Antisocial Media

Published in Sabotage Times

What are you all doing? Seriously, what are you doing? (A rhetorical question about communication, rather than an immediate request for information: please do not feel the need to reply).

If you’re in a country with freedom of information, and are in the majority of that country’s population, you’ll have logged onto some sort of social networking site already today. You probably saw a few updates, noticed a few status changes…and found out what Penny Saxon (last seen in the school playground getting told off for rolling her skirt up too high) had for breakfast. You now know that fact. It’s taking up valuable brain space. And you can’t un-know it. Do you know the name of all of our native birds? Probably not, but blueberries on branflakes is clearly a Keeper. Long multiplication has been replaced by Mark liking salt and vinegar peanuts. Of course, if you were to see Penny first thing in the morning in real life (a bit bizarre – how did she get in? She doesn’t even have a key!), she’d never try and tell you about her breakfast. She probably wouldn’t even say hello. If she wanted to actually say hello, she would have done by now. She hasn’t.

Confusingly, people are sharing more and more information with people they don’t know, people they’ve chosen not to know. And we’re drowning in these ‘facts’, not floating on them. People release personal information into the public domain to get recognition, to feel validated and important. It’s a nexus of narcissism, a childish desire to feel important: “Look Mummy, no hands”. But people only pretend to care so you’ll pretend to care back.

And what’s better than being inundated with things you don’t want to know? Being inundated with things you don’t want to know, as they happen. Enter Twitter. So now you can make the bran and blueberries trend. The previously overlooked hashtag has become one of the most ubiquitous pieces of punctuation in the English lexicon. So much so, it’s being painfully overused. Similar to when teenagers in TV programmes try and get deep and meaningful and say ‘like’ and ‘totally’ too many times to try and emphasise the point, and it doesn’t work – it’s just really irritating. There’s a new kid on the block and it’s already way more popular than ‘like’ and ‘totally’. In fact, hashtag should probably set up its own Facebook page.

Tweets are confined to 140 characters. Never has there been such an open invitation for confusion and misunderstanding to fornicate in the same sentence. And they do it with abandon, producing an offspring of inaccurate contempt. Usually, if something’s actually worth saying, it’s worth explaining…taking some time…being clear, and this will take up more than 140 characters. Watching ‘celebrities’ misspelt slanging matches unfold on Twitter is nothing short of embarrassing. And the public airing of dirty laundry is always followed up by an interview in which they backtrack frantically, saying everything was taken out of context. It wasn’t taken: you pushed it.

The relentless need to broadcast the mundane minutiae of our private lives leads to a painful lack of style and substance. Having welcomed Twitter into this excursion through social media, we can now invite Instagram along to join us. It’s basically clever marketing to make people use Apple products, done by making their customers think that they have a modicum of creative talent in them. Of course they do, everyone does, but taking a boring photo and putting a crude filter on it to make it look like ‘the olden days’ doesn’t make you a good photographer. The opposite, in fact – all the good photographers are out there taking shots of Instagramers jumping on this ridiculous bandwagon.

So take photos without actually thinking about them. Pin them on a virtual board, pin someone else’s up on a virtual board (hello copyright infringement) and then tweet about your Facebook update. Then take a photo of that and put a filter on it before pinning it on another virtual board. And so it goes on until you’re hopelessly addicted to documenting and reporting every thing about your life that no one wants to know. You become a Droste effect of pointlessness. Countless ‘Facebookers’ lament about their apparent addiction to the site. But these are probably the same people who think they cease to exist unless they can see themselves a mirror. Ironically, vanity is not becoming. And the people who are holding up the mirror for them are laughing behind it at and making a tidy sum at the same time (Facebook is purportedly worth around £4 billion).

It wasn’t always like this. It’s only within the last ten years that this level of self-indulgence has become possible. Before then, we used to socialise in real life (or ‘IRL’) but we seem to be forgetting how. We go to gigs and spend the whole time recording what we see. We leave conversations to take photos of them. We do not experience. We’re becoming socially inept, because we spend so much time using a computer to prove how sociable we are. But no technology can create comfortable silences. Social media can’t appeal to all of our senses, it can’t pick up on pheromones or voice inflections. You’ll never know what Facebook smells like.

And now this is becoming The Way. Generation Y knows no different. They think that the bran and blueberries are the most important thing in the world. A lack of relativity induced by needless networking has meant that we’re becoming less able to determine what’s important and what’s not. Being bombarded with trivia to such an extent, un-trivialises it. Ask your average 16 year old about political policies in Sudan, and they’ll have no idea. Ask them who likes salted peanuts out of the 17,363 strangers they have as friends on their Facebook account, and they’ll know more.

And when people do start to care – it can go wrong. Social media spawns misinformed frenzies, as well as moral apathy. Looking back to the riots last summer, we saw twitter morph into a distorted public game of Chinese whispers, which served as a major catalyst to the unrest. David Cameron even considered banning it, in an attempt to throw a damp tea towel on the chip pan of discontent. We got ourselves in such an overly-networked dither, that we almost forced censorship on ourselves. No-one really seemed to know what they were doing, or why. But they knew everyone else was doing it, so that made it fine.

Freedom of information and the right to express ourselves are something that we take for granted, but have not come without a fight from those before us. We are blessed to be able to communicate freely. And we do. And sometimes, good things happen. Social media should be an amazing tool – having a wealth of information at our fingertips should be enriching, inspiring and motivating. We can see more than we ever have before, share with people on the other side of the world, open our minds to things we didn’t know existed. This is a beautiful thing. Fundraising campaigns, Rage against the Machines campaigns, political campaigns…all good. But these are mere droplets of productivity in a vapid wasteland.

At the moment, social media is, for the main part, a vortex of productivity and common sense. Think honestly about how much time you dedicate to self-promotion on the web. Stop. You are better than that.