Social media isn’t what it once could have been. Perhaps it was always destined to be this way – factious, opinionated, angry and blaming. Perhaps it is just places a magnifying glass on the society that we are creating, that’s playing out in front of our very eyes. Perhaps it is a bellwether of something more deep rooted that’s going on around us every minute of every day.
James Marriot wrote a brilliant piece in The Times a few weeks about the importance, in some respects, of social conformity in ensuring thoughtfulness and meaningful discourse. The idea that simply through the presence of others, the expression of ideas is likely to be more thoughtful and we more considered in our views. And we’ve all heard the sage advice to write nothing that we wouldn’t say to someone in person.
But the social norming of social channels is entirely different to sitting in an office, a pub or in a debating chamber. Many years ago I wrote that the problem with the democratisation of the media was that it places a voice in the hands of the “dull, feckless and boring”. I’m not sure that is entirely fair, but it certainly creates a false sense of importance through audience and – at the extreme – a blue tick on Twitter suddenly gives a legitimacy that historically would only have been given by an organisation willing to pay for a view or opinion, or through a public mandate.
There is a clear argument to be made that this is a good thing. Remove the shackles of economic or political barriers to entry and open up the airwaves to anyone, let the most popular thrive. In the same way that I’ve spoken about the dangers of choice, popularism brings with it more downsides than it does up and fuels the increased polarisation that we see in so many situations. “It’s complicated” or “I can see both sides” wins fewer short term support than an over simplified, energised opinion.
Which is why one of the biggest game in town now is blame. Whatever the situation, the moment or issue, somebody has to be singled out and responsible for anything that we disagree with – and as publicly as possible. At the same time fuelling the division and the polarisation that is already spreading like a poison in our social and political discourse and pretty much every aspect of society.
Take the recent period of extreme hot weather (yes that’s a fact it was extreme) and immediately the social verse was full of opinions about how it “wasn’t really that hot” and that health experts were some how trying to dupe us, to spoil our fun. Alongside the extreme and ill formed opinions, “I went to Ibiza once and it was way hotter than this”, we get the misinformation both idle and intentional that then follows. (See the false weather map as an example). The powers that be couldn’t be considering the minimum mortality temperature or likely excess deaths, there was bound to be an ulterior motives. And we, through the power of our social presence, we’re going to point that out.
But of course, this isn’t about weather or temperature it is about how we, each and every one of us, contribute to the culture and the society that we live in. When we get likes or retweets by shouting our view point louder, when we feed the bravado of others by doing it back to them. When we are hurtful or spiteful or divisive. We spread hurt, spite and division much further than our original premise. Our actions facilitate the actions of others whether they agree with our view points or not – we are condoning a way of behaving. And that culture, those behaviours, the belief that there is someone always at fault spreads pervasively and causes misery throughout our communities and even into our workplaces.
Dignity, respect, curiosity and inclusion is built on acting dignified being respectful, remaining curious and seeking to include. It doesn’t happen because we wish it to be so, but only through the integrity of our actions.