On Facebook, You Can’t Have Lake Wobegon on Steroids without the “Roid Rage” of Rudeness, Too

Elizabeth Bernstein has a thoughtful and interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal about the troubling incivility, cruelty, and rudeness that many people unleash online, in Comments sections, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


I think that the first problem with online media is that it’s inaugurated the age of indelible bullshit.  This strikes me as the worst of both worlds. Bullshit has its place, so long as it’s an ephemeral, casual, improvisational talk that happens off the record and evaporates the minute it’s spoken. Under these never-lasting circumstances, bullshit is a good incubator to refine and audition our ideas and feelings. That’s Harry Frankfurt’s wonderful argument in his book, On Bullshit

Indelible, eternal speech acts are fine, too—so long as they’re not written like bullshit, such that the Permanent Record becomes an everlasting repository for ideally never-lasting, off the cuff jive.

What do social media give us, though?  We get sometimes thoughtless and rude bullshit content that gets engraved in the indelible Permanent Record online. 

The result is that conversation in social media spaces like Twitter is too often the equivalent of placing a dog turd on a silver platter and preserving it forever in a glass case.

True, as with any other museum relic of dubious enchantment, most people won’t bother to visit your conversational Permanent Record. But they could, and in many cases there’s no taking back the rudeness or witlessness.

I’m partially optimistic. As more and more Americans conduct more of their lives online, we’ll figure out the etiquette.  Maybe.

But Facebook presents some unique social challenges. Bernstein points out via new research by Columbia University professors that Facebook seems to attract as compulsive post-ers people with low self-esteem, who require inordinate affirmation and reassurance. It encourages an inflated presentation of self to the world. This need for affirmation becomes a feedback loop. The Friend needs more and more of it to get the same fix, and is more operatically wounded when her inflated self-image is punctured by rudeness.

In its sunny dimension, Facebook is like Lake Wobegon on steroids. All Facebook children are “above average,” all marriages are awesome and all the creatures in our lives beautiful and brilliant.

In Facebook, life is punctuated with exclamation points!!!, and lived with UPPER CASE, emotional hyperventilation. To borrow an ingenious phrase from my 11-year old, our feelings and emotions in life online are “over-sugared” and jacked up.

Some habitually post pictures of themselves or family portraits with what is all but declared as a ploy to have Friends admire how beautiful they are or tell them how wonderful they must be as spouses or parents.

I’ve seen more than one example of this, where the Friend, with a rather shameless transparency, invites people to praise her hair, or a dress, or her AWESOME family or some other AMAZING thing.

I can’t understand this. In what social setting do you just walk up to people—some of whom, while Friends, are actually strangers—and implore them to tell you that you’re “purty”?

The next time I’m confronted with one of these photos, instead of obediently hitting “Like” and effusing like a trained seal, I’m going to say, “You look tired. Are you getting enough sleep?” Or, “Wow! You guys have really aged!” Or, “I can see that your marital woes are taking a toll on your complexion.”

So, we’ve got this hyper-inflated shiny happy people talk… Then, we’ve got the dark side of that hyped-up praise. We’ve got the snarling hostility, rudeness, and nastiness that Bernstein describes in online conversations.

The important thing to understand is that these co-existing online styles are inseparable.

Even though they feel like opposites—one happy, the other mean; one pro-social, the other not--they’re really flip sides of the same sentimental coin.

The emotional impact of reading “You Suck” differs from that of reading “You Rock.” But these two styles have a shared grammar of emotional hyperbole.  

Like grade inflation, emotional norms are being recalibrated toward the extremes. The octave of everyday speech is climbing higher.

When you open up a channel for insincere, hyperbolic flattery, you inevitably open up a channel for insincere, hyperbolic hatred. We toss out inflated, basically thoughtless praise on a dime. Likewise, we utter inflated, basically thoughtless criticism on a dime, when perhaps we’d offer mild disagreement or a polite rejoinder in life off-line.

One comment flatters us. The other burns us. But the bottom line is that they’re both lazily, emotionally overblown.

In the sentimental republic of America, emotions run the asylum. In social media, people say imprecise positive things that they don’t mean. And they say imprecise negative things that are more hostile and rude than they would say or even feel in a face to face encounter. You can’t get one without the other. On Facebook, friends are neither as awed nor as annoyed by you as their comments might suggest.

Ironically, in this putatively unmediated, spontaneous, and authentic space of communication, we get more hyped and sentimentally distorted talk.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Dubai to build the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant

Can you make solar power work when the sun goes down? You can, and Dubai is about to run a city that way.

Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • A new concentrated solar plant is under construction in Dubai.
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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.
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