Living in 280 characters or less: How social media is ruining everything by Caitlin

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Last month I turned 28, and as if by clockwork I’m here to prove just how old I’m getting by declaring my hatred of social media.

I’m qualified to hate it because I use it daily – both personally and professionally – and my efforts to stop or cut down have, up to this point, been far less successful than I’d like to admit. My phone is like an appendage I can’t bring myself to hack off, but I consider this blog the first step in admitting I need to do it.

Image result for msn chat I didn’t always feel this way. I may not be part of the generation that used an iPhone as a teething device but I did spend most of my teenage afternoons chatting on MSN with people I never spoke to at school, to people in LGBT themed ‘MSN groups’ who I had never met at all, and, later, to (presumably) no one, in the form of oh-so-profound MySpace bulletins and bi-weekly profile updates.

All the narcissism, self-esteem issues, and sometimes downright recklessness which are so easy to project onto teenagers’ social media lives today were already in full swing “back in my day”, and I wouldn’t change a bit of it.

Nor would I change those late night Tumblr sessions when I should have been writing essays for university but instead found myself compulsively “re-blogging” everything from a lengthy debate on gender theory to a picture of a fox (seriously, Google ‘foxes’, they’re so cute!) to a gif of – literally every woman ever.

Those were the days when my Twitter feed was filled with updates on the whereabouts of my sobriety (it was usually long gone) and when I replied to the tweets of people I actually knew because they were still on Twitter and I didn’t follow over 1000 people.

(I would recount some fond memories of Facebook but I don’t have any. Suck it Zuckerberg.)

Through each of these mediums, I sent messages back and forth with people with whom I, with all my social awkwardness and neuroses, would never have formed such strong relationships had I been forced to communicate only face-to-face.

So, clearly, social media has its benefits, and I’m not suggesting we all go offline and join a commune (for now).  What I do have serious problems with is the dependency culture which has developed around digital communications, the impact of which, I think, could be more severe than we may even realise till it’s too late if we don’t start to re-examine our habits.

With most of us now having the world at our fingertips on a smartphone screen and receiving push notifications every time someone sneezes while reading a comment we posted somewhere, social media is no longer something to dip in and out of, to make an active choice to log into. It commands our attention, and given that it’s owned by huge corporations making a killing on advertising, that’s no accident.

The data protection and psychological manipulation issues of social media have been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks amid the Cambridge Analytica revelations, prompting calls to #DeleteFacebook, but like most things we enjoy, it’s easier to ignore the alarm bells than change our own behaviours.

What has really had me worried about social media, though, is its impact on our personal and social reality, and I’ve come to a conclusion: it’s not good. It’s entirely commonplace now to find yourself at a social event (you know, where humans sit in the presence of other humans and say words), and realise that everyone is looking at their phones instead of each other.

Quite apart from what that means for our connections with each other as people, I fear for what it says about the signals in our brain which are clearly now telling us we MUST. CHECK. OUR. PHONES. Where checking social media used to be an activity akin to opening the mail, or taking a book from a shelf to read, now it’s a habit as ingrained and unconscious as scratching your nose or drumming your fingers on the table.

This would be a phenomenon worth asking some questions about even if the information we were consuming daily was all sunshine and fluffy bunnies. But if you spend much time on Twitter, or – if you dare – reading the comments on Facebook, you’ll know the internet is not a typically happy place. As someone who is fairly interested in learning both about everything that is wrong in the world and how we might fix it, I don’t demand that the information I consume be happy – but I would like it to be constructive.

So much of what happens on social media seems to be a concentration of everything that has historically been wrong with human communication. As far as I can see, the experiment into “how humans will engage with each other when protected by relative anonymity, expressing their thoughts in writing, and often constrained by character limits” has produced some pretty dark results, and yet we’re firing full steam ahead with it nonetheless.

Better still, it’s all publicly available so that everyone can get involved in the conversation. Enabling people to participate in conversations, often across borders and oceans at relatively low cost is an amazing idea, but, sometimes, everyone talking at the same time amounts to no conversation at all.

It brings to mind that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you’ve never seen it? What are you doing reading this? Go and buy the box set now.) where Buffy can hear what everyone’s thinking. This is one of life’s oldest lessons: nobody wants to know what everyone else is thinking.

Personally, I have found my own near-constant consumption of the white noise of social media beginning to take a toll on me, and I know I’m not alone in that. The sheer aggression, volume and repetitiveness of much of the political and social debate on Twitter is enough to make you lose hope for ever creating a better world.

It strikes me that while we have access to more information than ever before at the tap of a screen, we are consuming that information in ever more reductive ways. It’s far too easy now to read a headline, share an article, re-tweet a statement, and become a part of the latest viral Twitter debate without ever being properly aware of the facts involved.

Click-bait is the new mode of information consumption, and in the digital world, this is bound to shape how we communicate with each other too. If a shocking headline or sassy sound bite grabs people’s attention, so does an angry tweet – but none of it is helping us understand each other any better.

Amnesty International recently launched a campaign to highlight the abuse faced by women on what it calls ‘Toxic Twitter’. In its report, Amnesty points to the fact that women who share their opinions on issues like sexism, along with women in the public eye more generally, are particularly prone to receiving nasty, misogynistic and even threatening comments from Twitter users.

But it’s not only this kind of abuse which concerns me, it’s the continual note of negativity that characterises communications online, which seem intent on fuelling disagreements and intensifying tribalism rather than building understanding or consensus. This climate of hostility often leaves me deciding not to bother sharing my thoughts at all, and that’s a problem in itself – not least because I know that many other young women feel the same way.

With all this in mind, I genuinely feel that we need to take a step back and start seeking out and creating new opportunities to communicate face-to-face, message each other privately, and take the time to listen to (or read) the depth and detail of what people are saying.

Unfortunately I’ve not come up with the solutions to the world’s problems as yet, so for now I’m going to look after my own mental health by trying to avoid the sea of negativity and keep advocating for more positive communication along the way.

Pictures courtesy of Jason Howie, Ross Breadmore and Emilie Ogez.

Caitlin Logan is our Volunteer Blog Editor. She is a journalist at Scottish news website CommonSpace and is particularly passionate about equalities and human rights. She likes writing (clearly), reading (a lot of young adult books), TV series binges (it’s a hobby when you’re this obsessed), seeing everything at the cinema that time will allow, and playing board and card games (because they are the future and you’re definitely missing out). Find her on Twitter @_CaitLogan.

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