or how we dreamed up new ways to hate each other online
I keep hearing it and I keep reading it. Social media is wonderful because it enables people to connect, communicate, and collaborate. This is undoubtedly true, but it’s not the full story.
We all want to belong to a larger community. The human animal has a deep seated need for connection and acceptance within groups. This is often mentioned as a key driver in our motivation to use social media as a tool of connection.
And yet there is a corollary to this which is not talked about as often, at least it isn’t unless the conversation is attached to scare-mongering headlines like ‘Your teen is ruining their future in an online chat-room – for the love of Jesus stop them being teenagers before it’s too late!’
Harm on the internet is not restricted to the ways teens use it. That view is both patronising (teens are often the most sophisticated users of social media tools and are clever early adopted of new practices, languages and etiquette ) and overly simplistic. Harm on the internet is generated by exactly the same motivators that generate connection and collaboration – the innate human desire to belong.
Everyone wants to be the opposite of alone in the world. That drives tremendous positive behaviour on the internet. That’s why if you’re different and wonder if you’re alone you can reach out and find someone like you. If you’re not cis, if your not anything considered the general norm you can find others and build a community of acceptance.
And people don’t like it.
‘People’ are used to comfortably moving through their day without seeing anything that might challenge the way they naturally see the world, anything that shows them a reflection of life that is not part of their own everyday. They have built their own online networks and they don’t want ‘outsiders’ in the club. It makes them uncomfortable.
This is a root cause of ‘online backlash’ and its particular flavour has now spilled out into the offline world. An example is Gamergate. Ostensibly this was about ‘ethics in games journalism’ but the reality was a tireless campaign against women in the world of gaming. Previously, they were invisible, but thanks to the development of online gaming, YouTube review videos and games journalism, the voice of women gamers became stronger. People began to notice the artistic choices and direction taken by women game developers. New ways of thinking and attitudes about what is acceptable have a voice which presses in on the previously male dominated community. And they don’t like it.
This isn’t limited to white male frat boys who have never had to live through a real life challenge in their entire lives. All humans are susceptible regardless of where they stand on the political divide, their cultural background or social status in the real world. An example from the left is recent controversies surrounding TERF’s (Trans-Exclusionary Radical feminists) rejecting the rise of trans-women’s stories and refusing to engage positively on the issue. The story goes, Trans-women aren’t ‘real’ women as they don’t have the same formative experiences so they can’t be part of the feminist club. A typical exchange might go “I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries, so there!”
Both of these example show the utter bullshit that can be slung around by people on the cultural defensive. An it’s not all fun and games and Monty Python quotes. Some of it is out and out hate speech, gaslighting, doxing and threats of violence and rape.
People of all political stripes and cultural backgrounds don’t like looking in their community and seeing anything other than their own refection – because that might mean they don’t belong anymore, and who wants to feel like they don’t belong (or that they are no long ‘the norm’) in the group they’ve built a significant part of their identity around?
This is cultural bias in action. It. Is. Everywhere. And it has been throughout human history. It’s just more obvious now we have online lives. It’s like a giant game of exclusionary bullying tactics, the exact same kind that manifests in schools, but it’s grown adults doing it, over and over and over again. It’s a basic and largely unconscious human behaviour. It chants inside us ‘Be part of the group – at all costs’.
Social media feeds this human need. We create endless numbers of affinity groups to further hone and refine our identity. Sure, we build up, assist and connect with people but we do so with those who best reflect our own identities online. We create worlds where we belong. And we defend our place in them even if that defense costs someone else their place.
So, yes – Social media is a wonderful place where we can connect, collaborate and communicate. But we can also divide, alienate, deride and delude, either consciously or more likely, completely and obliviously unconsciously. When we are participating in online connection as a business, we might ask ‘who are we engaging with’? But do we ever ask ‘who are we unconsciously alienating’ as well?