Social networks have made us more antisocial

When Facebook started some ten years ago, I acted like one of these old dinosaurs who always look at a new technology with a mixture of skepticism and haughtiness. My friends had my phone number, there was instant messaging to chat and if we wanted to exchange longer messages we could write an email. In those early days the concept of Facebook seemed to pretty much about staying in touch with/finding our old friends from school: but why would I want to have as “friends” and share events of my life with people I went to school with a long time ago and with whom I had not talked in years? If we had wanted to stay friends, we would have. After a year or two I put all my concerns aside and started to use Facebook, just like everyone else, I had moved to other towns and countries a couple of times already, so Facebook simply was the easiest way to stay in touch with my friends and family.

Then I thought I had a brilliant idea. Well, actually many other people must have come to this “brilliant” idea by that time to, because all established media outlets by now were using Facebook as an additional channel to reach their audiences. As a young person with some, legitimate and maybe not so legitimate and grossly exaggerated, intellectual ambitions, I realized I could use Facebook to create and cultivate my own personal audience and with some luck, to expand it and to use it as a platform for regular intellectual exchange. It was actually before smartphones became universally widespread, so if people wanted to log-in to their Facebook account, they had to use their computer, which I would have assumed meant that they would be able to quietly participate in a civilized discussion. I had never been an online fanatic, so I did not have a long experience of using forums or similar other platforms, where people with a common interest or purpose shared their knowledge and met in a virtual environment to discuss stuff, but I thought with some work and patience, I could make Facebook just a larger version of a forum with a wider audience and actively reach out to people.

Naturally I started to use my friends as a focus group initially. There were two problems. The first one was that while I was writing, I was exposing myself unnecessarily, disclosing things and aspects of my life that maybe I would have shared only with a very small number of people, even if my writing was not particularly personal. I just did not want everybody to know what I was thinking or feeling. Sometimes our social self is a happier and more superficial version of us – and that’s probably a good thing. Secondly, apparently the great majority of my friends did not want to use Facebook too seriously. If they wanted hard news and even engage in some intellectual debate, they would go somewhere else, preferably established media outlet. People did not expect from a friend to read five or six “heavy” posts a day. On the contrary, somebody (ab)using Facebook in this way would probably be put in the category of these bores and losers who don’t have funny stuff to share. In general, a beautiful pictures is likely to get ten times more “likes” than an incredibly writing text. Which is ok, I guess. And understandably many, like I have said before, even those open to intelligent discussions, simply did not want to expose themselves too much. Regularly I would hear: “Facebook is not the right place to have this (serious) talk” and similar. My project to form some sort of intellectual circle online was beginning to look built on rather shaky foundations.

But the biggest problem was another. I thought that social networks could be just a larger version of the forums, where people exchanged ideas, tried to persuade each other with logical arguments, where people would be receptive and eager to educate themselves and learn new things. The opposite seemed to be the case: people would apparently go online with preconceived ideas and insult everyone that did not agree with them, in fact people seemed to be pretty quick to jump to calling somebody an idiot, something probably they would never not have done in a real life situation, even more so in front of other people in a social context. People just did not seem to be interested in having a polite and civilized conversation.Even when more articulated users were able to engage in a more or less normal verbal exchange, there seemed to be an angrier undertone. There are several scientific studies that apparently confirm this experience. One simple reason is that everybody is angry, or at least, everybody has an aggressive side. And especially the meekest of the meek, those who in everyday life tend to suppress any form of aggression, often become in the online world the most caustic, because behind the protection of a screen, one feels more comfortable with directing one’s anger towards a stranger who happens to disagree with us. The most basic rules of civilized coexistence seem to disappear once the encounter is limited only to the online dimension. Most of us would just self-censor this sort of “fuming” and keep it for ourselves if we did not have this online space: the online world gave anger and frustration an outlet valve. But being angry online just makes us angrier, venting anger is not a relief.

It is surprisingly easy to provoke and become the victim of a shitstorm online, and these emotions inevitably affect our mental state too. The fact that an offense comes from an unknown person online does not make it less offensive. I have seen some friendships ruined and some good work colleague relationships go sour over a stupid comment online. Irony, in particular, seems to be a very dangerous thing online, because as it often happens with written communication, people miss it. I thought using Facebook would help the purposes of an open discussion. But it seemed to attract most angry people. So I did the wisest thing I could possible come up with. I would continue to read eagerly the comment section, but I would definitely stay out of this very unnecessary, petty fight.

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