Sunday, 6 December 2015

The menace of social media

I don't look back on the 'old days' with over-much affection. It was a wrong time for me in any case, full of occasions when I felt forced to do things I felt unfitted to do, and be someone I felt I was not.

These were days before emailing and texting from one's own mobile phone were possible. For 'instant communication' there was only the landline phone. Some were happy with it. I was always afraid of it - its shrill ring; not knowing who might be calling; and the daunting formality of speaking unprepared into a large handheld device with an awkward coiled wire attached to it. And then not knowing what to say. Quite possibly not even recognising who was on the other end of the line. Too many people used to think their voices needed no introduction. They'd leave me guessing, playing for time, mouthing generalities until I could overcome my panic and remember who they were. It was often an embarrassing nightmare. I once messed up a budding friendship by curtailing a call curtly, not realising who it was until later. I was never comfortable holding the landline phone. The apparatus got in the way, emphasising the artificiality of the process.

I felt especially uncomfortable with well-intentioned calls at festive times. If someone else had got to the phone first, I'd scurry into the bathroom and stay there - so that when, inevitably, it was time to pass the phone to me, I wouldn't be handy. Cowardice? You betcha.

But let complete honesty and frankness prevail. I do not like to converse with a disembodied voice. And now, at this stage in my life, I am going to be blatantly clear and insistent about it. I don't want to chat over the phone: if you must ring me to speak, keep the call for when you need vital information. Such as (if visiting me) 'I've reached the Half Moon pub. Where is your house from where I am?' We will talk aplenty when you reach my front door.

I vastly prefer texts and emails. They don't interrupt and intrude. I'm geared up to a rapid response. I keep nobody waiting for long. Texts and emails give me time to think, and frame my answer with care and consideration, and I won't feel under pressure. I certainly won't babble. Nor will I be vague, boring or unintentionally indiscreet.

Most of all I like to speak face-to-face. Now that's proper communication. Both of us physically present. We can see each other's expressions, catch a look, and feel each other's reactions. We will automatically maintain respect and good manners. We will know when we strike a rich vein of mutual gold. And if the conversation takes a sad or congratulatory turn, then the right gestures can be made as appropriate, in person. You can't hug or kiss or weep together by electronic means. I don't rate emoticons and emojis one little bit. There's no substitute for actually being there. You need to touch.

So I am perplexed at the popularity of 'social media' in its various forms. I still don't get it. What does it provide that a face-to-face meeting does not - except, perhaps, distance. For some people it may be easier to deal with the world if they don't actually have to meet anybody. It must certainly to easier to lie and deceive and offer false flattery from a keyboard at home.

So many people like to 'share' some trivial comment, or quote, or supposedly funny video or joke, with all their 'friends'. What a turn-off. During my two brief forays into Facebook I was saddened to see what otherwise sensible friends wrote about themselves and what they got up to. The jokiness of it, the use of what you might call the 'Facebook way of expression', simply trivialised them. It shook me. I did not want to see this side of them. It made each of them seem quite different from the person I ordinarily knew. I recoiled from it.

The Facebook format also clearly invited comeback, and some of that was even more silly. And all of it was quickly buried under a mass of fresh inconsequentiality. It was no good writing anything serious or important. It was soon lost in the general gibber - or at best dismissed, all too easily, with a 'like'. What worth or sincerity does a 'like' have?

And I saw also the potential for harm. There was the possibility of unguarded knee-jerk comments that were badly-expressed and needed a rethink, the sort that ruffled feathers, and created family misunderstandings, ill-feeling, and even feuds. There was the possibility of frank vitriol, of the sort lately directed at moderate Labour politicians who have come out and spoken up for military action in Syria.

I dare say a politician is obliged to run several social media accounts, and can't opt out. It may even be a requirement of the job to have a Facebook and Twitter account, so that constituents - or just the general voting public - have a platform for expressing delight or anger at the MP's personal approach to political questions. But murderous venom is quite another thing. I would be very frightened to receive a message threatening death over something I'd posted on the blog. I would tell the police about it. I certainly think it's no over-reaction if an MP asks the police to look into the same thing. MPs are still vulnerable human beings of flesh and blood.

Silliness, personal attacks...I don't see much to commend social media, do I? There's also something else. It's the encouragement to indulge in a form of stalking. It's apparently still easy to open a Facebook account in a fake name and then go looking for people one might be interested in, such as former friends or partners, or anyone whose name and approximate location is known. And then, without announcing one's presence, keep them under stealthy surveillance. And of course the more they have embraced Facebook as a daily mirror of what they get up to, the more the hidden watcher will find out about them. And if that watcher has the capacity to get obsessive, the surveillance may become compulsive and dangerous.

The Government has now proposed new civil powers to intervene and curb the ability and desire of the offender to pursue their victim. But if they are careful and crafty, detecting them will remain difficult.

It's a chilling thought, that posting some cheerful or daft post on Facebook, and especially photos showing faces and recognisable locations, might lead to being followed about by someone with a problem. And the thing about social media like Facebook is that even though you might be careful what you say and what pictures you show, your 'friends' may not. And if either you, or they, give away your ordinary routine, then there is a clear need to beware.

I am not so sure I don't give away far too much about my location and habits on this blog. I never do give the name of my village, nor do I ever show pictures of my house as you see it from the roadside. But I'm quite certain that I could be found. Then what? At least nobody can use social media to wage psychological warfare on me, because I am not signed up to any of it. But what if they ever turn up in person, and knock on my front door one dark night?


  1. Like you I tried what I have come to think of as "antisocial media" at the behest of friends mostly moving away from more serious blogging. There was very little to "like" about the experience and nothing to like about the ever changing and impossible to keep up with unexplained interface. few using the sites have more than a vague clue as to how to control their time there and insecure things like the location and time exif data is merrily attached to photographs without an opt in function which any sane person would want and would keep set to private!

    The internet saved me but I do find its evolution unpleasant in many ways and my online time has become minimal, most of my real life friends are feeling the same. None find it a safe or friendly place to be...

  2. If it wasn't for two ukulele groups that share their news on Facebook, I wouldn't bother with it. The group stuff works very well indeed, but the rest of it is usually banal and sometimes offensive.

    The practice of collecting hundreds of 'friends' baffles me and, to my mind, is a gross distortion of the word 'friend'. Right now I have just 19 friends and I'm pleased to say that I know all of them.


      This shows that humans have a small limit to their social circle. My motto, quality not quantity...


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