Social media is an amazing thing. Over the past few years, it has helped me empathise with others, shown me other sides of topics, and even introduced me to new friends. It’s a very comfortable way of communicating: no awkward pauses, no maintaining the eye-contact-to-looking-away ratio, and a simple way of finding people. Sending someone a message has never been easier. But actually conveying what you mean is harder. For all the emojis and gifs and other doodads, social media is a surprisingly antisocial phenomenon.
For example, a few weeks ago I was added to our youth group’s Whatsapp chat. I liked it: it made me feel part of the group and allowed me to follow what was going on. There were some downsides to all of this, however. There was quite a lot of competition, as there is in any group of teenagers. However, an online chat is the perfect place to show your best self to the world: you have more time to come up with smart things to say, and when you say them, you are guaranteed not to have an unexpected coughing fit. Yes, that is something that happens to me. People soon started one-upping each other. Miscommunications didn’t help much: people forgot to put in the necessary emojis to show whether they were joking or not. After a while, people starting “not understanding” things on purpose; the ones who were kind enough to explain what was going on were the ones who ended up embarrassed. And all this was in a group where everybody knew one another and nobody was actively trying to be mean or overbearing.
This is even harder on platforms where strangers can interact with each other. Often, there’s no way of knowing whether somebody means what they said in an offensive way or not. You can’t see their face and you don’t know their personality. All you have to go on is their message and your interpretation of it. One mistake people often make is assuming the worst. Once someone does that, drama is unavoidable. And when there’s drama, there are a lot of feelings. In real life, you can’t hold passionate monologues to vent said feelings. On the internet, if you want to write 5 pages about why the other is wrong, nobody’s stopping you. This kind of thing costs a lot of time, and isn’t particularly useful to anybody.
The most annoying thing, though, is when people are purposefully being rude. One fine example of this is the forum at scholieren.com, a Dutch website for students. When I first found the forum 5 years ago, I soon found out there were several people on there that were “old bees”: they had been there a long time and if you went against them, you wouldn’t survive long on the platform. A few weeks ago, I went back to check out how things are now. These same old bees are still there. This means they are at least 5 years too old to be on the platform, although I suspect one of them of being a middle-aged man. They spend so much time on there that every single thread has a post by them, and the posts aren’t very nice. Even a very simple and innocent query gets a disproportionate amount of hate and negativity. The moderators? Well, they aren’t exactly model citizens, either. The forum, which was intended to be a place where students can learn and communicate, is now an arena.
I’m not trying to discredit all social media platforms. Like I said, social media has done a lot of good things for me! But when you look at it, social media really isn’t that great of a communications tool. It’s an easy way to send short messages over long distances, but it doesn’t go much further than that. Having deep conversations is very hard due to the nature of the platforms: short messages are appreciated most, and disagreements take a lot more time to discuss when you have to write everything down. The mask of anonymity makes it very easy for bullies and losers to turn a good website sour, and even those who don’t want to be rude can help create a negative environment. If you really want to create good relationships with people, actually going out to talk to them still is the best way.