The Internet is all things to all people – for better or worse: playground of psychotic beheaders, assorted fetishists, pop fans, predators and groomers, politicians and phishers, wannabes, bargain hunters, genealogists, purveyors of bland company PR puff – and your Gran; who wants to know what the nagging pest is that’s sucking the sap on her roses again this year.
The idealistic ideas exchange that was initially envisaged – that was the dominant characteristic of pioneering times of the very recent past – has as an idea become similar to expressions of world peace and social justice: something that everyone subscribes to after the third drink or when emotionally woolly at Christmas.
That’s not to deny that this clarity of vision still holds true in places – albeit hanging on by its fingertips. It’s just that such noble concepts require a little bit more searching out when swimming against the incoming tide of bilious trolling. Subscribing to the ancient – in internet terms – green fields/blue sky assumptions are like being a nimby: standing on the information superhighway, a term that in itself exudes a delightfully quaint aura, when confronted by the whim-blown human landfill that is encroaching as far as the eye can see.
Social media is the connecting tissue on the electronic synapses of this trade of goods and ideas. The ultimate expression and reflection of humanity’s inability to get it on or get along. If anything in this world deserved the caveat of oxymoron it’s social media.
It’s not hard to imagine that if Medieval Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder were alive today he would find rich material for one of his huge canvases – along the lines of the celebrated The Triumph of Death – from the visceral material online. Maybe entitled – The Dark Recesses of the Net? Or if in an unlikely quirkier mood to get to the modern vibe – Man’s Inhumanity to Man – via Mouse?
“That pointed remark might not be directed at you but with no previous history or other senses involved there is a strange dislocation of intent.”
Social media sometimes feels like you’ve been invited to the world’s biggest party… only to be left in the room with the homophobes, xenophobes, self-justifying nutters and Billy-no-mates – who for one reason or another feel liberated from having to address any of that tedious basic human etiquette that’s getting in the way of venting their odious spleen. It’s as if they can’t believe their luck that finally here is a platform for everything they hold dear but were afraid to mention in the annoying construct and constriction of polite company. Checks and balances are left unchecked and toppled by virtue of the bitter comforts of their own bedroom and their electronic friend – the only one that really gets them.
Glorious anonymity overcomes the sacrosanct as insults and things that are thought but best left in the privacy of the deepest subconscious are sprayed out as viral spittle over the rest of us. Like some delinquent on the slide one thing invariably leads to another: think that’s a low blow? Give it a few seconds… You can leave a chat room reduced – the aural hex underlined by a need to open a window; hug your children close or with continued exposure to a virtual germ respond as a sufferer of OCD and want to urgently wash your hands to get rid of the residue spite.
This abuse grabs all the headlines: tabloids love the extreme and where there isn’t any they will create some. However, the low level day-to-day rumble of social media is far more insidious than the headline making roar no matter how gratuitous that may be. The playground nah-nah-nah-nah-nah is the obstruction on the internet assault course that threatens to destroy any attempt at debate – whatever the subject matter. Free speech: debate; good old give and take in the right spirit is fast becoming a lost art. It now revolves around one (word) upmanship. My Dad’s bigger than your Dad but with the steroid of hash tags.
As an art form debate is long abandoned by tweeting politicians: left to the satellite entities of dusty debating – the sixth-forms of expensive schools; extant societies and elite universities. Where ideas are still explored but with barriers to personal threats and the repressed urge to be offensive for its own sake subject to evolved rules and codes. The encroachment of novelty celebrity guests – reality or pop stars at the Oxford Union for example – has been the clearest sign of the pressure to accommodate rapid societal changes in terms of perceived worth, value and respect. Ultimately we live in an age of hysteria encouraged by social media and instantaneous culture where the knee-jerk is preferable to the considered; if brain is engaged afterwards it’s already too late. For sure it’s difficult to resist – good intentions go out the window at the remark that leaps from the screen and slaps you around the head.
Social media cherry-picks extremes: it’s everyday conversation – only more so – a contingent hyper–reality where social interaction online magnifies the rude and throwaway into something greater than its parts. That pointed remark might not be directed at you but with no previous history or other senses involved there is a strange dislocation of intent. A combination of sense of place, social convention, physicality, eye-contact and consensus codes that have evolved over the history of human conversations allows anyone to ignore the irritations of peripheral people in social groups or crowds but online it’s a different world – giving a renewed sense of worth and oxygen to the most mundane/insane.
“Sometimes the only joy to be gained from accessing a particular strand of social media is to play the game of duress.”
Words alone in this context have more weight – the imagination is deeply involved and feelings of isolation are involved which heightens the sting of excess. Also, when in a social group of peers the level of control or moderation is clearer: the anonymity factor; the pseudonym; the split-personality is the great leveller for all those inhibited or marginalised in any given daily situation and how they make up for lost time and the perceived lack of respect. There are no consequences to contend with… simply onward and downward to the next ego fix: the quickest re-offending there is. There are ramifications for those whose social interaction has developed to the point of the majority taking place online. Effects might be starker for those to come as it is generally accepted that this will only increase with an exponential impact on behaviour and in traditional modes of face-to-face communication.
Glance at any popular platform, site or portal with their usual diversions of music, film, books, games, news, titillation, celebrity and flimsy straying into social policy debate; the mix of well I never three-minute videos that feature the less than extraordinary dressed up as unique – or the typical analysis of a teasing photograph by continuous editing/ re-shooting of the same image – and it feels as if it’s the internet version of the And finally segment on terrestrial TV. However the difference is that this routinely comes with the added ingredient X of ‘interaction’: this is the hard value internet currency but often there remains little to be proud of – just reductionism and incoherence masquerading as thought and concern. Such ‘debate’ is in itself the cynical expression of media organisations whose moderation and engagement is little more than electronic blue-pencilling of the amount and severity of swearwords rather than any genuine desire to expose, champion or involve.
When scrolling down… how often does the debate go like this?
First response is essentially a simple yes or no – to take a position on one side or other of the argument.
Next responder agrees or disagrees…
Debate is relatively considered and may go on for another round or two on this basis – perhaps expanding on existing points…
However, this is unlikely to continue… This is often the moment when the excrement hits the screen…
This is a result of existing responders having begun to get irritated and the tone changes for the worst. This can be a subtle shift but tends toward the explicit.
This is the point where the Joker is typically played…
A new parasitical entity enters the conversation. He or she – who can tell beneath the pseudonym? – then gets personal and/or offensive. Why? It’s what they do
There is a response… or not…
The Joker tries again – playground taunts or even more offensive this time – the bait is taken; the ego is primed and away we go…
A voice of reason or two may attempt to get it back on track but the Joker smells blood and ramps up the tension.
The initial responders may by now be long gone… if not they join the unavoidable free-for-all – throwing off the pretensions to civilised debate to all jump into the cesspit together.
How does it all end?
The smugly aggressive, the condescending and the Joker – who is now off to find fresh victims – fence off with a series of final final words. These get shorter, sharper and more vicious in tone as each attempt to out-moderate each other. However crude it’s essentially all saying the same thing… That’s it; end of; ‘nuff said… Why?! Because I have spoken – that’s why!
Sometimes the only joy to be gained from accessing a particular strand of social media is to play the game of duress. What’s the bet? Two steps, three steps; or more to the moment of falling out? Or perhaps how many attempts at papering the cracks/being peacemaker before even these people are pulled into the itinerant name-calling?
It’s surely not being elitist nor sanctimonious to want to be able to make a comment without having a plague visited on your children or being immediately instructed to go forth and multiply? And with every remark off the cuff remember that the passé passes for posterity online. Or expletive undeleted. And that’s the real last word.
Which is not to say that Lord Reith was my father – the ponderous and stilted are quickly found out – and this online debate is assigned as chat after all. But personal editing filters are in the back of your mind for a reason. Judgement and credibility can be lost forever in a stream of negative bile which like virginity is impossible to get back.
Remember… once you slip the muzzle there’s a danger that Mr A.R. Sole, Mr Si Chosis, Master Tim E. Waster, Mr Vin Dictive, Miss S. Crew-You and their (ahem) friends become a permanent feature in your online social life. And we all know what happens when you hang out with a bad crowd.