It’s l8tr than u think: living with social media

Just the title above might drop a quiet hint about literacy in its old-fashioned sense. That ‘8’ – phonetically speaking – already contains the ‘t’. Sure, he typed casually, part of the joy of language is the way it evolves in such playful ways, but you’d think someone wanting to squeeze as much as possible into 140 characters would be a bit more watchful.  These are, of course, the words of an old fogey, even if the fogey in question has stopped phubbing his m8s long enough to tap out a blog. But it’s another kind of literacy I’m really thinking about, and one I’m going to point out by misquoting Shakespeare:

Tweet mercy is nobility’s true badge.”

The latest outcries about social media – certainly not the first, and undoubtedly not the last – are about threats of violence to women in the wake of Jane Austen being selected to appear on £10 notes (it would be interesting to poll those posting the threats to ask them if they can name the people appearing on the tenners currently in their pockets, as I suspect Jane Austen may not be their true grievance with the world) and cyber-bullying. In the wake of the most recent revelations of what can only be called despicable – and as Tech Radar reminds us – illegal behaviour, there is inevitably a sense that Something Must Be Done.

As with most of the moral discomfort that can arise from the uses some of us make of the Internet, that ‘something’ is often seen as being either technological (fighting fire with fire, perhaps) or legal. Twitter has responded by making the reporting of abuse technically easier and pledging to increase the (human) resources available to assist the abused, although it possibly faces a lose-lose scenario. On the one hand, setting up a Twitter account is easy: the blocked and banned can be back online in minutes, and offending and abusing away from a position of superficial anonymity. Yet, as Evgeny Morosov pointed out, this anonymity can evaporate quickly in some regimes: who you offend can determine the offline ramifications as much, if not more so, than who is doing the offending. The sheer volume of users and traffic also renders most technological responses to bad behaviour ineffective: while the Prime Minister has today spoken about the need for social media sites to take responsibility for their content, their desire to do so may be fatally undermined by economics.

The newness of social media is much commented on, but I’m not convinced that this is the only reason that its arrival has caused so many upsets. It also plays on – or rather, plays up – a number of tensions:

  • A desire for fame or a public audience without any attendant scrutiny – some of us, it seems, crave exposure without considering what ‘exposure’ might entail, or hope that social media will somehow garner us attention on our own terms
  • The sense of connection that social media can bring versus the distancing effect of communicating remotely: offline, the adjective you would reach for to describe someone with several hundred friends and a willingness to insult anyone might not be ‘popular’
  • An unwillingness to accept ‘censorship’ versus a mad dash to public outrage when someone else declines it.

Somehow, given the millions of us who have set up social media presences, expecting us to now respond to calls for a boycott feels naïve. It seems to expect us to act in our own best judgement while the existence of the ‘problem’ simultaneously suggests that doing so isn’t among our species’ greatest strengths. Part of this contradiction, I suspect, springs from a lingering way of seeing social media in particular and the Internet in general as something that is happening ‘over there’ in some mythical space. As Mic Wright wrote recently in The Telegraph:

I keep saying that we have to ditch IRL – “in real life” – as a distinction, because the internet is real life.”

(I baulked, however, at Mr Wright’s later blog that asserted that “Journalists, writers and actors who have amassed an audience of hundreds of thousands deny the power of their words while simultaneously profiting from them” while seeking to mock Piers Morgan for his stance of deflating the power of Internet trolls by mocking them. Mr Morgan may be many things, but his high-visibility presumably also gives him rather more direct experience of being mocked as well as mocking. And his behaviour does provide a valuable lesson: failing to respond to bullies as they would wish deprives them of much of their power.)

Maybe our naiveté with these new channels will pass in time, although part of it may be almost inbuilt. Channels that make communication not just easy but so quick as to allow us to obliterate ‘thinking time’ may encourage us to make faux pas that something as slow and deliberative as a pen and paper might not. And when the people we’re addressing are reduced to avatars or thumbnails, or are completely invisible, maybe our sense of responsibility for our words is reduced too. There is also the truism that applies to almost any technology: once they are unleashed, how they will be used is hard for their inventors to fathom or predict. Dom Sagolla has written about the early days of Twitter, in which he was directly involved, and the post contains both prophetic words (“oh this is going to be addictive”) and some sentences that probably raise hollow laughter in the light of the most recent Twitter-related news items:

We launched Twttr Beta on @Ev’s birthday. We could now invite a slightly larger circle of friends, but still excluding any large companies (with a few trusted exceptions within places like Google). I’ll never forget the family-friendly feeling of that day. We all knew that we were going to change the world with this thing that no one else understood.”

So, how do I feel about social media? The best analogy for me is to the spectacle of foxhunting. I’m aware of the well-known Oscar Wilde quote about “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable”, but I’m also aware of the more nuanced response to that quote offered by the blog of The Hunting Office (and well worth a read it is too). But the comment I’m really thinking of was made by a friend in a pub garden in Surrey about thirty years ago, when hunt saboteurs were briefly having one of their periodic moments in the media’s moving spotlight. We should resist any attempts to ban foxhunting, he said, because it was a valuable reminder of human nature and some of the things it can lead us to do.

In the world of work, debate continues – as it no doubt will for years to come – about which business function ‘owns’ social media. Businesses issue policies, recruitment specialists scour online presences and people lose jobs for a moment’s thoughtlessness. Watchfulness is one method, certainly, although it sits uncomfortably with calls for emotional engagement and for ‘bringing more of ourselves to work’. Nor is it perhaps the only way of instilling better behaviour. Consider the following passage from Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days, a semi-autobiographical novel set in the closing days of Ceausescu’s Romania, about the narrator’s first direct experience of being ‘watched’:

Last night’s struck match had not been mere clumsiness on the part of the man outside. He had been showing me that the darkness was full, but there was no need to watch me all the time. After this, I would be watching myself. That was how it worked: you ended up doing the job for them. Making a second cup of coffee, I became conscious of every movement; starting to sing in the kitchen, I stopped; in the shower I closed the bathroom door, even reaching to bolt it shut. This is what surveillance does: we stop being ourselves, and start living alongside ourselves. Human nature cannot be changed, but it can be brought to a degree of self-consciousness that denatures it. So it was that the feeling of guilt and furtiveness that had suddenly grown inside me I now projected over the whole indifferent street.”

The implied comparison is, of course, odious, even if some organisations do literally digitally tag their employees and monitor their every movement. (It would be interesting, however, to hear their thoughts on how they hope to control their employees into loving them.)

In one way, we sometimes think about ‘business’ in the same slightly disconnected way as we think about the Internet. We use the phrases ‘outside of work’ and ‘business in the community’ lightly, but they do carry the suggestion that – like online activity – there is some mysterious disconnection in play the moment we walk through an office doorway. Yet social media are no more bound by the external perimeters of an organisation than they are by geographical borders – indeed, this ability to make borders porous is part of their appeal.

So, how to proceed? Euan Semple’s book title, Organizations don’t tweet, people do, suggests one possible approach: recognising – or perhaps, more accurately, remembering – that networks connect human beings. Indeed, that is arguably their real value to us. When we use social media, what we post has an impact on those that see it, as well as saying something about us. (And, of course, what it says about us may be a rather different message from the one that we have typed.) While the brevity and instantaneous nature of social media updates might tempt us otherwise, encouraging the concept of ‘think before you post’ might not be such a bad way forward.

Regulations and processes are there to tackle those that offend, although their action is necessarily retro-active. The social media genie has long since escaped from the technological bottle, and imposing processes that try to squeeze it back in are probably doomed to fail. ‘Punishing’ people (by strict bans and censorious regulations) for offenses they have not committed undermines trust, and may also dampen enthusiasm for forming the relationships with customers and suppliers that social media can – at their best – offer. Might organisational approaches and guidance on social media usefully take a leaf out of the leadership development handbook, and adopt the enhancement of self-awareness and consciousness of impact on others as a first step?

We might all be aware that we are people and not organisations, but it might not do us any harm to remember that the people we’re tweeting at, updating our statuses and at commenting on are people too. As far as these media go, maybe we need to update an old saying: “out of sight, still in mind”. If you wouldn’t say something face-to-face, how exactly is saying it online so different? Or have we somehow invented the fine art of talking to people behind their backs?

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