Wednesday 17 October 2018

Why social media is making us anti-social 

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

It is ironic that a tool which was supposed to bring us closer together has served to further drive a wedge between a lot of people.

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, especially since I spent a couple of days deliberately trying to disengage from the Internet, and more specifically, Facebook.   Saying it was not easy is an understatement – I am fully aware that I am addicted to my iPhone and I would not be surprised if there is a self-help group being set up somewhere as we speak. The best method I have found is to not have my phone with me at all.  When it is within my reach, the temptation to have it in my hands and look at it and do the inevitable scroll is too much to resist, so out of sight eventually becomes out of mind.

The decision to detox (albeit, very briefly) from social media came about because I realized how much it was controlling my life. I have forgotten my phone at home a couple of times by accident and I was annoyed at myself because I was gripped by a weird feeling of unsettling anxiety: but why should I feel so anxious? I scolded myself.  It’s not like I grew up with this technology since I am of the generation which remembers one phone in the main room of the house shared by the entire household with perhaps a second phone in another room. If people called you when you were out, tough luck. If it was engaged because someone else was using it, the person would have to call back. 

To those under 30 this might sound like the Stone Age….and yet it was1990 when the first ‘telecell’ became available in Malta.

But what has made me really determined to keep cutting down on my Internet use and keep away from what is going on on social media is that I have realized it has not done anything to make us get along better. In fact, social media is making us anti-social. 

Think about how angry and distressed some posts make you feel when you read them, and I think you will get my drift. Before FB, except perhaps for family and close friends, we barely knew how our acquaintances and even our colleagues voted, and we had no clue about how they stood on various polarizing issues.  Yet today, because everyone feels the need to freely express themselves on every topic under the sun, it is sometimes alarming to find that people we thought we knew are actually harbouring some disturbing views which are diametrically contrary to our own.   

Of course, this does not necessarily have to be an issue – you can still like and get along with someone even though you do not agree with them on every single thing. However, the nature of social media, which seems to trigger some kind of latent aggression with people resorting to insults and name-calling at the drop of a hat, seems to have made rational discussion impossible.  I have read threads which start out innocuously enough and within minutes it turns into a snarling, hot mess with everyone determined to have the last (nasty) word.  There are people who seem determined to be sarcastic and snarky every chance they get, as if they have just discovered a hidden super power.  

The irony is that we are often glued to our screens reading all these rabid arguments and all this hostile bickering unfold, often while we are in social settings where we could be interacting with people whom we do get along with, instead.   

When this subject was being discussed recently on an American talk show after the latest Twitter storm over something or other, Whoopi Goldberg made a salient point: looking to camera and addressing the viewer at home, she remarked that, it’s not always about YOU and what you are “offended” by.  She rightly commented that unless what someone has done has something directly todo with you, why should you feel compelled to give your two cents’ about it, criticizing and tearing that person down? She gave as an example the presence of Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, who was sharing the stage with former President Bill Clinton – members of the public were in uproar saying Clinton should have walked off the stage. But, as she said, “if you have a problem with Farrakhan being there you should take it up with Aretha’s family, because they invited him.”

This tendency to make everything about us and our sensitive feelings and what we like or don’t like, and the absolute necessity of broadcasting it to the world has, I feel, turned us into self-absorbed, obnoxious beings.  And when I say ‘us’ I mean the world in general, because if you follow international FB pages, Twitter and online news portals you can easily see that it is a trend which runs right across the globe. 

Instead of social media helping us to understand and tolerate those with divergent views, it has had the opposite effect. We unfriend, unfollow, and simply block those who do not agree with us (sometimes justifiably if the disagreement lurches into a personal attack). Instead of learning how to communicate with respect, we have regressed into primal, caveman behaviour, erupting into rage at the slightest remark.  This has led to hundreds of  little social bubbles as we have retreated back into our safe little worlds where everyone of our acquaintance thinks exactly like we do on a myriad of hot topics, and we can reassure ourselves that we are right, and the others are flatly wrong.  

 

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