In the earlier days of the internet there were not so many people around and far fewer posts being made. When someone brought something up for discussion within a group, most people in the group contributed to it. You’d discover things you didn’t know and opinions you hadn’t considered. You knew the people you talked with or you quickly got to know them, and everybody felt like equals. If someone started acting like a dickhead in a way nobody would tolerate in real life, they’d soon develop a reputation and be ignored. But if the experience taught them a lesson about civility, nothing was stopping them from creating a new identity and trying again with a clean slate.
Social media is different. It is everybody’s personal soapbox. I find “Followers” is a very telling term when it comes to defining what social media is actually about – It’s not a platform for discussion or exchange of ideas, it’s an attention whoring platform, one where you lead and subordinates follow, a kind of personal army to reinforce you in assaulting other people’s posts and defending your own from attack.
Think of the internet like this – Once upon a time it was a large pub – let’s call it Ye Olde Newsgroup & Forum – with multiple tables occupied by groups who had particular interests. They’d sit and discuss their interests, and people who had multiple interests (or just spent a lot of time there) would move between the tables. Then one day the pub started being refitted, and the tables were gradually replaced with rows of green benches and a large chair at the end. From this chair the Speaker of Social Media would invite everybody to stand, one by one, and loudly proclaim their opinions to everyone, even the vast majority of people they’d never shared a table with. They would talk, others would listen, but that was okay, because everybody would be given the same opportunity. This had to be better, right? Because now everybody would get to hear what you had to say, not just your own social circle!
Wrong. Predictably, people sharing their opinions with people they didn’t know and who didn’t know them led to the exact kind of dehumanisation of opposing views that tabloid journalism has always revelled in. It didn’t help that the kind of people who read and believed those tabloids were now pouring in through the doors of the re-branded Book of Twits (J.D. Wetherspoon). While nobody would probably call a friend they shared interests with and whose life they knew something about “scum”, dismissing their views entirely simply for having a different opinion, it’s pretty easy for people to do exactly that to those they’ve never met. And so it was that what in the olden days of the internet would have been considered “trolling” became the standard operating procedure of social media.
Social aspects of the internet have, in the space of the last 20 years, gone from socialising for enjoyment to building social capital for personal gain – Instead of acting like friends and equals everybody wants to act like a celebrity or a politician, have others hang on their every word and destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The pub has become the House of Commons. I don’t understand it myself. I could find none of the joy I find in discussing things with friends in being adored or hated by a faceless mob. I can only presume that being an attention whore is a far more common personality trait than I had previously presumed.
And this brings me to my current relationship with the internet. I find myself no longer enjoying it. I post things I’d like to talk about, I might spend over an hour writing something that really gets to the heart of how I feel about something, thinking that it might provoke discussion like it used to, but it just… doesn’t. Few people appear to want to discuss things in the way I do any more and on a personal level, that does sadden me quite a lot. The internet was always where I found companionship when there was none in my life, and now I can’t even find it here any more. The small sites where decent conversation is still possible have little to no activity any more. The large sites have no decent conversation, and this stands roughly the same chance of improving as there is that people will stop buying and believing those tabloids, or acting like their opinions are the only ones that matter. The Angry Mob is here to stay, and the effect of them and social media has been to rip to shreds the social fabric of the internet.
I realise the irony of making this post on a personal blog, but I feel that is at least partly offset by the fact it’s an empty blog read by no-one. See you again in another five years or so, non-existent readers.