Earlier this year, readers gave a newly released book mixed reviews. I read it at its release and walked away with many conflicting feelings. Mixed messages, disjointed thoughts, and the way I felt that the author stepped on those they wrote about to elevate the premise of the book did the book no favor in my eyes. Then the election happened. This book suddenly became a manual to understanding how Donald Trump became president and Hillary Clinton did not. Exclamations that the book was a must-read replaced so-so reviews. This new framework around the book fascinated me, particularly when I believe that there are better books that do a better job at explaining socio-economic dynamics in middle America.
Around the same time, I noticed a strange trend among my friends on Facebook and Twitter. Less were sharing their thoughts about issues and more were copying and pasting the status updates of complete strangers to express what they were feeling about the state of things in the United States. These copy and paste posts were not written by politicos or those with reputation of being particularly versed in politics, but by everyday people taking to Facebook to express their outrage. In one day, 33 different friends with no association with one another shared a post written by someone they did not know. They did not know if this person had an agenda, any sort of shady affiliations, if they obtained their knowledge from less reputable sites, or what experience they brought to the conversation. This, again, fascinated me, because I had seen this trend previously employed on Twitter through retweets by those on the other end of the political spectrum. It also fascinated me because we were living in the age of post-truth and fake news and people were just taking the words of someone they didn’t know and using them as their own — consciously or not, they were participating in spreading someone’s message.
As someone who is generally non-partisan with friends from various backgrounds and believes who respects knowledge and fact for the sake of knowledge and fact, this shift in dynamic that I was experiencing in my daily interactions with people left me confused. I then read How Propaganda Works by Jason Stanley and began questioning my own processes when it came to learning and acquiring knowledge. Were my connections on Facebook extensions of my own confirmation bias? If those connections did not exist, would I process information differently? Were the headlines I was seeing streaming through my newsfeed having an influence over me and my opinions? How much of an influence did those connections have over my perception of society today? How differently would I process information without existing frameworks or social constructs? Would I process information gained from a book on Putin and Russia differently without the knowledge of current events or do current events, beyond offering context, also influence the way that I gain and process information and the opinions I form?
These questions led to Dangerously Thinking: A Year of Learning Without Social Influence.
Starting April 1, 2017, I will spend a year without social networking. During that time, I will immerse myself in a world of non-fiction books, spending my time learning and consuming with purpose. How different will the knowledge I gain be without social influence, current events, political opinion of those within my circle, cable news, or the opinion section of a newspaper than with those things a constant part of my life? Will I have more meaningful connections with people if social networking is not apart of my life? Will what I consume and how I consume it change? Will the fear of missing out plague me? What knowledge – about the world and myself – will I gain?
I am hoping that this project will answer these questions for me and more.