by Elizabeth Oldfield
Thursday, 16
July 2020
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11:47

How social media became a rancid Babel

Online platforms strip away the physical interactions humans depend on
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

This week I interviewed Mary Harrington, a columnist on these pages who is also a trained psychotherapist. We discussed the role of social media in driving division, and she framed the problem in a way that illuminated a tired old trope. She thinks that behind these warring factions online there is:

…something very deep, a real yearning for connection, for recognition, to be understood. This is knocked back again and again because you can never really be fully understood except face to face, and even then it’s difficult because it takes self-reflection, charity and a willingness on both sides to try. Online you have this magnification of the different ways you can be misunderstood, and the ever more desperate yearning to be understood, and then it curdles into this kind of rancid Babel of acrimony.
- Mary Harrington

There are often substantive legal and conceptual issues underneath our most painful debates and focusing on the relational dynamics, tone and existential tenor can be dismissed as trivial or avoiding the issues. It isn’t. Social media is, for better or worse, now the main site of our collective reasoning. It is where we narrate ourselves to ourselves, as individuals and collectively. It shapes how we see our own identity and that of others, and the health or otherwise of those conversations has an enormous impact on whether we are able to resolve, or even live with, our differences.

Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message” — a still relevant push-back at those who claim technologies (especially information technologies) are neutral. Healthy and effective communication ideally involves body language, an ear for tone, space for nuance and some understanding of where the other party is coming from. Social media platforms strip all of those things out, leaving us like a piano player trying to convey a symphony with only one note.

When you add the emotional freighting — we are not just trying to deliver a message but rather, we want to be seen and understood — the difficulties become clear. I found Mary’s articulation of the painful frustration at thwarted attempts at personal encounter illuminating, and deeply recognisable.

Psychotherapy, religion and neuro-science all agree that humans are social creatures to our core and that the health of our connection with each other (and for people of faith, the divine) is key to our flourishing. This deep need for connection and recognition used to be more easily met in offline sets of relationships — unions, political parties, voluntary groups, extended families, villages, sports clubs, and religious practice. All of these have declined, leaving us with an epidemic of loneliness, especially among the young.

It is a tragedy that these platforms — so useful in many ways — are at the same time being asked to bear more of the weight of our desire for recognition and connection, while being radically less suited to it. We are looking for what we need in the wrong places.

Join the discussion


  • Social media is, for better or worse, now the main site of our collective reasoning. It is where we narrate ourselves to ourselves, as individuals and collectively.

    This has an important corollary. Because social media is now the main platform for public discourse, it follows that it, and the private companies that run it, must be subject to the same freedom of speech rights as government. What is happening at present is that governments are abusing a freedom of speech loophole to outsource censorship to private companies.

    We as citizens must hold the same free speech rights in respect to corporations that provide mass platforms for speech as we do in respect to governments. Such corporations must decide: are they platforms, or publishers? If the former, they must provide freedom of speech; if the latter, they must be liable for the content they publish.

  • I find this really disquieting. As the author says hardly any of this was shown on MSM. The video clips that I saw were all on social media. There has been a lot of talk in the UK and presumably the USA about ‘white privilege’. You don’t get much more privileged than being able to cross the country, destroy an ethnic, working class area, then travel back to your intact home, fist bumping your mates & congratulating yourselves on how ‘right thinking’ you are.

  • What-if indeed. Facts might help. Fact: Africans were selling Blacks to Arabs for hundreds of years before the Europeans got involved. They are still selling their Black ‘brothers and sisters’ to all comers. Slavery is rife in Africa and many ME countries. Slavery is also rife in the UK and other European countries thanks of Free Movement and mass immigration imposed on indigenous Nations by self-serving politicians.

    NB. Britain put paid to the Slave industry over 200 years ago; sacrificing thousands of British sailors and soldiers in the process. All those men where White; all intent on saving Black lives.

    The UK is NOT America. We do not share the same history or the same racial problems. Give up social media and try a little reading. Inform yourself of the facts.

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