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.

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Martin Adams
Martin Adams
2 years ago

This is a thought-provoking comment on Mary Harrington’s claims. I don’t doubt the essential validity of what she and the article’s author claim. Both writers have an essentially sympathetic stance towards human need ” human beings need social discourse of sight, touch, speech and so forth; our fundamental needs for communication are not being met; that people use social media in an attempt to meet that need; that social media, by its very nature, is unable to meet the need.

However, I wonder if the writers’ essentially benign perspectives are facilitating an evasion of tougher questions, and even tougher answers, both about human nature and about the nature of social media. I ask these questions because it seems to me that the effects on human discourse of large swathes of social media are almost entirely malign. I say that in complete seriousness, and certainly without the glib dismissiveness that Elizabeth Oldfield finds in so many objectors to social media.

To a significant extent, it is not that we are asking social media to do more than it can bear. It is that the nature of social media releases aspects of human nature from the restraints that govern most kinds of human discourse. We can sound off without any of the restrictions imposed on us by seeing our interlocutor’s face, body language or tone of voice. The medium becomes a means of self-validation; and it works like that partly because it is instant; it requires none of the thought or time of old-style letter-writing; and the instant response validates feeling over thought.

Twitter and Instagram are the perfect platforms for an age in which feelings assume the status of facts, and in which opinion assumes the status of argument.

Elizabeth Oldfield says:

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.

Not for me it isn’t. I don’t use it. (Long-form forums like this one are my nearest equivalent.) And nor is it so for very many friends of mine, who might use it to make and keep appointments, but who know better than to use it for serious communication.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

‘a collective reasoning’….’a real yearning for connection’

What a lot of nonsense. I know Mary Harrington over-analyzes things (it’s her job as a psychotherapist) but this is ridiculous.

How can social media be ‘a collective reasoning’ when only about 2% of the population are ACTIVE Twitter users and when Facebook is used primarily for cat videos and the like? Instead it is a sewer into which those desperate for attention, but devoid of all knowledge, spew their vacuous and ill-informed garbage.

I instinctively distrusted it all from the start and have had nothing to do with it. That said, I never suspected that it would all become so toxic, or acquire such political influence in terms of conservative voices being banned etc.

Barbara Bone
Barbara Bone
2 years ago

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.

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
2 years ago

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.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
2 years ago

It would be interesting to hear the views of people who do not use social media, never have and never will and are hopefully reasonably sensible people. Mary Harrington’s view is always worth seeing bear in mind though her area of expertise. She deals with people who express problems and perhaps have an overdeveloped need for attention and recognition.
I wonder if suggesting social media may not be a way to attract attention, only a perceived (false) avenue of empathy. It begs the question how people communicated before social media became main stream? Many people seem to manage without their heads buried in their phones.

chrisjwmartin
chrisjwmartin
2 years ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

It would be interesting to hear the views of people who do not use social media, never have and never will

Really? My experience is that such people bang on about it at every opportunity they get.

Scott Carson
Scott Carson
2 years ago
Reply to  chrisjwmartin

I’d say that’s partly because whether you use it or not, social media is thrown at us from all directions anyway. The BBC routinely use stories involving “….xyz tweeted that…….” , and so on. Facebook and twitter are treated as valid sources, which they really shouldn’t be. I use neither myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of a lot of their characteristic content, you can hardly avoid reading it these days.

Trevor Q
Trevor Q
2 years ago

I have never used social media like twitter, facebook etc and am somewhat bemused by the whole circus as I have far better things to do with my time. Essentially it is interaction without empathy and it elevates words to a far greater importance because that is all there is. In a conversation words are mitigated by context and you are are also very much influenced by the fact that you are face to face with the person you communicating with.

David Waring
David Waring
2 years ago

Ah Facebook, the facilitator of public unrest and malevolence.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
2 years ago

Its very simple and a tric k-cyclist should know. Social media is nothing more than a toilet where we dump our frustrations and anger. Its not communication at all.

ruiz9418
ruiz9418
2 years ago

If all lives mattered, black lives, brown lives, yellow lives, red lives would matter equally.

Seems to me, Gandhi marched peacefully in his salt marches and was met by violence by the British. MLK marched peacefully and was met with violence where he marched. Both men were assassinated.

I only wonder, if it were reversed, if blacks took whites to Africa and enslaved them and they lived what American blacks have lived through, what would be *the happening*?.

Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins
2 years ago
Reply to  ruiz9418

Actually that did happen Anna, read up a bit on the topic of “Barbary pirates”, something which I only came across very recently during this BLM period, and was staggered to know that this had been completely ignored by my school history.

As a quick synopsis, they were Ottoman & Berber pirates who operated from North Africa, and were estimated to have captured and enslaved over 1 million Europeans (mostly Spain & Italy but also many from England, Ireland, etc.) between the 16th & 19th centuries. Apparently this was why coastal settlements were not favoured during these times.

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
2 years ago
Reply to  Simon Jenkins

Unlike BLM we have managed to move on.
Perhaps a symbolic statue of a white person who was enslaved could be put on the empty plinth, with an explanatory plaque.

opn
opn
2 years ago
Reply to  ruiz9418

Gandhi was not assassinated by the British and he said that if he had been up against anyone but the British his non-violence would never have been successful. History, you know, not ideology.

Kate H. Armstrong
Kate H. Armstrong
2 years ago
Reply to  ruiz9418

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.

brett
brett
2 years ago
Reply to  ruiz9418

You don’t have to wonder as we have the history of the Otterman Empire and their routine raids to the Slavic region to the north of them to capture slaves (incidentally that where the word slave came from). Slavery is still alive and well in Africa and China, 14 million slaves in Africa some them just kids, held by other Africans. Why isn’t BLM addressing this.

Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert
2 years ago

From what I understand there are still widespread “protests” happening in places such as Portland. Crime has increased rapidly in NYC but it’s more important that we hear about the mayor helping to paint slogans in front of Trump Tower (because Orange Man bad obviously). The mainstream media is no longer fair or well balanced in its reporting (that train left the station a long time ago). They clearly don’t want to ruin the illusion they’ve built of righteous people marching for a noble cause.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
2 years ago

“He asserted that women would obviously prefer a robot husband to a real man who wanted to drink beer and watch football.” I hope this Russian isn’t on to something.

Alison B
Alison B
2 years ago

Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon as it approaches its fiftieth night of downtown protests.
“The Portland police said earlier this week that ongoing protests had cost businesses in the downtown area $23 million in property damage and lost revenue, but those figures are skewed by just one business ” a mall already shut down by statewide coronavirus closures, a newspaper reported Friday.”
Most of these other small businesses mentioned in this article were likely already ‘boarded up’,probably never to reopen.
https://www.columbian.com/n

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
2 years ago

I think there is a difficult balance to be had here. On the one hand, cyber reality does allow a release from the constrictures of traditional social discourse etiquette which enables people to explore alter-egos, enables people to reinvent themselves, even enables people to explore personal trauma and so arguably a cyber reality facilitates human ingenuity and innovative ideas.

When taken together, cyber reality facilitates a novel level of human consciousness that is more free to roam but whilst their can be examples of benevolence in this loosening of restrictions which seek personal enlightenment and societal highest good, there can also be examples of malevolence which seek personal corruption and societal highest bad.

In this respect, the extra freedom afforded by cyber reality should be conjoined with responsibility. However, in our Rights based culture, responsibility is rarely a given and as such people will seek to extend their right to free themselves from traditional structures of free expression but without an equal regard for personal responsibility.

As such, I don’t think it is the existence of cyber reality that is causing anti-social behaviour, but the imbalance between rights and responsibilities within our culture.

Cyber reality is, in my opinion, a tool of human consciousness, and in reference to the adage that a bad workperson will blame their tools rather than themselves, humans need to look to themselves and better understand the skills, attitudes and beliefs (or the lack of them) that they deploy when using the tool of cyber reality.

So what does make people flame and troll others and treat others disparagingly. Loneliness can’t be blamed since cyber reality does at least allow some degree of emotional connection since although unseen, when we do actually connect with another person online, the bonds we form, however temporary or permanent, are certainly, from my experience, real.

So the choice to be personal or impersonal, to be open or closed to others, is a choice. For sure, one that is also shaped and delineated by our experiences and expectations online but this is in many ways is no different to offline life.

Social encounters are fraught with difficulties, some are mitigated on line by some degree of anonymity whilst others are made more difficult through that same anonymity. This I find isn’t that much different to actual reality, whereby defence mechanisms are substituted for authenticity.

In this respect, presenting to the world our ever changing authentic self is a choice whether online or offline. Thus, what are the cultural processes that inhibit revealing our ever changing authentic selves to others whether online or offline.

In other words, what vulnerabilities are we seeking to protect and guard against from others. And why do some people explore these vulnerabilities within the anonymous safety of the online world whilst others use their relative anonymity to entrench their vulnerabilities even further with displacement and other examples of psychological compensatory mechanisms.

Like in actual reality, some people are predisposed to grow, others are more predisposed to not grow. Whereas traditionally we might have only been exposed to this human dichotomy to a limited social degree, now, for those that do participate within cyber reality, the lived experience of this human dichotomy expands.