our eyes, not only for goods and services but for information and beliefs. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are empirically affected by what we see read and hear, especially repeatedly over time, and particularly when enhanced by the emotional media of entertainment, humor, drama, and passion. Social norms, constructs, opinions, and assumptions are changing at lightning speed, and much of that is based on the charged currency of the messaging pulsing through our devices, brains, and thumbs.
So while “virtue signaling” unaccompanied by wisdom or meaningful action may deserve much of the criticism and cynicism it’s getting, I wouldn’t be so fast to dismiss the impact of raising a voice among voices. Words accumulate and they matter. One grain of sand may not look significant, but the collective is vast. I know that many of my own opinions have been shifted, challenged, and refined by materials I’ve read - in paper books, in publications, but also online. It therefore behooves us to be discerning about what we consume, what we share, and what we underestimate in this uncharted new world. Because what we think as individuals matters, since individuals comprise the collectives. It’s what we believe, what we express and share, how we exchange ideas, influence one another and our behaviors, in a ripple effect that creates societies, countries, and the future of the global community.
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