“Why do online spaces often feel so fractious?” asks Helen Lewis in a thought-provoking opinion piece in The Guardian last week. It’s something I’ve been pondering for many years. It’s not just the internet, or even social media, nor is it our increasingly uncivil and impolite society: it’s the technology that seems to be dividing us. The medium. (Would this be considered McLuhanistic? *)
Online spaces were havens for trolls, for angry denunciations, personal attacks, threats and bullying for decades. I’ve been watching it happen since I started up my own BBS in the early 1980s. I saw it when I was a sysop who managed forums on CompuServe and later Delphi, and I’ve watched it grow on the internet.
It’s in large part because the technology we use online is not designed to interface well with the biology we have evolved over millions of years to communicate with. Technology doesn’t provide the crucial emotional connection that real, human communication offers.
Sure, you can feel emotions from online content, but one-sided reaction someone sitting at home having a morning coffee in their pajamas gets from looking at cute kittens or twerking videos is not communication. But on social media with comments flying about rapidly from everyone, you can easily lose sight of the context and become engaged in comment-swapping for its own sake.
Social scientists call this “context collapse” – the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, ever. The fact that for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends will read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.
An opinion piece in The Star this month described the difficulties media face in trying to provide a public space for comment without having to apply heavy-handed control to keep the cyberbullies and trolls in check. It gets so confrontational at times it discourages people not just from participating, but from reading entirely:
The sad reality of online comments across the entire Internet is that they are too often abusive, inflammatory and ignorant. Where once I idealistically believed comments could be a force for good, allowing readers to connect and communicate about ideas, I have come to empathize more with those readers who would just as soon not see anonymous online comments. As one reader told me recently in expressing her dismay: “The trolls are dominating; feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”
What could be – should be – open, engaging discussion and exchange of ideas becomes merely a place for emotional, public masturbation. Being able to vent anonymously and say anything you damned well please without repercussion is the same reason internet porn is so popular among the emotionally challenged. No commitment, no emotional baggage, no messy post-sex conversations and “I’ll call you” lies. What actually happens to the people – the abuse of women in particular – in porn becomes irrelevant to the viewer because they’ve become toons in our online culture, like characters in an online game.
Same with posting angry comments on FB and Twitter: you can write them, slander or attack someone, drag them through the mud, lie, insult and castigate, then close your laptop and go to bed without having to deal with the emotional and psychological turmoil your comments leave in their wake. By the time you get up, next day, the posts will likely have vanished from your feed in the ongoing cascade of content that races by.
Back in August, I wrote a piece on this blog:
…social media (SM) doesn’t necessary facilitate social debate and in fact may be stifling it. Discussion on many SM platforms tends to reinforce existing beliefs because in general only those who feel their beliefs are shared by their circle of “friends” or followers will express them. It’s called the “spiral of silence.”
Last year, I also wrote a piece called Six Rules For Politicians Using Social Media. Back then I wrote,
Technology grants that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It doesn’t even have to be true: everything has value! My post about what I ate for breakfast carries the same weight as your post on the gas attacks in Syria or yours on the threat of global warming. Which matters the most? None: there are no rules here.
But what is most troubling in the larger scheme of our culture is that the internet grants that most precious of rights: free speech, without requiring any responsibility in return.
When you get a car, you have to learn how to drive and learn to obey the rules of the road. penalties for misuse are steep. If you get a gun, you have to take a course in proper handling and use. penalties for misuse are steep. If you get a computer and internet connection, you can do and say almost anything; lying, embarrassing, insulting and demeaning another person without suffering the consequences you would if you misused a car or a gun.
That’s in part because way too many (most?) users don’t see the people they attack as anything more than digital constructs. They don’t make the connect to actual human beings. Other users are just toons to them.
To some, it’s the same as shouting at that driver who cut you off. Only problem: the driver doesn’t hear you. But online the content gets read, shared, spread. It develops emotional mass that grows as it travels through the social media universe. It has a ripple effect that intersects with real, human lives. And, of course, with context collapse, as Michael Wensch wrote, things get sucked into the “black hole” of context where all things get conflated into a single point. Context itself, like light, can’t escape.
The technology that grants us such empowerment also accelerates this separation between users. On Facebook and Twitter and similar social media, you’re encouraged to have increasing numbers of “friends” and “followers” yet the more you have, the less able you are to connect and communicate with them. The feeds move too fast, content disappears too quickly (try to find a post that you saw on FB yesterday, let alone one that you saw last week….). You’re encouraged to respond quickly, without thought, without consideration. The rewards go to those who push a mass of content, rather than actually interact with others. It’s a hamster wheel.
You don’t always see the effects of your posts because they too often simply scroll to the bottom. But they get read, shared, and sometimes commented on.
These days, if I spend too long on the internet, I feel like crawling back into the sea and trying to de-evolve my limbs. We have created an incredible tool for consolidating all human knowledge, connecting us across time and space, and we use it to Photoshop Benedict Cumberbatch’s face on to otters and make politicians resign for tweeting a picture of a house.
Sometimes, when I read the nonsensical conspiracy theories, or codswallop like homeopathy, anti-vaccination screeds, chemtrails and the like, I get the feeling the internet is a de-evolutionary device, or perhaps a time machine carrying us back to the Dark Ages, where superstition, myth, magic and illiteracy dominate the intellectual landscape. All its power to educate, to enlighten and to expand our horizons seems harnessed to stuff our lives with trivia and anger. Similarly, I wrote:
Current technology is great for posting pictures of kittens and puppies, but it runs counter to just about everything we know makes up human communication.
To be fair, it’s easier to stick to non-contentious, simple content – even the Photoshopped kittens and celebrities – than to try and engage others because the troll effect quickly comes into play. People may not comment on a puerile photo, but post a comment about politics, religion, sex – and everyone feels compelled to contribute. Lewis again:
…we also swim in a sea of words: utterances that would once have flickered into life for a moment are now recorded for ever, parsed and picked over. Social media and the ubiquity of smartphones mean that almost any thought, no matter how small its intended audience, has the potential to go viral. Almost any of us can be dumped in front of the court of public opinion and put on trial for stupidity and thoughtlessness.
It’s not a level playing field online. It’s a mosh pit where those who can engage more often and more angrily – those who shout the loudest – can simply overwhelm the rest, bully any opposition in the sheer venom of their responses. The whole notion of democracy gets turned on its head by these cyberbullies and trolls. Lewis continues (emphasis added):
…the battle over free speech has become a culture war all of its own. If today’s tech giants can be said to have an ideology, it is the promotion of unfettered free speech. Social media companies trumpet how pro-democracy protesters use their networks to oppose repressive governments. Celebrities are warned of the “Streisand effect” of trying to suppress unflattering information about them, and creating more publicity in the process. Twitter’s former general counsel once described the company as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party”.
But amid this orgy of self-congratulation, there is one rarely mentioned fact: one person’s free speech can come at the cost of another’s. This is the kernel at the heart of so many harassment cases: the stalker will insist, with an air of honest bafflement, that they are simply exercising their right to free speech. Unfortunately, they are doing it by shouting through the letterbox of their victim, who is now too afraid to leave their house.
There is no neutral position here. In trolling cases, for example, by protecting the abuser, you are discouraging the abused from entering public debates.
The internet has empowered people in many ways and, like all technological advances, it and the platforms it hosts have a huge potential for education, for connectivity, for exchange of ideas and information, but it needs to come with lessons.
* Marshall McLuhan wrote in his book, Understanding Media:
“The medium is the message. This merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology” (p. 7).
The McLuhan Galaxy site explains, “…It means that we should pay more attention to the impact on the world that a medium has, consider how it changes society and the world both for better and worse, rather than its content.” Mark Federman adds:
Marshall McLuhan was concerned with the observation that we tend to focus on the obvious. In doing so, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. Whenever we create a new innovation – be it an invention or a new idea – many of its properties are fairly obvious to us. We generally know what it will nominally do, or at least what it is intended to do, and what it might replace. We often know what its advantages and disadvantages might be. But it is also often the case that, after a long period of time and experience with the new innovation, we look backward and realize that there were some effects of which we were entirely unaware at the outset. We sometimes call these effects “unintended consequences,” although “unanticipated consequences” might be a more accurate description.