Someone suggested to me the other day that the world is becoming less kind, thanks to social media, especially Facebook.
I agree. The term ‘world’ in this sense means ‘first world’, of course. And the slide has been insidious. But the way one social media service after another seems to descend into personal bagging matches is clear enough. I see it a lot in Facebook groups, although this is not the exclusive forum for such behaviour. But it typifies it and, with a reach of around 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people, it’s statistically significant. And this isn’t just me noticing; it’s also come under formal study.
What’s been happening? Let’s look first at the big plus side of social media.
A generation ago, my late Mum had a penfriend in the United States – Minneapolis, in fact – who she corresponded with regularly and often. They never met in person, but after a while they knew each other well. They made contact through a ‘penfriend finder service’ in the early 1960s. Today, social media is bringing people around the world into contact essentially in similar ways – but with more immediacy, and with an ability to find others in ways that would have been impossible or difficult even twenty years ago. There are some wonderful people I’m in regular contact with – not just online but often also through private emails – from South Africa to the United States, Britain, Europe and Canada. All that’s thanks to blogging, and I would likely not have been able to make contact with them any other way.
But there is a down side to social media mechanisms at the level of group or community shared commenting. Sites such as Twitter and Facebook, particularly, seem to descend swiftly into slagging matches between strangers, each fighting a zero-sum game in which they have to win whatever the debate happens to be, at all cost. Just the other day I was on a Facebook group whose commenters were congratulating themselves that their discussion hadn’t gone that way. So it’s definitely a thing.
What’s going on? To me the issue breaks down into several factors. One of them is the very limited scope of communication. Social media – notably those two services – gives the illusion of being in instant and full contact. Actually it’s only a partial communication, a shadow of true interaction, because it lacks both the immediacy of personal presence (where body language plays a very large part in the communication).
It is also written material – which, psychologically, we parse differently from verbal discussion – but the written comments are often thrown out there in much the same way as we speak. This means they are open to misinterpretation when read, and often lack the nuance possible in more carefully crafted phrasing. Finally, most comments are also short; and that facilitates not just lack of subtlety but also polemic.
Another issue is the unfortunate reality of human nature. One of the best winning strategies used by humans around the world and across societies is to attack the other person in ways that invalidate them, including invalidating any response they make. You can’t lose in those circumstance. And yes, the word is ‘bullying’. It’s done at every level from intellectualised conduct to open violence. On my experience it appears to be integral to human behaviour – we even build institutional systems and structures that facilitate it by defining some within that system as having power and others as having none.
It seems to me that some social media services offer structures that facilitate such behaviour, because they enable people to hide behind anonymity or behind remoteness – or both – and then perform like psychopaths, secure in the knowledge that cannot be physically touched. They will always win arguments because all they have to do is keep hammering the same point, abusively, non-stop. And the arguments they have are not to do with reason or the multi-dimensional shades of grey that comprise reality; they are flat assertions of one-dimensional polemic that – often – is either untrue or reflects but one aspect of a concept.
The debates that follow – as one group I am part of mentioned among themselves – are such that if the people involved were present face-to-face, they would probably have started hitting each other.
To me the whole environment and the behaviours that social media (typified by Facebook) seems to facilitate and permit is a public display of the dark side of human nature – the need to validate oneself at the cost of others – and of our innate ‘us and them’ mentality as a species. It’s from this framework that most of the violence about humanity emerges, at every scale from personal level to international warfare. It’s often intellectualised, disguised behind a façade of rationalisation and superficial kindness; but behind it lies a foundation of profound hostility towards each other. The scary part is that psychological experiments have shown that the reward mechanisms associated with hatred and revenge are far stronger for humans than those associated with kindness.
To me all of this is a worry. I mean, kindness to others – meaning tolerance, reason and accepting that their validity does not undermine your own – is a no-brainer. We keep forgetting the point. Is there a way around it? I think ‘written’ social media is likely to be joined soon by virtual telepresence – active live discussions between people, all visible to each other via their webcams. To some extent that’s happening now. And that will go some way towards filling the gaps in the communication mix. But I don’t think that will fix things. What worries me is that social media is so ubiquitous, and so common, that the behaviours we see are becoming normalised. And that, in essence, is why I think we are becoming less kind; it’s not that we’ve suddenly turned evil, it’s that the dark side has been facilitated and allowed to flourish.
To change that requires us to be aware of the issue and to actively and consciously behave otherwise. Can humanity do it, as a species? We’ll see. We haven’t managed it so far, not just in social media terms but generally throughout our history, with its endless wars and cruelties and injustices.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018