Social media –a fantastic way to connect with like-minded people, to share information and to feel less alone in times of solitude (although arguably not less lonely) . Yet it does expose us all to what I refer to as ‘the big three’ – constant barrages of advertising, pornography and cyber bullies. For young people who are still in the process of establishing their identity, are spending an average of 7 hours per day online and, according to a study by Professor Rachel Thompson in 2013, can see the online world as more ‘real’ than their three dimensional existences, the potential dangers of the big three are undoubtedly magnified.
I’m currently researching an investigative piece for a newspaper on young people and social media and as such have been privy to what can only be described as horror stories on the negative impact cyber bullying has had on impressionable teens and children. And yet I wonder, for all our blustering and hand-wringing about how ‘awful’ it is that the youth of today are so immersed in the online world and how brutal they’ll be towards one another when they inhabit it, if we ought to ask ourselves what sort of example we’re setting?
I’m always telling the teenagers I work with to try and limit their exposure to technology, to question the motives of everything and one they encounter in cyber space and to value the opinions of people who have their best interests at heart above randoms who might invade their timelines for shiggles. But there are times when I don’t follow my own advice, when I find myself unduly concerned with what people who don’t know me, who are caught up in the politics of their own private social media cliques and paranoias, have to say.
I’ve been ruminating recently on what it is about my online presence people find so divisive. I’ve concluded it’s simply that my Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts reflect genuinely whatever I happen to be thinking at the time. This shouldn’t be confused with a Katie Hopkins style ‘telling it like it is’ mentality. I don’t deliberately set out to offend or shock. I just chuck my musings out into the cybersphere without fear because, I figure, that’s the most authentic way to conduct myself.
My opinions evolve constantly, because I am a human and as such ceaselessly learning. Sometimes what I say online requires revision, or explanation. Occasionally I completely change my on a topic. But you can rest assured that whatever I’m currently flinging into your feed is an accurate reflection of whatever I’m thinking at that moment. It’s never my conscious intention to cause a spat, deliberately hurt someone’s feelings or, conversely, to be sycophantic.
The problem is, most people don’t use (in particular Twitter) in the same way I do. Twitter has become the virtual stomping ground of a small cabal of anonymous bullies, whom everyone is secretly bitching about but no one will stand up to for fear of the backlash. If I had a pound for every time I received a barrage of abuse from one high profile Twitter user and twenty private messages of support reassuring me that I shouldn’t be concerned with this person’s opinion because they’re insecure/notorious for trolling/wrong I’d have enough money to buy myself a blue tick.
Recently, I was on a shoot with an ex-member of one of Britain’s most popular girl bands. She was bemoaning her regular appearances in the Mail Online’s ‘sidebar of shame’ and in particular the way she believed the comments were moderated – She said that friends had taken to the site to try and defend her weight gain/loss/fashion choices/hair colour and their comments had not made it through the moderation process, whereas those which were critical had. I told her about a Twitter account called @BestOfTheMail which regularly brings me a great deal of joy, publishing as it does the most ludicrous and LOL-worthy offerings from the Daily Mail comments section.
I told the popstar in question that she should follow the account because it might make her feel better, at which point her agent urgently and dramatically forbade her from doing so, on the grounds that if the Daily Mail saw the account amongst those she was following they’d never print anything positive about her again. To say I was incredulous is an understatement – for surely social media is supposed, ultimately, to be a bit of fun, not something which can potentially ruin your career because you happen to be following the ‘wrong’ account?
Similarly, when fourth wave Twitter feminists set about toppling page three, several of my female, feminist friends confessed to me either a) they didn’t think page three was that terrible, in the scheme of things or b) they DID think page three was pretty terrible but the campaign to ban it had irritated them so much that it had, in a perverse way, made them pro-page 3. They told me this in furtive whispers, in dark pub corners, as if imparting some terrible transgression. They could never, ever ‘out’ themselves online, they told me, for fear of the backlash.
And then most recently, when I unwittingly found myself in the midst of some trad-vs-prog teacher in-fighting and targeted in a series of aggressive and derisory tweets and blog posts by anonymous, cartonized avatars, people who used their actual photos and real names online private messaged and emailed me in their droves to reassure me that I had their support. Why didn’t they state it publicly? I suspect because it wouldn’t be worth the subsequent hassle – the endless stream of abuse or the twitchfork mob that would follow in the footsteps of their objections.
Caitlin Moran, in her latest tome ‘Moranifesto’ states that social media has allowed us all a voice and an opinion and as such heralds a glorious utopia where the common human can, in their own small way, challenge the prevailing narratives set by a privileged elite. But, unusually, I believe she is wrong. The tone might not be being set by traditional media anymore, but that doesn’t make it any better, or any more a reflection of what the majority are feeling. Because the chronicles of social media are actually written by a vocal minority of extremists and obsessives who establish a presence the majority of moderate, rational users are simply too intimidated to challenge. Twitter, designed as a playground for recreation and fun, has inevitably been populated with bullies and, since these bullies invariably left school a long time ago, is it any wonder that the current generation of children see fit to follow in their footsteps?
All of this is a very convoluted way of my explaining why I’m taking a break from Twitter, for a while. Social media in-fighting is incredibly time consuming and life is far too interesting and hectic right now to justify that kind of distraction.
I’m limiting my access to something that isn’t good either for my productivity or for my mental wellbeing. In short, I’m practising what I preach.