Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Going Digital | WAMC

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Going Digital

Feb 13, 2020

A friend of mine is dragging me kicking and screaming into creating a social media presence.  Like a personal trainer who refuses to let his lazy,  wannabe-buff client off the hook, he’s pushing me to make waves in the endless seas of social media because I’ve asked him to do this.  Truth be told, at this stage of my career, I need to do this. 

In two months, I am publishing my first book.  A five-year labor of humongous effort with a deep history of thirty years’ ambition behind it, the book fulfills one of my bucket-list dreams.  I have always wanted to be a published author who can put into the world a permanent record, however small, of my creativity.  Though my sense of fulfillment should be fulfillment enough, I am no different from any other enterprising writer who wants his or her words and work to be consumed by someone, anyone, in the reading public.  It isn’t about the money I’d make off the book:  I’m not John Grisham, this book is not a Dell Viking paperback, and I’ll be lucky enough to earn back the amount of money I’ll spend on books I’ve promised to give people as gifts. Yet unlike extended shelf life milk, the longer copies of my book lie around unpurchased, the staler my work and its words become.

Unless a publisher is big enough to have an aggressive in-house marketing department, authors are often on their own about getting the word out when they publish.  Thus, my need for social media proficiency. In the past month, through my friend’s good offices, I have jumped head-first into the choppy, and all-too-often shallow, waters of Facebook publicity and Twitter. Instagram and Iinkedin are also directly in my sights, as the next few months’ projects that await me. 

These social media tools are necessary and I’m getting the hang of how and when to use them.  However, Twitter confounds and disturbs me because it seems to serve no meaningful purpose other than to be a platform for one huge shout-fest.  If you’re not “on” Twitter, as the tech-savvy like to say, imagine wading in those same shallow waters that have now become murky from thousands of clumps of dirt that are bombarding you and the other swimmers.  I have colleagues and acquaintances all over the world who seem to use Twitter to spout off all day long about everything and anything that comes momentarily to mind.  Many of these are people who I know to be very intelligent and capable of offering and considering complex arguments about a wide range of topics.  Why then do they seem to insist on reducing these complex thoughts to 280-character soundbites, verbal drive-by shootings that leave ideas strewn all over the ground like lead  casings from stray bullets?

Twitter’s not-so-secret seductions lie in one’s followers and their re-tweets, cousins to Facebook’s friends, likes, shares and comments.  I can answer my own questions, because I’m already feeling the pull of those seductions.  Their basis is more than just ego fixation on garnering attention, as each of us checks incessantly on how many people have responded to us; it is also the aching human need to be heard, and in being heard, to have one’s existence recognized.  Just beneath the prosaic tweet-du-jour lurks the tiniest, faintest cri-de-couer, reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’s whos of Whoville who cry out to a half-deaf world, “We are here!,” thus surviving extinction and obliteration from collective memory.

Such cries can have real life and death implications.  Our part of the world, which at least for now, protects freedom of expression, might be awash in postings and tweets that only add to the white noise of debased societal dialogue.  Yet think about a political activist in any dictatorship who right now is using these tools to maximum effect as citizen outrage against government repression is met with state-sponsored brutality.  Closer to home, think about a person who is a shut-in using these tools which at times are the only things linking her to sanity beyond the prison of her house.

Social media can certainly exacerbate political polarization and intellectual shallowness.  It possesses viral capacities for spreading dangerous conspiratorial lies to the global gullible.  Yet like all Promethian fire, it can also be a valuable means by which we establish our individual presences in the global village and by which we connect with that village, not shut it out.  So, let me end where Twitter would have me end:

#my toes are in the shallow water and I don’t think I’m getting out.

#it’s time for me to join the global conversation.

#my next book might well be the tweets of a billion people who just want to talk to each other.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, April 2020)

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.