The human experiment that has been hyper-connectivity facilitated by social media platforms tends to confirm Sartre’s statement that hell is other people — in the sense that he meant it; namely, it is seeing reflected back an image of oneself captured and defined by other people. For those who enter the fray of the Twitterverse that reflection is usually distorted by the time it returns.
Because social media is intangible it has an air of unreality about it. A face to face conversation is likely to be governed by some of the rules of civilised society which insist upon a modicum of politeness to ensure that an exchange of views doesn’t end in fisticuffs. This restraint doesn’t exist in social media. Rather, the lack of direct contact with another person makes an opposing view expressed on social media more likely to be perceived as an intrusion into one’s private thoughts, an invading bacterium, something to be attacked,
repelled or eliminated. That, at least, is the way it presents in the ferocity of some in response to the mere reading of an opinion that is not their own.
The vitriol that pours off some keyboards reveals in otherwise pleasant people disturbing anger and a desire to wound. The attacks tend to be swift and out of proportion to the perceived offence. Again and again, the same modus operandi is used to silence debate: attack, pile on, isolate. Welcome to scorpion culture.
It’s not physical, of course, but in some cases it might as well be, leading sometimes to the same terrible consequences. That we are no longer surprised by deaths in which social media has played a part is a sad indication of how we are being desensitised to these tragedies. We should be shocked. We should be outraged. Yet our dependence on social media grows and the negativity it contains blooms like blue-green algae.
We do not seem to have come to grips as yet with how social media giants are to be brought to account for their lack of effective measures to protect the safety of their users nor with how to hold them sufficiently accountable for the consequences they enable.
The benefits of social media are obvious; the opportunity to access knowledge, to research, to learn is immense. But the downside is that there is a lot of darkness there too.
Ray Bradbury, commenting on his novel Fahrenheit 451, said that the story reflected the fact that the real threat to society is ignorance and a lack of education. His imagined world of the future, dominated by addictive technology and large screens that murmur and twitter all day long and were seen to be as intimate and essential as family, has become our reality. We are always reaching for and checking our phones, can’t bear them to be out of our sight. Technology has become a double-edged sword, bringing both gifts of knowledge and floating junk, bubbles of outrage and bursts of vitriol and revenge.
The scorpion era will end eventually as our fascination with social media grows old. Perhaps the next phase will constitute a reaction to the failings of the last and privacy might then return as something golden, something to be actively pursued and fiercely protected. We might limit our sharing, retain some mystery and keep strangers at arm’s length where they belong rather than admitting them in to ogle our lives in all their details told in a collage of plates of food and frolics on the beach.
In the future, the measure of success might not be the quantity of followers we have on social media but rather the quality of followers, each considered in the context of whether they are actually a friend in the real, old fashioned sense of the word.
Perhaps the post scorpion era will see a fall in the currently high levels of outrage and offence-taking and a rise of a new breed of commentators, people who can be objective, who are keen to debate issues and whose skills lie in brokering peace and finding common ground between parties in dispute.
One can only hope.
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