“I saw a new world coming rapidly. More scientific, efficient, yes. More cures for the old sicknesses. Very good. But a harsh, cruel world.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
I’ve never been seriously tempted to join Twitter. For one thing, it seems like an almighty time suck and I’m distracted from gainful endeavor easily enough as it is; I dread to think how little I’d accomplish if I allowed myself access to hundreds of other people’s idly meandering thought-streams in addition to my own. Also, rightly or wrongly, I’m somewhat put off by the tendency of the so-called ‘Twitterverse’ to descend into a terrifying dystopian festival of bilious mean-spiritedness. Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, tells the stories of a number of people whose lives were nigh-on-destroyed by faceless mobs with nothing at stake on social media. One such case is that of Justine Sacco, a Twitter user with just 170 followers, who sent out a very ill-advised Tweet that was interpreted (though not, she says, intended) as racist, bringing on a storm of vicious condemnation, including some of the most heinous sexual threats ever to assault my consciousness, ultimately causing her to lose her job and flee the country. And it wasn’t just a few weirdos pursuing her with awful words, it was thousands of people, most of whom were presumably not prone to outbursts of extreme vitriol face-to-face in their everyday lives.
What might possess so many people to engage in such nasty, hurtful behavior over the internet is a perplexing and troubling question. Earlier this year, for an episode of the radio show This American Life entitled “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS”, the author and columnist Lindy West confronted the worst of her internet trolls, a lovely fellow who’d gone to the trouble to create a Twitter account in the name of her dead father and post comments such as “Embarrassed father of an idiot; the other two kids are fine”. She wrote a column about how much this had hurt her, which to her surprise prompted an apology from the perpetrator, who then, presumably as an act of penance, agreed to be interviewed by her for the radio show. In the interview, he admitted that his actions, of which he now claimed to be deeply ashamed, probably reflected some misogynistic inclinations – he’d directed similar hate speech at a number of other women but no men. (While not the focus of this piece, the particular nature of the negative attention women receive online is surely a matter of major concern). He also attributed his behavior partly to his own unhappiness with himself – for example, he was dissatisfied with his weight and therefore offended by West’s declarations of fat pride. To my ears this sounded quite close to a classic bully’s mentality: part transference of your own self-loathing, part self-defense strategy (if they’re looking over there, they’re not looking at you), though the latter doesn’t really make sense in the context of the internet, with its endlessly generous potential for persecution in all directions. Thirdly, and perhaps most intriguingly, the ex-troll recounted that, when he posted the messages, he had somehow deluded himself into believing that his comments wouldn’t be received by an actual human being. I’m not sure this means he objectified West, denying her basic humanity, which would pretty much qualify him as a full-blown psychopath. I think maybe, rather, he’d convinced himself that what he composed on that small keyboard, all alone in his sad little room, would somehow just dissolve into nothing when he finally pressed enter.
I resist the desperate conclusion that this kind of behavior simply represents human nature under the luxury of anonymity. There may, however, be features of contemporary culture and society that could be partly accountable. One hypothesis might be that technological advances have accelerated the already-occurring breakdown of communities, ironically leading to a state-of-affairs in which social media responds to a demand for increased human interaction, while the way we use it tells of a society in which we are already so detached from one another that we hardly believe there’s anyone there at the other end of the line.
Again, the most worrying aspect of all of this is perhaps the sheer number of people engaging in online victimization, while the rest of us stand by, powerless to do anything to stop it. Ronson points out that, when asked to speculate on the impact of a negative Twitter campaign on its victim, almost everyone answers with words to the effect of: “Oh, I’m sure they’re fine”. Arguably, when any attempt to mount a defense will only fuel the witch-hunters’ fire, we’re left with little option but to try our best to wipe it from our minds.
In light of these problems, plus further controversies about issues including privacy and use of personal information, social media might appear to be struggling with a pretty lousy rep right now. And yet, we stay loyal. In September 2014, a Pew Research Center survey found that all the main social networking sites had seen steady growth in membership numbers since 2012, with 23 per cent of adult internet users in the US signed-up to Twitter and an amazing 71 per cent on Facebook. Most of these members are quite active, too. While there are some salient differences between them, most if not all social media platforms provide some potential for targeted aggression, as well as offering copious opportunities for more positive, affirming forms of interpersonal interaction. And that, of course, is why we participate. They give us a way to come together; to communicate and connect with one another; to express support, friendship and love; to exchange ideas; to have our voices heard.
I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, about nine months after it became openly available beyond a limited number of schools, colleges and employers, and shortly before I relocated from the UK to the US. For me, the timing was fortuitous. Over the past eight years, Facebook has undoubtedly kept me connected with numerous friends who would otherwise have drifted away, not through lack of care but just because daily life takes over and the time and energy involved in writing individual emails, let alone talking on the phone, would realistically have proved hard to find on either side. Thanks to Facebook, people who mean something to me know something about my son, whom most of them have never met, and I’ve used it as a vehicle to tell him about them too. During a time in my life when I could easily have felt cut-off and isolated, at home with a young child in a place where I knew almost no-one, Facebook provided me with a virtual community, which at times has brought me genuine joy. I feel no shame in admitting that a funny status update or comment, a touching photo or a handful of ‘likes’ has occasionally cast a ray of sunshine on a difficult day. It can even mimic social banter: I remember in particular one enjoyable election-day afternoon spent brainstorming with a group of mostly strangers voting-themed bands and song titles (my own top effort: Spandau Ballot. Overall winner: Gerrymander and the Pacemakers. Runner-up: Sealed With a X).
Facebook has also played a key role in helping me develop social connections in my new community. Being able to drop a friend request to someone I’ve met once or twice has led to valuable relationships that otherwise would very likely never have come into existence. It also speeds up the process of familiarization, allowing us to get to know each other from a distance and gather material we can refer to next time we meet face-to-face.
So, for all those reasons, I’m a fan. And yet, trolls and mobs aside, I can see it’s problematic. Interacting through social media can’t but alter our relationships, and the consequences of this can be bad as well as good. There’s an artificiality inherent in having just one or two channels through which we present ourselves to the diversity of people in our lives. Aside from Facebook, the only time I’ve ever communicated simultaneously with my aunt, my boss and my best friend was when I made a speech at my wedding, and that freaked me out completely for weeks. It’s not that I’m some sort of human chameleon, morphing between different personae depending on the specific social milieu, but we all tweak at least a little, if we’re honest, if only in order to grease the wheels. Moreover, it’s not always ideal for every one of my Facebook friends to read the comments of all the others, or for me to see what my friends’ various activities and interactions with their other friends reveal. Altogether, social media gives us a huge amount of information that we otherwise would not have had, some of which we may have been happier without.
And that’s the central question, really: what’s the net effect on our well-being? Facebook, as we all know, shows only the cream of people’s lives – the good times, the laughter, the sun spots on the camera lens – and it’s only natural that this aspect of it sometimes makes us feel inadequate or leads us to question ourselves and our lives, especially if the friend concerned happens to be an ex (oh don’t lie, we’ve all done it; just try not to do it more than twice a week). I know people who’ve decided to close their accounts for this reason, and once or twice I’ve considered it too but, because of all the benefits, I’ve chosen instead to endeavor to get a really firm grip on the truth that (say it with me…) Facebook Lives Are Not Real Lives. And for the most part I think I’ve succeeded. If I were lonely, or desperately wanted children, or was less satisfied than I am with the fundamentals of my life, I think it could have been harder.
Harder still to be a young person in the age of social media. While it must provide a lot of scope for fun and creativity, it also seems to deny some of the essential privileges of youth: the freedoms to make poor judgments in private and move beyond embarrassing mistakes. I’m sad to be genuinely thankful to have grown up in earlier times, and already fretful about how my son will navigate it in his adolescence. High profile cases of youth suicide connected with cyberbullying send chills down every parent’s spine. In a recent interview about his book on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Ronson recalled meeting a child therapist who alleged that every young person who nowadays came through her door had been damaged by something that had occurred on social media.
Progress always comes at a price, and the price we’ll pay for the increased connectivity that I and millions of others enjoy through Twitter, Facebook and the rest may, I fear, turn out to be quite high. For young people and other vulnerable groups, it may be higher still. There’s no going back now, of course. Now we can only work to promote the positive impacts and combat the worst uses of these powerful new tools.