The Double Edged Sword of Social Media
I’ve always had mixed feelings about social media. Maybe it’s that I’m from a time that still remembers what the internet was like before. Perhaps it’s that I’m starting to feel my age as I remember making my first website in the public library at the tender age of 13. Back then, my family could neither afford the internet or a computer. Even so I wanted to build something new and to share my love of nerdy things with the world.
I remember it fondly, and like it was yesterday. I was using a free service with a website editor that removed the need for html, but it was still labor intensive. If I’m really honest, that website was a hot mess. I had aqua text on a starry space background, with sailor moon gifs everywhere, and a collection of blinking star animations off to the sides. I would probably cringe seeing it now, but even thinking about it I get nostalgic.
We take it for granted now, that people can so easily share their thoughts and feelings with each other online. These days if you want to share images or your love of anime, you don’t even need a website. You can easily go to facebook and join an interest group, or get a tumblr page and make a micro blog. It’s all so simple. But at age 13, I was so happy just to have made my shitty little website talking about my love of animation.
My first chatroom experience was with that of a fanshrine. It took time and energy to be recognized as a regular member of the community. There was no video or voice chat. Even so we made due. When people were engaged in a conflict, we handled it as a community. We either defused the situation or kicked them out on their ass. If you wanted to talk to strangers and not be seen as a complete asshole, you had to earn their trust.
These days, if you want to talk to a complete stranger you can go to some place like omegle, or make a twitter account. It’s really easy. You don’t need to earn trust, or even be nice to others for you to have an endless line of strangers to talk to. But therein lies the problem that so many people are having now with social media.
When internet communities were only small pockets of people talking to eachother in chatrooms and forums, people were generally nicer. Being kicked out was a big deal, because where else were you going to go? But now that everyone is connected and superficial relationships are so easy to come by, people have no reason to be nice to people when they don’t want to be.
This presents a dilemma. Because on the one hand people are being honest about what they really think and feel for maybe the first time in human history. On the other hand, it turns out that human beings are about as awful as they are wonderful. The same social media that brings you cute cat pictures and that touching story about a veteran, also links you to two girls one cup. The same people who will practically worship the ground you walk on one moment, will decide in the next that you’re a horrible human being over something as simple as taste in movies. People can be just plain horrible.
It used to be that internet communities were populated by nerds and those who were technologically literate enough to do it. There was a commitment involved to learning a skill and the willingness to be diplomatic. It was understood that you went to the internet at your own risk, and anything that happened to you was due to your own decisions. But now that the internet is populated mostly by people who can barely use a mouse, they’ve decided that they don’t need to be responsible for their actions.
Nowadays, that line of thinking is called victim blaming. The generation succeeding my own, feels that the internet needs to be padded and safe like a baby’s playpen full of pillows and cushy things so that they don’t bump their heads on anything. Because someone somewhere might say something offensive.
They lack the conflict resolution skills to do anything more than whine like overgrown children when something is wrong, and lack the self awareness to realize when they themselves are the problem. Even worse, they are willing to kill the free speech that they enjoy online, to feel safe in their cushy little bubbles.
Social media makes it easy to spread ideas, but it also makes it easy to spread negativity. It makes it easy to spread misinformation and rumors. People online believe that if they get law enforcement to step in and enforce niceness, that people will just fall in line and be nicer to each other. But they are not tackling the heart of the problem.
People are nice to others when they feel like friends and people in general have some inherent value. They are nice because they fear losing those they love and care about. You come to respect them through an admiration of their deeds. But if friends and interactions are so easy to come by, there’s no incentive for people to be nice to each other.
When faced with the cold reality of human nature, I’m certain that people are willing to do almost anything to force it back into it’s metaphorical closet. They want to go back to the happy lie and they need to believe that the world is far more kind and safe than it actually is. They want the kindness that happened when the groups were small and you knew everyone in your digital community. But we can’t do that on social media without shutting out the world. Knowing this, we are faced with a choice.
We can either choose to carefully monitor who we talk to online, grow thicker skins, or walk that delicate line between both. The choice is ultimately yours and yours alone. You can hide in your box away from the harsh realities of human nature, or you can face them with the knowledge that you are capable of enduring far more than you can imagine.
We must ultimately choose between dealing with people that aren’t so nice, and killing internet free speech. But if you want my honest opinion, I’ll give it. When faced with the conundrum of social media, I can never decide whether I’m overcome more with feelings of indescribable joy, or the strong desire to nuke it all from orbit and start over.