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November 13, 2012

Indifference of opinion

In the election echo chamber, quantity trumped originality.

Well, here we go. As a Viewpoints columnist, I am charged to write pithily and poignantly about what is relevant, and the recent re-election of our president is perhaps the most important thing to have happened in the past two weeks. Oughtn’t I then to share a viewpoint about the election—that is, beyond my already-printed opinion that the former Republican presidential nominee chuckles like a wheezing hyena? I suppose I should.

I’m reticent, however, and I’d like to waste some of my required word count telling you why. It is because I (like many) spent most of election night on the Internet. What I think this unflattering fact says about myself (and many) is beside the point: What I want to get at is that I read more people’s opinions in those four hours than I normally hear in a month.

Of course I believe that, in order to have respectable opinions of one’s own, one must be exposed to the opinions of others, and normally I’m quite fond of the over-sharing Internet. But the truth is that by the final stretch of the coverage, when I should have been all-aquiver, feverishly refreshing every social media site to watch the fireworks, I was folding down the screen of my laptop, resolved to keep it closed for the remainder of the evening. Why would my mind, with all its respect for civilized debate, see democracy in all its raw glory and promptly debilitate into a pathetic, panicky mush of what is this and how do I turn it off? 

I think I know now. The November 6 election was the “most tweeted about event” in Twitter’s short but prolific history, according to the site’s Government & Politics account. Exactly how many tweets is that, you ask? It is 20 million tweets. 20 million. Here’s something even more striking, though: Think about categorizing those tweets by topic, by keyword, by word choice, and it will become clear to you that a good number of them must have been approximately, if not exactly, identical. This isn’t hard to imagine. A new poll statistic arises and 10,000 tweeters respond with variations of “Rats!” while another 10,000 respond with variations of “Take that!” A Fox news anchor makes a gaffe and 5,000 ardent supporters of said anchor make the same impassioned defense, while 5,000 liberals make the same snarky joke.

Now, the consensus seems to be that the avalanche created by all of those 140-character special snowflakes is an illustration of all that is great about our country. I’m certainly not suggesting that we censor Twitter for repetitiveness, or even for idiocy—such a feat would be even less reasonable than it would be possible—but I’m baffled that we continue on this way. Why don’t we ever wonder whether what we are tossing out into the universe is worth the 20 minutes we spent debating between the elegant “Barack Obama sails to victory!” or the cheerfully un-ironic “Brobama 2012 :P”? Where does that time go? What if we had spent it listening instead? What if we had spent it with our eyes closed?

I’ve begun to wonder—which is why I have spent this column deliberately not giving you my Election 2012 two cents. What would you really take away from my thoughts about that night? On that subject I can’t offer you anything that you couldn’t have gleaned from all those history-making tweets or The New York Times, which you’ve probably already read this morning. I know the column that I could have written, and I know that it would have been a mosaic of particulate blurbs, each as bland to you as a soggy Cheerio. You don’t deserve soggy Cheerios, especially not from me.

I don’t want to renounce my voice or my freedom to use it, but I also don’t want to renounce my ability to recognize when I have nothing to say that has not been better said by someone else. In fact, the only reason I share these thoughts with you is that I haven’t heard anyone else express them. If I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t be wasting my words and your time.

Emma Thurber Stone is a second-year in the College.

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