I miss the days before social media, when we didn’t realise how much we all hated each other.
We’re increasingly being told that our use of social media is insulating each of us inside a bubble – or an ‘echo-chamber’ – that amplifies and reflects back at us opinions we already hold, and protects us from ideas that might challenge us. It’s true, but only if you’re doing it right. And while pundits claim that social media can be a powerful engine of Confirmation Bias, my personal view is that the engine isn’t working well enough.
Far from cocooning us, social media is exposing us to a huge variety of previously unencountered people and opinions. These people are weird, and their opinions are horrible. What the pundits fail to take into account – but is self-evident to normal people – is that it’s nice to be in a bubble. It’s only natural to view those who don’t share your beliefs as intellectually defective and morally depraved, and to avoid them at all costs. Who wants to spend time with a bunch of idiots who disagree with you?
In the real world – as opposed to the digital existence that has largely replaced it for many of us – it’s relatively easy to steer clear of people we find uncongenial, and opinions we consider unpleasant. For example, if you’re on a train, and there’s a discarded newspaper on the seat next to you, and you happen to detest that paper – for the sake of convenience, let’s call it the Daily Mail – and despise everyone who writes for it, and believe it to be a foul, putrid repository of deceitful, degenerate trash, you’ll probably think, “Hmm, I’d better not open that paper and read it, because I know it will enrage me, and probably ruin my day.” So, you’ll leave it alone. Unless you have absolutely nothing else to read, listen to, or look at – and what kind of fool gets on a train these days without a colossal archive of digital entertainment to hand, or a vast library of reading material, or even – if the kind of fool you are is an old fool – an actual printed newspaper, book or magazine of your own choice?
Or perhaps you have a colleague at work, who holds bizarre beliefs – that the earth is flat, for example, or that people should vote Conservative – and you’ve established to your satisfaction that there’s very little chance you’ll get along together. You’d probably find a way to give that person a wide berth. They’re unlikely to be in your social circle, and you wouldn’t seek out their company, or solicit their offensive opinions. You almost certainly wouldn’t challenge them to a loud public argument in the cafeteria, or follow them home and yell insults through their letterbox, or trail them to a location where they meet up with their like-minded and equally misguided friends, and gatecrash the gathering in order to explain how deluded they all are.
And yet that’s what we do online. Why? Because it’s easy. We can do it with a couple of clicks and no immediate consequences. To accuse us of living in an online bubble is to overlook the fact that in real life we exist in bubbles that isolate us – and keep us in our lanes – far more effectively than our online bubbles, which are at perpetual risk of puncture every time we follow a link or check out a Like, and end up keyboard-to-keyboard with people we’d normally avoid like the plague. You might say it does us good to be confronted by these repulsive strangers and their dreadful lives, but that would only be true if we’d learned how to deal maturely with the tsunami of connections that threatens to engulf us when we stray beyond our circle of online friends and followers. In other words, when we grow up a bit, and learn how to behave like adults on the Internet. In your dreams.
Meanwhile, back at the office, here comes that work colleague who’s such a nightmare. Oh no, you might even have to talk to them. But wait. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to discuss the things you already know you don’t agree about. Realistically, why would you do that? Okay, so maybe you have to spend some time with this dickhead (which is what the dickhead is thinking about you) but there must be something you can talk about. The weather, sports, love, loss, birth, marriage, family, death, whatever. If you’ve got nothing else in common, at least you can both agree on what a terrible person your boss is.
My point is that when we’re online, we’re too connected for our own good. In the real world, we can usually sidestep the majority of hostile confrontations. It takes a bit of judicious cowardice, and a certain amount of lying and self-deception, but it can be done. And if it can’t, and we find ourselves unavoidably thrust together with people we disagree with, we can always try to focus on some aspect of our common humanity. But nobody is human on the Internet. That’s the problem.
Which is why my advice for a happy online existence is STAY IN YOUR BUBBLE.