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Fear and loathing on social media

February 11, 2022

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Nora Sullivan Horner

Social media has changed the ways in which we think and interact. I believe Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 story “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” provides some useful imagery for the types of changes we have been experiencing. I’ll attempt to depict how the novel captures the spirit of how social media has effectively changed our consciousness—or at least our modes of thinking.

I’ll start by comparing the story’s content and characters. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” is the story of a journalist, Raoul Duke, who goes on a drug-fueled bender with his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, in search of the American dream. Duke describes their arsenal of drugs: marijuana, mescaline, LSD, cocaine, alcohol, ether and even more. In the story of social media, we are like Duke or Gonzo and social media serves as our drug.

Perhaps our arsenal is not so extreme, but we do have plenty of options. A major tendency of the internet today is making all media social. For instance, YouTube content creators can now make text-based posts for increased community interaction, LinkedIn is a prime social media platform for work environments, even media like Goodreads have components of sharing your reading and reviews for friends and other internet users to see and, of course, there are the classics such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. We have choices on which ‘drugs’ we wish to consume and most of us are happy to indulge: it’s entertaining.

A prevalent idea surrounding drug consumption is set and setting. Popularized by Timothy Leary, American psychologist and psychedelic drug advocate, “set” and “setting” refer to the mindset and environment the drug user is in. These same ideas could apply to the consumption of social media. Throughout Thompson’s story, there are many instances of drug-induced paranoia: for example, whenever Duke and Gonzo arrive at a new hotel or when they pick up a hitchhiker. Our paranoia from social media may not be as hallucinogen-filled or serious all the time, but I have a sense that many of us (or at least I) get some sort of anxiety or stress when on social media. I don’t believe all anxiety is bad, but I think most of the anxiety brought on by these platforms isn’t productive.

Regarding setting, Las Vegas is the pinnacle of stimulation and distraction, much like social media today. I don’t think that is too radical of a claim either. As I mentioned before, the internet makes all media social—willingly or not, we likely participate in social media. Media competes for your attention, so, like the bright neon and commercialized Vegas Strip, we get plenty of advertisements and entertainment. Las Vegas, with all its stimulating content, can stress even a sober soul. Naturally, the setting of social media also becomes filled with varying levels of anxiety, disappointment or pleasure. At the casino, I see only winners around me, and I wish I were luckier. On Instagram, I can see everyone else having a good time and again wish I were luckier.

This makes me believe social media has changed our consciousness or cognition. The constant stimulation keeps us engaged but never on a level of deep thinking. On the Vegas Strip, there’s always another street performer. I find it ironic that “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was first published as an article in the magazine “Rolling Stone.” Now, most of us wouldn’t bother to read an article that long, much less sit and think about what it meant. We’ve become more attuned to allowing for a larger quantity of consumption than ever before.

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” also popularized Gonzo journalism—a style of subjectively-relayed journalism that tends to blur the lines of reality and fiction, often including the reporter as part of the narrative and utilizing various aspects of irony and sarcasm. Much of social media has arguably become (or has blended in aspects of) Gonzo journalism. We are brought to believe we are part of people’s journeys by the means of media and that those journeys are wholly real.

Twitter was designed to be a platform that allows people to decide what matters. Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s creators and former Twitter CEO, has said that Twitter wanted to capture the buzzing of a friend’s pocket. Bird iconography fits well with Twitter because “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.” Dorsey says Twitter works similarly: recipients of messages apply meaning to text.

We make our own stories and decide what’s true. In some extreme cases, this can lead to modern radical movements or belief systems being formed, or in much more common and milder cases, you can hear about the four-star burger and beer Jerry just had from the new local pub. On Snapchat, stories and conversations show some of the aspects present in a situation. There is a duality to the stories created: the consumer of the post makes a narrative of what the uploader is doing, and the uploader creates a narrative of what they want people to see or think they will see.

Still, I believe social media can be a useful tool for connecting and communicating. To put it in terms of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” I’d say that drugs can be useful tools, but what was lacking in the story was a sense of responsibility. When we consume too many drugs, don’t consume them appropriately or give in to overly stimulating environments, we can become unnecessarily stressed, mischaracterize people and events or simply be uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. Many times all we need is to sober up a little and stop our speculation. As simple as it seems, perhaps we need to sober up and get away from social media more often than we currently do.

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