Umar Hague believes that social media has allowed a culture of abuse to flourish and it is driving people away. Abuse has turned social media into a wild west of unfiltered id, which has soured Facebook and is threatening to end Twitter.
Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central. It has significant chilling effects: given a tipping point, people will simply stop using a network, and walk away…and that appears to be what’s happening with Twitter. Abuse is just as central to tech that connects people as selling beef that isn’t contaminated with salmonella is to an industry that feeds people. For the simple fact is that no one wants to spend their life being shouted at by people they’ll never meet who are angry not at them but at the world for things they barely even said to people they barely even know. I think it’s so vital, I’ll say it again, more simply: build a platform rife with abuse, and then turn a blind eye to it, treat it as a non-issue, and you’re already on tomorrow’s list of has-beens…you just don’t know it yet.
What really happens on Twitter these days? People have self-sorted into cliques, little in-groups, tribes. The purpose of tribes is to defend their beliefs, their ways, their customs, their culture — their ways of seeing the world. The digital world is separated into “ists” — it doesn’t matter what, really, economists, mens-rightists, leftists, rightists — and those “ists” place their “ism” before and above all, because it is their organizing belief, the very faith that has brought them together in the first place. Hence, to them, it’s the totem to which everyone, including you, must pay homage, and if you dare notto bow down before it…or worse still to challenge it…well, then the faithful will do what they must to defend their gods. They will declare a crusade against you.
So, step one: you say something, usually idly, that some kind of “ists” don’t like, because it challenges their organizing beliefs. Step two: they notice. Step three: it’s on. Full on guerilla info-war. Rage-mobbing, shaming, if you’re a woman, probably violent threats and more. But note. In all these endless squabbles, this perpetual outrage, this non-stop-cabaret of electronic violence…we are not fighting over anything that means anything much in the first place. Is it any wonder, then, that people are checking out of this childish game?
And it not just in the social media. Hague says we’ve created a culture of abuse in real life, as well.
We have created an abusive society. We have normalized, regularized, and routinized abuse. We are abused at work, by the very rules, norms, and expectations of our jobs, at which we are merely “human resources”, to be utilized, allocated, depleted. We are abused at play, by industries that seek to prey on our innocence and literally “target” our human weaknessses. And now we are abused at arm’s length, through the lightwaves, by people we will never meet, for things we have barely even said. We live in a society where school shootings are the rule, not the exception, where more people will have taken antidepressants than not…and now one where nearly everyone will have been abused on the web…for a random, off-hand, throwaway comment, an idle thought, something trivial, unremarkable, meaningless.
What can we do?
Can we create a better web? Sure. But I think we have to start with humility, gratitude, reality — not arrogance, privilege, blindness. Abuse isn’t a nuisance, a triviality, a minor annoyance that “those people” have to put up with for the great privilege of having our world-changing stuff in their grubby hands. It will chill, stop, and kill networks from growing, communities from blossoming, and lives from flourishing. If your purpose is social interaction, abuse is as central to it as bacterial infection is to selling meat. Get it wrong, and you might just end up like Twitter in 2015. Not a beautiful town square, but a raging mosh pit. Good luck selling tickets to that.
Last January, Archbishop Justin Welby talked about the power of the internet to both uplift and connect as well as hurt and degrade. He said the impact had been brought home to him in a letter from one churchgoer who detailed the trauma they felt after being caught up in a particularly frenzied dispute in the church.
“The trouble is that subtleties, tone and access all get muddled up,” he wrote.
“That’s not a new comment – it’s been said many times – but every now and then things happen which make it even clearer.
“The subtleties we lose when we communicate electronically have to do with expression, with touch, with the face-to-face aspect of relationship.
“Social media does not show tears in the eye, a hand on the arm when saying something painful, body language that speaks of inner turmoil, deep distress – even gentle respect.
“It is simply there – usually forever.”
He said the process of committing a thought born in the heat of the moment to print, including online form, made it “permanent” and harder to heal.
“Electronic media breaks through locked doors, and pierces people painfully,” he added.
“It is not for all of us to set everyone right on everything.
“There’s a point at which we need to leave it to those who know people to speak to them personally and quietly – in spaces where the tone is subtle and full of love.
“That is how people can be put back together rather than torn apart and left lying around in electronic media space.”
He contrasted the intensity of Twitter-storms with a passage in the Bible urging people to settle disputes subtly and gently.
“Love often says don’t tweet,” he said.
“Love often says don’t write.
“Love often says if you must rebuke, then do so in person and with touch – with an arm around the shoulder and tears in your eyes that can be seen by the person being rebuked.”