The importance of being anti-social | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Jun 28, 2017

My brother handed out T-shirts last January. If you knew him, you’d understand. When something entertains, amuses or intrigues him, he wants to share.

The shirts went to my sister and me, the idea being that all of us would wear them at my mother’s 80th birthday party. I wasn’t inclined to be quite that casual, and my sister has always been perfectly capable of dressing herself, so this didn’t work out. It’s still a nice shirt.

And by that, I mean it’s very comfortable. When I reach into my T-shirt drawer and pull this one out, I get a momentary rush of anticipated comfort. It’s not the least bit scratchy, and it fits perfectly.

The problem is that emblazoned across the front of this very satisfying shirt is a joke. It’s one-third of a well-known reference to birth order, which is why my brother gave it to us. My part of the joke refers to being the middle child, which I am.

I’m sure there’s some respectable social science about birth order and the role it plays, although that seems to be a low bar in a world where astrology is taken seriously. It strikes me as a trivial thing, which has never stopped anyone from putting it on a T-shirt.

I just don’t want to advertise a useless fact about my life. I don’t care (obviously) if complete strangers know that I have an older brother and a younger sister. I just feel awkward about forcing them to read all about it when they spot me walking down the street.

This is a personal tightrope for me, an uneasy balancing act, trying to avoid the obvious hypocrisy. I’ve written once a week for 16 years about trivial details of my remarkably unremarkable life, although I’d argue for subtle differences.

A slogan-filled T-shirt is as hard to ignore as a bumper sticker at a stoplight. If you’re reading this column, on the other hand, I just assume you’re bored.

Here’s my point: I do this deliberately. I don’t reach into a drawer, pull out a comfortable T-shirt covered with random sentences about my life, and walk around town until everyone has a chance to read it. I’ve made mistakes, crossed boundaries, overshared, and had regrets, but this is my job.

It’s probably not your job. That’s what worries me.

I joined Facebook 10 years ago, at the urging of a friend and out of curiosity about what the kids were up to. It was primitive back then, sort of silly, and holding little value for me that I could discover in the few minutes I spent looking around.

It would take a couple of years before a critical mass of people my age joined in, and then the world discovered cat videos and we were off to the races. It was a lot of fun.

These days, if the subject comes up with the few people I know who’ve yet to dip their toes into social media, I mention that it’s not fun. It’s dangerous, it’s disturbing, it’s toxic, and it’s not going anywhere.

I’m not talking about political nastiness, although we could talk about it.

Ignoring facts that don’t match up with our world view has never been easier, and there are plenty of bad actors eager to feed our cognitive biases. I could rail against this, I guess, but being a public scold has never been a good fit, and I can’t fix it, anyway.

Let’s dig around in that T-shirt drawer again. You pull out one that says, “I love being a grandparent.” No harm, no foul, no problem that I can see (I have three of these).

Now imagine a shirt that has your granddaughter’s name on it, and her picture, and a description of the park where she likes to go with grandma to play. Let’s go further and tag that park with a location marker.

Anyone getting uncomfortable?

This is Facebook, and I don’t have to be in your physical presence to read all about your granddaughter. I don’t even have to know you, in many cases. You might as well have rented a billboard.

If this seems a worst-case scenario, don’t worry: I’ve got more. In a world where the word “friend” needs those quotation marks more than ever, casual comments are data points for digital dumpster divers. And we can’t seem to stop making casual comments.

At best, we set ourselves up as targets for advertisers, marketers, and political campaigns. At worst, we blithely supply the world with the answers to secret questions our banks use to determine our identity, show strangers personal details about our lives, and let anyone with internet access (i.e., everyone) know where our kids play after school.

Also? You might be a bad speller and have a shaky grasp of grammar, which invites ridicule and might be awkward if you’re a schoolteacher.

This is all before those dumb quizzes you take to find out which Disney character you resemble most. Could be innocent; most likely, your personal information is being harvested while you’re entertained by being Snow White.

Again, I’ve been doing this a long time. My mistakes, and lack of foresight, can’t be undone; I only hope I’ve learned my lesson.

And I’m not trying to rain on your parade, or mine. Facebook is a fun idea.

But it’s also a bad one. I think I’m putting my T-shirt back in the drawer now.

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