Like many Baby Boomers, I have a love/hate relationship with social media.
I ‘tut’ (English middle class expression of extreme displeasure) at its worst excesses and I mutter darkly about it killing the art of conversation, family life, relationships and quite possibly small cute furry animals.
Yet I’d hate to be deprived of it; specifically, as a fifty-something, I’d miss Facebook, which the pundits tell me is now the sole preserve of silver surfers like me since Millennials got bored with it.
What is it about social media that we don’t like?
Mainly, I believe it’s the same things we haven’t liked in the early years of other mass media like television and email, namely an inherent distrust and dislike of anything new which disrupts our social norms. This is compounded by a lasting emotional or intellectual objection to some of the stuff it puts out.
Fundamentally, you could say social media is just another communication channel, and like any other, it’s what people do with it which hacks people off. Twitter doesn’t troll people, people troll people.
Yet this misses an important difference. What sets social media apart is that, unlike TV, email or any other form of mass communication, it is also about broadcasting largely unmoderated self-expression, and this makes it potentially much more dangerous.
I hope any experts will forgive me for playing fast and loose with terminology, but here I use communication to mean sharing information to benefit the receiver, and self-expression to mean the expression of how I feel or think, with no intent to benefit anyone else.
Self-expression and communication tend to overlap and get tangled up, because we are social animals. We need to understand others’ feelings and thoughts to function properly as a society. Failing to express feelings leaves us repressed and socially uncomfortable (or English, in other words).
Equally, if we indulge in too much self-expression we risk alienating others and embarrassing ourselves, so we tend to pull back from it (or become English).
A baby may express its feelings with a hungry cry, but this also communicates important information for a parent to act on. A toddler yelling ‘I’m hungry!!!’ whilst lying on its back in the confectionery aisle also communicates something for a parent, or anyone else in the shop, to act on (although most of the actions you would immediately think of may be illegal).
As we mature and become more self-aware, we learn to make conscious decisions about when and how to express ourselves.
These decisions are particularly important in a civilised society, where expressing yourself in the wrong way, the wrong situation or at the wrong time can be at best embarrassing, and at worst horribly destructive, particularly where that self-expression is bolstered by misplaced perceptions of entitlement or power.
The trouble with social media is that, more than any previous form of communication, it encourages us to be whiny toddlers.
This is partly because of where it came from. Social media was invented in an affluent society with a strong sense of entitlement and sufficient distance from its last great upheavals to be happy to indulge itself, and particularly its young people. Since then it has both fuelled and fed off the growth of this pervasive sense of entitlement.
I like to think that, had Facebook been invented in post-war austerity Europe, instead of being asked ‘What’s on your mind, Nick?’ it would be ‘Well, Teale, what have you got to say to the class? And stop that chewing unless you’ve brought some for everyone!’
Facebook encourages us to indulge ourselves by sharing what we are feeling, Twitter’s structure makes it tailor-made for complaining, and Pinterest helps us show off by sharing pictures of whatever we’re feeling smug about today.
The immediacy and reach of social media add to this impetus to promote unconstrained, unregulated self-expression. You may think of the embarrassing love letter you never sent, the ill-judged email you deleted from drafts, the call where you thought better of saying all that gooey stuff, but social media encourages immediacy and discourages this kind of reflection.
So, would we be better if we were rid of all this self-expressive, self-indulgent twaddle?
No, and that’s not just because I’m relying on social media to share this blog post and don’t want to disappear up my own argument, hence my feeble attempt at subtle irony in the title.
Advocates for social media are screaming at this point that it’s not all about self-expression, and that social media has delivered massive benefits in helping the world to communicate better, promoting creativity and bringing people closer together, and of course they would be completely right.
My point is that I believe social media as a means of communication is hugely valuable, but when it is used purely for self-expression it tends to be at best irritating and at worst divisive and damaging. The tricky bit is that, because we are social animals, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Whenever I go to share something on social media, I try hard to remember to ask myself first, who the audience is, and second, whether and how they will benefit from me sharing it. This was part of Communication 101 when it was what I did for a living.
To give one specific example, I like to post what are often referred to as ‘Dad jokes’ on Facebook. I do this because I know some of my friends have found them funny in the past, none of my friends particularly dislike them, and they are the kind of thing I enjoy when other friends post them.
When a friend posted a reply with a video of tumbleweed rolling across the desert, I knew it was time either to reassess my selection criteria or unfriend some people.
Still, my rule of thumb is that, if it makes someone laugh, gives them practical information, strikes a chord about shared human emotion, starts or adds to a reasoned debate or simply makes them think, then it’s valuable communication.
If it’s just telling friends what I’m doing, or sharing anything that is basically saying no more than I’m happier, richer, better looking, more intelligent, got better stuff, eat nicer food, go to better places, got a better ideology or religion than others, then it’s probably just self-expression and more likely to be boring or corrosive for the audience.
It’s only a rule of thumb because things are never that straightforward. Knowing a friend is happy, in love or doing well materially can give you a boost because you are their friend and you care about them.
More prosaically, sharing a hundred pictures of your wedding in Mauritius may be the quickest and easiest way to get them out to all the people who would otherwise have come round in a year’s time and had you searching for the album.
And we all like to boast a bit sometimes too. I have been known to post stuff that isn’t really saying any more than ‘Hey, I’m flying First Class!’ or ‘Look, I’m in a really posh hotel!’ I may add facetious captions to kid myself it’s okay, but I still feel grubby in the morning, and I try not to let it happen too often.
So, let’s not #bansocialmedia. That would be a shame, and several grumpy cats would lose their livelihoods. But, when we use it, please, let’s try to think of communicating first and try to keep the naked self-expression under control.