Flame war is over. If you want it.
Recently, after a blissful four months offline, I returned to Facebook. I was summoned there by the news that someone was impersonating me, so I had to reactivate my account to prove, in an increasingly farcical series of messages to Facebook HQ, that I was in fact the real me.
While waiting for Facebook’s “Help Centre” team to respond, I had a look around, as though taking a Sunday drive through my home town. The first post that greeted me was a collection of screenshots that appeared to show a noted left-wing commentator cyberbullying the teenage daughter of a Greens senator, accompanied by a long thread of comments stoking the fires of various feuds. There were whining status updates about workplaces, parents-in-law and body corporates; photos of strangers taken with the express intention to belittle; masses of men leading lives of not-so-quiet desperation.
The overwhelming negativity of the newsfeed, coupled with Facebook’s initial reluctance to ban my impersonator, did little to assuage my growing suspicion that the 21st century’s great social media experiment is doomed to be remembered as a failure.
At the height of my social media use, I maintained accounts on every major network, as well as presences on countless messageboards and forums. It all began with Friendster, the cheerful social network that launched in 2002, a year before MySpace and two before Facebook. To those of us who’d long been kicking about the internet, making friends online, the idea of assembling a public collection of your friends was intoxicating: what better way to show your blogging mates and fellow messageboard commenters how much they meant to you. It even had a smiley face for a logo – what could possibly go wrong?
While Friendster linked your profile to other people’s in a “degrees of separation” manner we now see reflected in LinkedIn’s “connections” – to make friends, you had to find mutual connections – on Facebook and MySpace, you could just go for it. And rather than the simple act of connecting with people you already knew, Facebook and MySpace offered additional fun, attention-absorbing features. You could customise your MySpace profile to feature animated GIFs and music, and be “friends” with famous people. Facebook eventually swallowed Friendster.
Other social media networks have come and gone, and those founded in the best interests of humanity seem to have deflated the fastest.
In an essay titled “Eternal October and the End of Cyberspace”, internet historian Bradley Fidler writes that lofty notions of etiquette existed on the networks that made up cyberspace in the early 1990s, when it was accessible primarily to a small cohort working in colleges and universities and firms with government contracts. Then a September 1993 marketing push by America Online offered its customers access to one of these networks, Usenet, and, combined with the rapid growth of commercial internet access available to home users, gradually the exclusionary vision of “cyberspace” as somehow separate to the real world dissolved. “Without the oddly providential cyberlibertarian vision to give a reason for good behavior,” Fidler wrote, “cyberspace looked a lot more like the history of civilization than it did an unencumbered new chapter.”
Social media is part of the second wave of the internet’s development, referred to as web 2.0 – sites that combine user-generated content with ease of use and interoperability. Social media, with its emphasis on the creation and sharing of information between communities, is the monster, and web 2.0 its Dr Frankenstein. Whether you’re offering up short thoughts (Twitter), curated images (Tumblr), videos (YouTube) or a combination of all of the above (Facebook), the act of sharing is key. Friendster died because there was nothing to share but existing connections; other platforms that failed to forge strong connections among users have suffered similar fates.
The dark side of the “please like and share” era, though, is that social media’s intense focus on sharing opinion (“What’s on your mind?”, as Facebook’s status update panel puts it, egging you on) has led to users mistaking voicing their thoughts for bludgeoning others with their views – and nothing turns a smiley-face logo upside down faster than billions of users squawking about who’s right and who’s wrong.
Whether social media can exist without fuelling and facilitating our worst instincts is worth considering. It seems to be a constant that people using social media have a tendency to conduct themselves in the most antisocial of manners.
All those years spent plugged into various social networks mean I’ve witnessed harassment and infighting, callouts, abuse and shunnings, behaviour most users now wearily accept as par for the course online. The relative anonymity of social media – sometimes complete anonymity, as on platforms such as Twitter – adds to a culture in which anything can be said because it’s not being said face to face. I’m certain the anonymous commenter who accused me of murdering my own dog wouldn’t have said the same thing if we had met in a supermarket queue.
The aggression can be even more vicious within an online group, ostensibly founded on shared interests. In this environment, “Dogspotting”, a Facebook group dedicated to posting images of random dogs, devolved into a mini-fascist state that saw users attacked and banned for daring to post photos of their own dogs.
Indeed, spend enough time online and you may begin to wonder if there has ever been a Facebook group, Twitter list or subforum that hasn’t descended into irreparable chaos.
This apparent inability for life online to exist without discord brings to mind the work of Wilfred Bion in the ’50s and ’60s. The post-Kleinian psychoanalyst saw groups – whose members, he presciently noted, did not have to come together in the same room in order to be considered a group – as displaying behaviours characterised by reactions against psychotic anxieties. “The group is compelled, whenever the pressure of anxiety becomes too great, to take defensive action,” he wrote.
There’s also Jung’s hot take: “When a hundred clever heads join in a group, one big nincompoop is the result, because every individual is trammelled by the otherness of the others.”
While social media might have – at least in Friendster’s case – been set up in vaguely utopian fashion to connect us all, the alt-right and associated troll groups emerged as its dystopian end point. Inevitably, it has been successfully used for political ends. The spread of alt-right sentiment during the United States election can be credited in part to their harnessing of social media.
Emerging from forums attached to humour site Something Awful, the alt-right’s “satirical” racism and meme-driven bigotry took hold on image-sharing site 4chan’s /pol/ (“Politically Incorrect”) subforum. The stripped-back nature of 4chan – nothing but images and threads of comments – meant that the /pol/ discourse was boiled down to a sinister essence, eventually becoming real enough to influence the tone and content of actual white supremacist news sites.
As alt-right types were banned from Facebook, Twitter and the like, or had their networks shut down, they would appear again elsewhere at twice the volume, a little like the way killing a troll in Ron Howard’s film Willow gives birth to a flame-breathing two-headed dragon. Most recently they’ve been posing as marginalised young French citizens on social media sites, posting pro-National Front memes with the view to winning its ultra-nationalist leader Marine Le Pen a Trump-esque election result.
Implying via impersonation that young, gay people of colour would prefer a Le Pen administration is one thing, but there is plenty of questionable behaviour that occurs on social media beyond alt-right cynicism or manipulation. People of all persuasions seem capable of treating each other with contempt if they see the online realm as one freed from everyday niceties.
An investigation into Twitter’s chequered history of abuse and harassment in late 2016 by BuzzFeed reporter Charlie Warzel painted an alarming portrait of a start-up that seemed unable to admit its platform had become a hotbed of abuse over the course of its 10-year history.
Last month, Twitter announced a new feature to relegate abuse and place emphasis on what it deems “relevant conversations”. The platform is also “taking steps” to prevent known abusers from signing up again, such as alt-right mouthpiece Milo Yiannopoulos. But plenty of abusive users remain in his stead – arguably including the US president.
Facebook has routinely failed to stem a growing tide of sexism, racism and homophobia that is repeatedly declared to be in line with “community standards”. Those reporting such accounts and posts are often, in bitter irony, banned after being reported for harassment by the harassers themselves.
Community standards are, of course, not set by the wider community: they’re enforced by the social media giants concerned with data-mining and maintaining those storied “strong connections”. Photos of breastfeeding mothers (a Facebook HQ bugbear) might mean people are less likely to stay on the site, which in turn means fewer ads seen, and less revenue for Facebook. On the other hand, Facebook has a huge problem with violent videos – a high-profile case was the live-streamed kidnapping and torture of a disabled man in Chicago this January.
To police their standards, the companies employ people to monitor activity nonstop. Adrian Chen’s 2014 Wired magazine investigation into social media content moderation demonstrated that “companies like Facebook and Twitter rely on an army of workers employed to soak up the worst of humanity in order to protect the rest of us”. These front-line workers are the ones who decide if that car crash or suicide bombing video is newsworthy or just snuff material – spare a thought for them.
Despite their omnipresence on the social media landscape, the digital reaper may yet come for Facebook and Twitter. There was, after all, a time when we thought MySpace would last forever. But whether or not there can ever be a utopian social web, or even just a civil one, is a tough proposition, because that would require us to change, too. The behaviour social media fosters has always existed in the human spirit: town meetings organised with the best interests of all involved descend into hateful shouting matches; children are bullied in the schoolyard; someone always cries at a birthday party.
Perhaps the true horror is not the way we use social media to present ourselves to the world, but that in its dark heart of harassment, negativity and slothful complaints, it’s rather more like staring into a mirror.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Flame war is over. If you want it.". Subscribe here.