I don’t think my Facebook news feed has ever been fuller than in the last week. Just a few days ago I was quietly perusing the latest cat video put forward by ‘viralfeeds’, and turning down the umpteenth invitation to the group ‘Tory Memes’. Now I switch on to a red, white and blue cascade of opinion; International Men’s day, the Bataclan, women’s networks and terrorists aplenty. I guess it’s nice to see that everybody cares.
But is it possible to ‘care’ too much? The most striking thing about a lot of these online ‘debates’ is how aggressive and deeply personal they get in a short space of time. Facebook has naturally been the main battleground – ‘misogynist’, ‘man-hater’, ‘apologist’, ‘imperialist’; it doesn’t take long for everyone to get a label. Twitter has sent even our local controversy nationwide, in large part thanks to the odious little toad Milo Yiannopoulos. Yik Yak completes this dubious triumvirate, and is perhaps its most sinister member. Though I do not have an account myself, reliable sources have told me of upvoted posts confidently comparing the women’s network to the Third Reich and Islamic State. The whole thing can be summarised nicely by adapting Tucker’s Law from The Thick Of It: if everyone has the opportunity to disagree with everybody else, then everyone probably will.
But why is the liberal in me not purring with appreciation? Mass communication, debate and argument; is this not democracy in action? The House of Commons gone viral and with a lessened predominance of cis, white heterosexual males.
Sadly, the comparison ends there. On social media there is no Speaker of the House to define the motion, no metaphorical conch shell to give people their minute and a half, and no necessity to eventually come to a decision. With a total lack of coherent structure online everyone’s argument becomes reactive, with each defining their viewpoint simply by disagreeing with what went before. The ensuing anarchy sees sub-conversation after sub-conversation spread the argumentative tendrils into increasingly irrelevant places.
When any number of people can wade into a debate at any given time, each projecting their own grievances without properly engaging with the argument, then the exchange of information becomes extremely diluted. For any useful conclusion to be reached there has to be a coherent conversation; extremely difficult amidst the sea of noise that is social media.
And many cyber-debates don’t even get this far. By about 200 comments in most people will have either gone to bed or forgotten what the argument was about in the first place, usually leaving one very angry combatant still preaching fire and brimstone to a non-existent congregation. This is assuming the thread has survived thus far without the curse of the killjoy essayist: a first time poster who wades in with a brilliantly well-expressed 1,000 word epic of a comment, which everyone silently agrees is far too long to reply to. ‘TL;DR’ posts some brave soul.
So, like sarcasm via text, arguing over social media is usually ineffective, risky, and needlessly acrimonious. There’s a lot of sound and fury, frequently accompanying the precarious teetering of once-loving friendships, but often little is signified.
But why does this matter? If people want to spend their Wednesday evenings throwing their weight around on social media, rather than enjoying the delights of Salvo sports night, who am I to say they shouldn’t? The problem is that this stunts debate in what is now the predominant arena for public discussion.
Though it ought to represent a liberating expansion in democratic discourse, social media instead amplifies even the smallest disparities in people’s opinions. Battle lines were firmly drawn earlier this week between those who used Tricolore filters on their profile pictures, and those who sneered at them. If these two groups had actually got together for a chat, they would probably have quickly reached the consensus that terrorism is bad wherever it manifests, and then gone to Wednesday Salvo after all. We have instead reached the point where people are being judged instantly and vociferously by which shade of international tragedy they have chosen to plaster over their face. Freud described this phenomenon as the ‘narcissism of small differences’; a need to exaggerate minute distinctions in order to maintain a feeling of separateness and self. It is very easy to see how this applies to the conglomeration that is social media.
Combine this with the well-known tendency for the internet to bring out the very worst in people (I’m looking at you, 4chan), and the result is often a toxic atmosphere of angry posturing which would never be acceptable face to face. It is a popular image of the mild-mannered introvert who would never talk politics at a dinner party, but who when presented with a keyboard becomes internet troll extraordinaire, lord of a million flame wars. In this context there is comparatively little opportunity for forensic examination of any argument, so people are much less careful. It is a curious phenomenon; despite remaining online for all eternity, social media comments still have a lessened sense of accountability.
In short, whether it be rudeness, accusations or simple disagreement, everything is magnified. This is a medium designed for immediacy and instant gratification, so it’s hardly surprising that it doesn’t foster thoughtful, rigourous debate. As Marshall McLuhan said as far back as 1964: ‘the medium is the message’. On social media, people think less and say more.
Alas I am far from immune; when my housemate chose to dismiss an acquaintance’s post as a ‘towering pile of w*nk’, I confess I ‘liked’ his comment. But just maybe, next time our fingers are hovering over the enter button preparing to send our latest expletive-ridden diatribes out into the world to perform their righteous purpose, we should consider whether there are ways we could better contribute to a useful dialogue. Even online people can tell when you’re shouting.
And so, soon I hope I can return to using my Facebook feed for cat videos, whilst saving my political commentary for bars, beer gardens and dinner tables. And, of course, for self-righteous rants in Nouse.