How I’ve Changed My Mind About The Internet
I’ve been active online for more than 20 years. From the early days of email lists, relay chat, and basic web sites, through forums then onto blogs, followed by social media and online video, I’ve always been an advocate for having a active, authentic and public, online presence.
I believed the internet could be a positive, revolutionary force for change in the world, allowing previously marginalised and unheard voices to find their place in the world, radically reconfiguring the way we published and shared ideas, while improving how we created art and culture. But, this would only be possible if we presented ourselves online in honest, accessible ways.
There’s no question 2016 has shaken my belief in all this.
The Inhospitable Year
A few days ago I suggested the real winner of 2016 had been the block, mute and unfollow buttons on social media. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel disillusioned with how inhospitable online discourse has become. Everyone I know in, every kind of field, is radically scaling back how much time they spend online and how much they give of themselves when they are.
This isn’t a question of branding, marketing, or any other kind of commercial strategy. It’s people trying to safeguard the creative air they breathe and the thinking environment in which they work. It’s not commerce – it’s health.
The way social media has turned nasty, harsh and inhospitable is in stark contrast to the hopes so many of us had just a few years ago.
Why Hospitality Matters
Hospitality was always at the centre of how I described the internet. My metaphors were not just about social spaces, but the kinds of social spaces conducive to the best sort of caring, inspiring, human interaction. A blog was like a great dinner table conversation, Twitter was like a cafe where you might meet interesting, creative people, Facebook like a school or university reunion, or maybe a party with old friends, and so on.
Social spaces like these carry rules, or assumptions about the appropriate kind of behaviour; what was once called etiquette. We don’t bang our fists and shout expletives at the dinner table, we don’t stand up and scream “you’re an idiot” in a cafe, we don’t shame and ridicule our friends at social gatherings.
And yet so often we experience exactly this kind of behaviour online.
Where Does The Hate Come From?
Twitter soon became my preferred social media platform. Maybe it’s because I prefer cafes to parties. Or perhaps because I’d rather use the internet to meet new people than catalogue those who used to be part of my life. It felt like such a good platform to share art, ideas and insights into daily life.
This year Twitter has become such an angst-filled, angry space. Especially during the times when users are “live-tweeting” their reactions to major news and political events. Of course, Twitter is not alone in this regard, as Facebook has been as bad, or worse, from what I hear.
One thing I’ve noticed is so many of the nastiest, most aggressive or dismissive comments, the kind I euphemistically call “drive by hate,” usually come from accounts with only a few followers, users who give little or no information about their real identity. From the shadows of anonymity they rage.
And clearly they have no interest in the kind of ideals that brought me to the internet.
What Does This Mean For Us As Social Beings?
Before social media, when people reached out to us, by letter, phone call, or even in the early days of email, there was sort of obligation to reply, or at least to try and reply. There was a kind of consensus on how long it should take for someone to respond, depending on the form of communication. And yes, we expected a reply to any message we sent.
Of course, this was easier when there were fewer daily calls on our attention. Today we get thousands of times as many emails, texts, and social media notifications each month than previous generations got in letters and phone calls.
I tried to being the “reply to anyone who reaches out” approach to my online interactions, driven by my values of hospitality. For a long time it worked. I tried to respond to every comment, to every (real) email, to social media replies, and so on. I felt like I owed anyone who wanted to speak to me some kind of response.
But, do I really owe them anything?
Drawing Some Boundaries
I’ve been thinking a lot about this online asymmetry. Asymmetry is a problem in any kind of relationship, when people ask more of you than they give, or you give more than you might ever receive. I don’t believe we should avoid all asymmetries, but at their worst asymmetrical relationships leave us open to abuse and exploitation.
Like a lot of people with a broad online presence – creatives, content-producers, whatever you want to call us – I feel worn out by this year. Keeping up with all the replies feels like too much. I used to enjoy opening up my Twitter app and seeing 20, 50, 100 notifications. Now, scrolling through them just fills me with dread.
I’m sure the daily ritual of blocking, muting, unfollowing has sucked the joy out of it.
I still want to be available to the people who are open, authentic, giving themselves to make something good, contributing, building up. But, to be available to them I have to make less time, perhaps radically less time, for the random voices.
Maybe that’s the big lesson in all this, the lesson I feel scared by this year, that our emotional resources are not up to the task of fighting back an endless wave on online opinion. We have to chose ways that work for us. The old rules can no longer apply.