How we use social media could make or break us

I got a haircut recently, and my hairdresser and I had a big old whinge together about how Facebook has become a nasty place that sometimes makes us hate the world, a little bit.

I’m the first to say I generally enjoy social media. I use it and value it – there are clearly so many benefits; for connecting people and communities, for sharing a range of views and ideas, and even for supporting social change. Two years ago I wrote about how social media campaigns can have an impact, by influencing social networks on issues like same-sex marriage, through simple mechanisms like the rainbow profile picture campaign. How sad, by the way, that two years later we STILL aren’t there, Australia…

But it feels like a nastier place lately. The comments sections on Facebook particularly, have always been fraught, but now they seem soul-sucking, showcasing the worst of our tendencies towards blame, spite, and an inability to consider other viewpoints. It’s like the new outlet for road-rage.

There is the vitriol that commenters pour out at public personalities and writers, such as Clementine Ford, a coherent feminist writer, who has painstakingly dissected and patiently explained many of the complicated issues around feminism in Australia, to a mainstream audience. The harassment, trolling, abuse, physical and sexual threats she endures every day have recently extended to groups of men actively searching for information about her family and physical whereabouts, including of her baby son. When she wrote an article about this frightening invasion of her personal life, the lack of empathy from some corners was clear:

‘Is Clementine ranting again?’
‘So wait. She insults and offends people however when it happens to her, she’s outraged?’
‘Make me a sammich clementine’
‘Oh please. Boo friggedy whoo. Is she seriously playing the victim card after all the shit she dribbles. I ain’t buying what you’re selling sweetheart.’

The argument these trolls come back to is that if you put yourself out there, you have to expect that people will disagree. That’s true, of course. But I also think it’s reasonable to expect people to be constructive and considered in their responses. And to expect them not to say that your mother must have fucked a horse. Or start stalking you.

But it’s not just backlash against celebrities and personalities. It’s everything, these days. Two people died recently in a parachuting accident near Sydney, and commenters blamed them for taking the risk in the first place. I’ve seen armchair critics blame Justine Damond’s death on her decision to approach the police car, while holding a phone in her hand, which they said could have been mistaken for a gun.

Personally, I find the most devastating stories and responses to be about the tragic deaths of children. The parents of a child killed by a drunk driver in a car accident on their way home were blamed for having their child out too late at night. The mother of the toddler taken by an alligator in Florida at Disney World was persecuted by the Facebook hordes for approaching the water’s edge, even though many other families were doing the same thing at this popular resort. The parents of a little girl who died after a statue fell on her, due to another child who was climbing on it, were blamed for allowing her to play near the statue in the first place. Most recently, a little boy was tragically crushed to death in a revolving restaurant, after he became stuck between a table and the moving wall. The commenters screeched about how his parents must have poorly trained him, if he was unable to sit still at a table in a restaurant.

Everyone is so quick to blame. To blame parents for the loss of their children, to blame people for making mistakes that result in death. And then to descend into cries of ‘well, they deserved it.’

I don’t think it’s even about moral superiority. I think it’s mostly fear. As parents, our worst fear is to lose a child, so we try to counter the fear by pretending it could never happen to us – that we’d never be that irresponsible. We tell ourselves, ‘I’d never forget my child in the car’, and ‘I’d never leave my child unsupervised in the bath’. But no matter how much we helicopter around them, it’s impossible to be vigilant against every risk. My six-year old asked me recently if he would be allowed to ride his bike to school on his own, when he turned seven, since he ‘knew the way’. All the potential horrors flashed before me. I said he’d have to wait until he’s older than that. But at some point, I will have to let him go, despite the terrifying scenarios in my head. Deep down, I think we all know that. The flip-side of that enormous love is the terrible fear of the pain of losing them. The fear lurks, and so we try to protect ourselves by blaming others for their unfortunate circumstances, ruthlessly piling this upon their existing devastation.

I just can’t see that it’s going to get us anywhere, collectively. Despite our increased connection, the fear, hatred, nastiness and division is also forcing us back into more isolated and polarised positions. With companies like Facebook and Google both mining data about us, and then tailoring our news-feeds to further reinforce our existing views, it’s harder to access and consider alternative points of view, unless we actively do so. The online conversation seems to increasingly be about pitching the ‘left against the right’. It’s a plague on both your houses – all our houses. When instead, I think we need to be reaching across the divides, breaking down barriers, looking for common ground, seeking understanding and being open to new ideas.

What do you think? My husband would say, as he always does, that I’m over-thinking it. I disagree. Social media has become such an integrated part of our lives, I feel it’s critical to think about how we interact with it and how it affects our lives and the broader trajectory of our society. Is it possible to turn the tables and use it for better, or am I fighting a lost cause?

 

11 Comments

  1. Gary Lum says:

    Erin, great post, I’m no longer interested in growing followers or increasing views. I have made friends on Facebook, Twitter and through blogging who ordinarily I would have never have met. I regard them as friends and they are people I want to remain in contact with. I avoid venturing into areas that are contentious. I don’t want that negativity in my life. It’s a pity it’s changed.

    • Erin says:

      Thanks Gary. I’ve had a similar journey over the last couple of years – it can be easy to get pulled into the ‘numbers’, but I realised too that I value more the genuine connections I’ve made through blogging and social media, and I’m not really into ‘playing the game’. It’s a relief to be able to let go of those parts isn’t it!

  2. Ness says:

    I absolutely hate FB, I deleted my account 3 years ago and don’t regret it one bit. That and Twitter are so vile that I pretty much only use Instagram now, and really limit my following to people I am genuinely interested in.

    I am a massive overthinker which is probably why FB and Twitter are not good for me and my mental health.

    Sure Insta can be horrid too, but I find it less in my experience than the other two main social media platforms.

    • Erin says:

      Hi Ness! Wow good on you for deleting Facebook, I’m impressed. I feel like it’s too much a part of my life (which is my own fault!) to be able to remove it altogether. But I do need to get better at avoiding certain parts of it, for exactly the same reasons as you – I over-think and become preoccupied. I’ve definitely found that Instagram seems to be a much nicer medium generally, although not without flaws either. Thanks for taking the time to read my post 🙂 xx

  3. Liz Posmyk of Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things says:

    Hi Erin,

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article.

    I’m with you and Gary and Ness.

    I was a late-comer to Facebook, but joined so that my Peter and I could stay in touch with family overseas. And that’s been brilliant.

    Like you, I’ve met some wonderful people and made some lovely friendships through Twitter, FB and Instagram, but I’ve been rethinking my use of all platforms over the last 18 months or so. I’ve pretty much limited my personal FB profile to family and a closer circle of friends. I really don’t like “unfriending” anyone, but then nor do I like being “friends” with folks who have more than 2,000 on their “friends” list, which means that each of those people then has access to me and my life via my FB account.

    Instagram is my preferred “social media” platform these days and I use it to connect with like-minded folks. Numbers aren’t important. Not on the blog, not on Twitter, nor Instagram or any other social media platform.

    Again, like Gary, I try to stay away from contentious issues on the news feed because the moment you add a comment, some nasty piece of work jumps down your throat. Life’s too short and I really don’t need that kind of negativity in my day.

    Thanks again.

    • Erin says:

      Hi Liz,
      Thank-you for taking the time to read and reply with your thoughts! I know exactly what you mean about Facebook, I do also frequently check my ‘friends’ list. It’s an interesting tactic used by Facebook to use the word ‘unfriend’, isn’t it? It can make it hard not to attach guilt. I also much prefer Instagram for general (public) sharing, it seems to be a nicer place.
      I find I can get sucked into the vortex of Facebook comments, not so much in commenting myself (anymore! I used to take the bait every time), but almost as some kind of wishful thinking that people will surprise me. I’m generally disappointed though – I should learn not to read them in the first place!
      Thanks for sharing your experience.
      Erin x

  4. Applying that kind of logic to unthinkable events seems to have developed into a cultural coping mechanism. A way of setting ourselves apart and reasoning that these terrible tragedies could never happen to us because ‘we are different’. Imagine how different things could be if we accepted these events for the terrible tragedies that they are, showed genuine empathy for the people affected and used these events to start conversations, grow connections and create safer communities.
    This was a great post Erin. Thank you for starting the conversation.

    • Erin says:

      Cultural coping mechanism – that’s a great way to put it, I think you’re exactly right! It’s such a shame, because we ‘really’ know we’re just fooling ourselves… and I wonder what kind of impact that thinking has on our own lives, let alone how we relate to other people. Perhaps if we had a greater capacity for empathy we might also find that our collective cultural values change as well… perhaps as a society we might become more grateful and less greedy.

      Thanks Rani for sharing your thoughtful views as always xo

  5. I found this to be very thought provoking Erin, which is one of the reasons why reading this blog posts is so enjoyable.

    I feel social media has a brave uncensored, unfiltered voice at times and when you throw tragedy and fear into the mix appears to become louder and totally 😳inappropriate, just as you suggest and point out! You cannot believe some of the comments made, so freaking disappointing!

    Let’s hope more energies will be directed to allow our collective cultural values to elvove and we will see more blog posts and comments like these that reflect our positive values and empathy in the future!

    At the end of the day we are individually responsible for our use of social media and we can ultimately be that change.

    • Erin says:

      Thank-you Sarah! That’s a really good point about it being brave and uncensored – which is good in lots of ways I suppose, until it brings out the worst. There may even be *some* good points about that – once it’s out there (instead of festering in people’s minds) it can be acted upon. Clementine Ford’s points are regularly proven by the (largely male) commenters who publicly abuse her, which in turn has pushed the conversation about feminism along and kept it live.
      But yes we are individually responsible – so I should spend less time angsting about what other people do with their social media! 🙂 xx

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