A couple of months ago, I finally succumbed to the lure of mass social media, and opened a Twitter account, having used WhatsApp with friends and family for the past couple of years. I was beginning to feel like Turner’s Temeraire, in that my requests to others to tweet or Facebook a message or particularly worthy appeal were reminiscent of the stately old sailing ship being towed into oblivion by the new power of steam, as the sun sets in the background.
And so, I am now learning to surf the waves of information that crash into my Twitter feed. I have to confess that I am never completely sure who might eventually receive my messages, but I am beginning to gather that is one of the main purposes of the tweet; to fly out into the world like the little bird on the logo. In contemplating this point however, I am beginning to realise that I have not so much turned into the equivalent of a steam ship as the Temeraire with a bolted-on steam engine upgrade, just as I previously did in the days of the Nokia 3310 when I enthusiastically learned to ‘txt’. Or at least I thought I had until one of my then teenage children presented me with a ‘periodic table of texting’ for future reference (lol).
A decade and a half later, to effectively communicate on Twitter, I have had to consider how to communicate my thoughts effectively in 140 characters or less whilst maintaining coherence; this in turn led me to engage more deeply with the language of the emoticon and the visual attachment. I then began to contemplate the appropriateness of various pictorial attachments to the little bird which flies across the Twittersphere and from this perspective, I am not sure if it is the social mores of the earlier time in which I spawned that make me over-cautious, or whether, as the social anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed, it is simply unnatural for human beings in general to share so much with strangers.
As such, I was interested to read Charlotte Philby’s blog in The Guardian, in which she proposes that she is ‘giving up sharenting‘. By this, she means not uploading pictures of her child to social media ‘looking like a demented car-thief on World Book Day, or… dressed as a hamster‘. This seems to me to be an excellent example that demonstrates both the benefits and detriments of social media. On the one hand, as a parent of a previous generation, I would have loved to have constant access to a smartphone camera to snap those wonderful, fleeting moments of childhood, and thence to instantly share them with family and close friends, especially those far away; this type of ‘sharenting’ would seem to be an extension of a very natural human process. However the issue arising is that, for a creature which evolved in a village society, this would most comfortably be confined to a small intimate circle, rather than launched across a mass social media interface.
Perhaps then, in the world of social media, ‘sail’ may yet have some lessons to give to ‘steam’. Is it possible that habitual over-sharing is one of the major factors that makes social media such an unpleasant place at times, blurring what is appropriate to say in private with what is said in public? In what other form of mass communication would it be commonplace to publicly bandy around a personal discriminatory term such as ‘ginger‘, as was the case in the tirade against Ed Sheeran following his Glastonbury performance? Why does the current President of the United States spend hours each day sending angry tweets, some containing very personal insults? Why do some male users of Twitter think it appropriate to send Professor Mary Beard ‘a torrent of aggressive insults‘ which do not only comment on her academic views but her ‘age, shape and gender‘? Could a general underlying factor be that the ways in which human beings evolved to communicate are simply not compatible with an interface at which one sits alone creating messages that can be instantly accessed by billions?
US Senator John McCain recently proposed that we should ‘stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths’ on the Internet. Whilst I largely agree with the sentiment expressed, I don’t think that the ultimate solution is simply to stop listening to one another online. Instead, I would suggest that we engage with the major challenge facing ‘socially mediated’ humankind: to harness the technology that we have created for more positive purposes. As the late Bill Hill wisely pointed out, the most important operating system developers write software for is for Homo sapiens 1.0, which certainly evolved to be highly sociable and collaborative- but within a village environment. Perhaps those who created the current social networking platforms could use some of the fabulous wealth generated to work with anthropologists to explore the creation of more human-friendly social networking environments.
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