Monday, 1 February 2016

The Stygian Underworld of Social Media

I joined Facebook by accident in July 2013. I don't know how it happened. Well I do, like everything else I was fiddling with something I knew nothing about. I was looking for a livery yard and the details were on Facebook. I noticed my friends name on the page and I couldn't resist clicking on it. I immediately got a text off her asking if it was really me. In panic mode I said yes, how the hell do I get off here, but she wouldn't tell me, she told me I had to stay because she lived on Facebook. And so my trip to the stygian world of social media began...

I ended up on Twitter next. Again I don't know why I was compelled to give it a go. Apparently my account was created in May 2012, I have no idea how, but it wasn't activated until two years later! I say activated, but my actual first tweet was a month after that! It was a video of two horses playing football (World Cup Soccer - Horses vs Humans!), I tweeted it to @Roger_The _Horse. I don't know why. I had no followers, I didn't know what I was doing or why and I just seemed to be following a few actors on the TV show The Musketeers. (Again I have no idea why, I'd never been that interested in a TV show before, I was just being nosey.) All of a sudden I had one follower, someone I didn't know. It was scary, but also kind of nice that someone wanted to interact with me. It took a long, long time though for me to start Tweeting with more regularity. I like to think that I trust people, however, if I'm honest, I don't really trust anyone until I have met them in person, so I limited myself to Tweeting very bland posts.


Within the first page he has substantiated my disillusionment with the world and that you can't trust people.

I have just finished reading Jon Ronson's book "So You've Been Publicly Shamed". Within the first page he has substantiated my disillusionment with the world and that you can't trust people. He noticed there was someone on Twitter called @jon_ronson, who had several followers. It wasn't him! Well he knew it wasn't him, but his followers didn't and they lapped up every word he said! He found out students had created a spambot, or infomorph as they called it. Only a couple of days ago the actress Tuppence Middleton posted a Tweet stating that the Instagram account in her name was not her account. She doesn't even have an Instagram account! But the general public don't know this until they are told; they blindly follow someone's photograph and more importantly interact with the person, often thinking they are interacting with their idol. Is this such a bad thing? Well yes it is. You make assumptions about a person based on their comments, you may end up with a completely incorrect view about someone, and this someone does not have to be famous. At the end of the day, you really have no idea who you are communicating with. Who are you putting your trust in?

This is one aspect of the darker side of social media. Until you meet someone you don't know who you are dealing with, and this is where the whole question of trust comes into play. On Facebook, a few friends came out of the woodwork and asked to be my friend. I said yes because I knew these people, I interacted with them regularly so I knew who they were and that they were genuine. Twitter however, was a whole different board game. I started liking people's posts, therefore I started getting followers. Initially it was people who enjoyed The Musketeers, then people who liked animals (because I often "like" animal posts.) Then I started getting requests from what I considered to be the freakier side of society. I quickly found the "block" button! No interaction with these deviants, just block and move on!

But this brings to light another issue with Twitter, and that is the issue that Jon Ronson discusses in his book, that of the power of Twitter. You can make a seemingly innocuous comment, and there will be someone out there ready to pounce. I was chatting to a friend on Twitter a long time ago. We were only talking about shopping, and this stranger from no-where butted into our conversation calling us priviledged bitches. "Block." Now this person did not know me, How dare he make an assumption about me and my background. What did he hope to achieve?  I imagine he wanted a public argument with me. He failed. But what gave him the right to try to publicly humiliate me? Why did he feel he need to try to demonise my personality? I am not a weak person, I can hold my own when required to do so. But this wasn't an important argument, and I didn't know the individual concerned. It wasn't worth my time so I just got rid of him without fuss."Block." I've done this a number of times and I will continue to do so, but if you read Jon Ronson's book, you will see that from a moment of madness, a seemingly daft tweet can cost you more than a little mild irritation.

A moment of madness?

One of the case studies for his book was that of Justine Sacco. She was just a regular person who in a moment of madness sent a jokey tweet that backfired badly. She had Tweeted about going to Africa, and that she'd be OK because she was white, so she wouldn't get AIDs. Now that isn't the cleverest thing to write, and I am not condoning her actions, but what followed next was alarming to say the least. She got on her plane, switched off her 'phone, and when she landed and switched her 'phone back on, all hell had broken loose. She was fired from her job, she received death threats and she had to cut her holiday short for her own safety. People had taken to Twitter in a mass mob riot style calling for her head! As it continued and hysteria grew, people began to revel in her misery. People were making assumptions about her character, that she was racist, and people were intent on bringing about her destruction. Since when did society take such jubilation in the destruction of a person. It is like going to the dark ages when people looked forward to going to watch a public hanging as a form of entertainment. It didn't matter if the poor bugger was guilty or not, just so long as you got a good viewpoint of the noose going around the neck and that trapdoor opening. And we like to think that today we are a more civilised society!

People make comments blindly on Twitter, "it's just a bit of fun", "we're only having a laugh," and no-one seems to care what the long term impact of these comments might make on a person. It seems in some people's minds if the person they are talking about is in the public eye, then they are even more "fair game" for ridicule and hurtful commentary. All this from what one person perceives to be "a bit of fun." It does make me wonder whether people have an ulterior motive for their posts. This harmless fun can have some serious consequences though; and it's not just what is said on Twitter or other forms of social media. A really worrying story that Jon Ronson highlighted was a couple of guys at a conference. They were whispering nerdy computer jokes to each other, however, unbeknownst to them, a lady in front of them had overheard the joke. Not only was the joke a form of flattery in a computer tech way, it was also a form of sexual innuendo! The lady responded by taking a photograph of the men and Tweeting it. Now a better way of handling the matter would have been to say to them that she had heard their comments and found them offensive. They may have told her to bugger off, but she would have relayed her feelings to them and the matter be over. By Tweeting her comments rather than giving these men a right to reply, she instead publicly humiliated them. They lost their jobs. She did not know their circumstances when she decided to send a public Tweet, and at a later date she said she knew perfectly well what she was doing. What she probably did not foresee was that whilst this man did not retaliate, he did make a public apology and stated that he had lost his job because of the Tweet. She was not happy about this and asked for this part of his public statement to be removed, thereafter he started to get some support, to which he did not reply to, but events spiraled out of hand. She started to get trolled, threats of torture, kidnapping, rape and murder were sent to her, all of this was followed up by a virus placed in her employers website. She got sacked! An eye for an eye you might say; but this shows how quickly matters can get out of hand. She thought she lost her job because of him, but you could argue, if she hadn't sent that first Tweet, they would both still have a job!

So is there a good side to social media?

This all sounds like scary stuff and you may think I'm saying we should all leave social media behind us, but that is not true. I don't know what I was looking for when I started on social media. Was I looking for anything? I had a dabble in a world I did not know or understand, but I had had fun on the way and I really wanted that to continue. I said at the beginning I had trust issues; I didn't like the fact I didn't know who I was talking to. Well I broke the golden rule of social media. I contacted some of the strangers and visited them. I'm so glad I felt the fear and did it anyway...I've made some amazing friends and encountered some wonderful experiences because of it!

December 2014, I'd been active on Twitter for about 6 months. A group of Musketeer fans who appreciated the work of Tom Burke were organising a trip to London to a charity event because he'd be there. I thought about whether I should go. I didn't know anyone, it would cost a lot of money and in my mind I had to question if a charity event was the best place for screaming fans to meet their idol? Fortunately I was spared making an actual decision. My organisation had decided they were making everyone redundant, all hell had broken loose and I couldn't have the time off work. Phew! Well, until I saw Twitter! The ladies had all been very respectful, the evening had been very enjoyable, Tom had been wonderful and I was very jealous! I don't know why. I couldn't go, but I think I was actually cross that my perceived idea about a bunch of strangers had been so negative. Why had I thought they would be fan girls rather than well behaved individuals? You see, this is one of the problems with social media. You know what you are like, but that doesn't mean to say that everybody else does. You do have to be careful about how you say something, because we can't hear your intonation on a Tweet, we can't see the cheeky glint in your eye when you make that naughty comment. We, perhaps wrongly, think the worst of you because of what you have said, and when you become what is perceived to be aggressively defensive about your comments, we think even less of you. It becomes a losing battle, and it's fought in the public domain.

I signed up to a fan forum page, and a number of individuals I tweeted to were on it too. I noticed one post which suggested a gathering of people from a local area. I spoke to a few friends, was it a good idea to go? It'd be a four hour journey there, and another four hour journey back. I didn't know these people, I doubted they were axe wielding maniacs, but should I go? My friends actually thought it would be a good idea and so I went. I  had one of the best days of my life and met some fantastic people who I hope to be friends with for a very long time. My attitude to Tweeting suddenly changed, I would enter into conversations with these people because I knew them, I also felt I could be cheeky with them because they knew my style of humour...BUT...I was still careful that the Tweets were cheeky with the specific individual and not rude or disrespectful about other people. I'm still acutely aware that one wrong word can lead to jealousy or hatred from people, and that you're only one Tweet away from some troll trying to make your life a living hell.

Social media can sometimes be rather a strange name for an activity that can be something far less than social! Whilst I'm sure the majority of people on social media want just that, to be sociable, to make new friends, to have a light-hearted bit of banter with someone; to share interests, pieces of news, pictures and information we need to be mindful that the school playground exists out there! With all good things, there is a darkness lurking in those shadows. If you keep your head about you social media is a fun and entertaining place to be, but however hard you try, you need to remember one flippant remark can become your downfall. I know that this sounds like a really negative post, and it's not supposed to be, but I think after reading Jon Ronson's book, I realised that there are a lot of people out in cyber world full of vitriol, and the snowball effect can become a frightening thing. I have taken a back seat recently from Twitter. I've never been on the receiving end of negative posts, but I have witnessed other people I've known being bullied. Should I have stepped in, or was I right to just let the people involved handle themselves? I don't know the answer to that. What has stopped me from entering the arena? Well I guess it's because I don't like the size of the public arena that I find myself in. People seem to think that when they make a comment it is only their followers who will see it. They are so wrong. Anyone can find that post at anytime and make a judgement call on what to say to you. People think they are clever making "cryptic" messages up and posting them publicly. What they seem to be utterly unaware of is that anybody can pick them up on their posts and subject them to the humiliation of the internet whenever they feel like it.

So how did it work out for Jon Ronson?

Interestingly enough I saw Jon Ronson being interviewed yesterday on the channel 4 show Sunday Brunch. He said that after his book"So You've Been Publicly Shamed" had been launched, he found himself the subject of Twitter attacks; to the extent he had to leave Twitter for awhile. Whilst a lot of people had enjoyed the book a number of people were essentially up in arms and making their point known on Twitter. I guess by writing this post I've opened myself up to comment too. It's an interesting irony really, we are supposed to have freedom of speech, but in reality, we're gagged from entering the arena for the fear of public humiliation.

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