Form and Function
What does literacy mean? It's a question I keep coming back to when I think about Chronicle, because it's at the foundation of what we do. Today I'm going to get on my soapbox a little bit about social media, because I think that three things are connected here: social media, literature, and literacy. I want to talk very frankly, very openly about why we think social media is bad and, in turn, why we made Chronicle as a direct substitute. In other words, we'll talk about why Chronicle is about reading fiction and not something else - news, essays, etc.
Empty the Vessel
Social media is a tricky beast. On the one hand, it allows us to connect with people and things in our lives that mean the most to us, across international lines, language barriers, war zones. That’s the Facebook stump speech. In reality, social media companies employ incredibly smart people to figure out how to get you to use their services for just a little bit longer. Borrowing from the world of addictive gambling, social media tries to trick your brain into thinking its happy by using slot-machine tactics. When you see a photo of someone you know, when you read a headline that confirms your political views, when you receive “likes” on your posts, your brain gets a small rush of dopamine. Just as the slot machine convinces you, with its near-misses, to play “one more” game, so Facebook targets your psychological profile to bring you the most easily ingested dopamine boosters (Cat videos! Photos of your college best friend getting married! News about greedy conservatives/ bleeding-heart liberals!).
Addiction to the Small Highs
Okay, so social media sites do their best to make us feel (just a little, tiny bit) happier for short periods of time to keep us on their services longer. How is that different from any other form of entertainment, or, to put it a different way, why is social media uniquely guilty in a way that Television and Radio might not be? There’s an important difference between trying to make something that people like, and trying to manipulate people into liking something. Television shows are entertaining and more or less enjoyable to watch—it’s a human thing to tell stories about other humans. It’s an entirely different thing to create a service that is not actually enjoyable to use and, instead, build-in scientifically manipulative assets in an attempt to sell your attention/time for advertising money. Just as with gambling, using social media is only enjoyable when we get the little dopamine rushes (think: flashing lights atop the slot machine. think: the way that notifications pop up, red and bold). The act of using the service itself brings us nothing—in fact, we often feel less happy after we quit using. How many times have you closed Facebook because there wasn’t anything interesting, only to open it back up 90 second later?
Problems with no Solutions
It’s okay to use Facebook. It’s okay to gamble, and to have a beer when you want one, and eat junkfood when you go to see a movie. But if we honestly looked at how frequently we used social media and the way that it plays a controlling role in our lives, many of us would discover that it dictates our habits. The really interesting thing about fiction, about the novel, is the way in which it directly opposes that kind of control. Novels happen slowly. They unfold over the course of tens of hours. Their payoffs are sometimes subtle. They are not filled with dopamine rushes; they’re not designed around physiological responses to minutia. They essentially the work of one person. Sometimes they seem bad at first but turn out to be life-altering.
I’m going to repeat that because it bears reiteration: sometimes things that seem bad at first turn out to be life-altering. But we can only get to the life-alteration if we learn how to sit still, control our urge for dopamine, and understand how to think slowly. There are no flashy hooks, there’s nothing to pull us back in when we put the book down. Just the patience and maturity to understand that sometimes the best things in the world are just on the other side of a long, slow journey. If this sounds like a meditation on life, that’s because it is: the tension that exists between social media and the novel is nothing less than a microcosm for being an adult in the classic sense. What it means to be an adult—being patient, slow to judge, and understanding that the texture of a human life is incomprehensibly varied—is at the core of the question of whether or not social media has value. And reading is dead-center in this dichotomy and I'll leave you with the two definitions of literacy: one where we literally translate social text into direct, 1:1 meaning. The other, where we can infer and understand meaning in all its complexity, messiness, and confusion. One that flattens everything we do into a stack of photos and comments, and another that complicates and demands interpretation. Enough is enough: it's time to demand more from ourselves.
So how do we get more from ourselves? In order to answer this question, I'd like for us to return to the question of what literacy means. Literacy, in grown-up, adult terms, ultimately comes down to making connections. Seeing the ghosts of one thing in another. Recognizing patterns in information. Of course, recognizing patterns in data and numbers is the job of so many business administrators, but we're talking here about something more nuanced and complex, something that's harder to define. Literacy of this kind requires slow thinking, an aversion to the flashing lights of the slot machine. But life doesn't happen in a vacuum: the fact of the matter is that many of us never fell in love with reading as children, as teens, as adults. One of the reasons I so strongly believe in Chronicle is that it has the power to bring fiction to the people, to the masses. By making fiction accessible, by offering it as a direct alternative to social media and the news, we have the opportunity to move the literacy needle. It's an opportunity to slow down the thinking. It's easy to jump, on the surface, from subject to subject. It takes patience, diligence, and practice to venture deep into the folds of thought and understanding. So here's Chronicle: we hope that, through fiction, it helps people resist the urge to flatten the world into binaries and instead accept the answerless, complicated, beautiful mess of life.