Writing for the Comment section of a student newspaper can be a very self-satisfying brainstorming exercise: you write down whatever comes to mind, and immediately see it printed, in black and white, on a digital sheet, to then be quickly published on their website. The free flow of opinions from all sides and corners is, of course, galvanising, but also produces a numbing effect that can be difficult to avoid. Nowadays it is so easy to share our opinions on any number of platforms that we never question whether or not anyone actually cares about them. Be it a strong stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, an outraged condemnation of Trevelyan Rugby Club’s latest social, or an evaluation of Prince Harry’s marriage proposal, the ease with which our generation can share their opinion, whether in a Comment article or a Facebook post, with a more-or-less imaginary, virtual audience is unprecedented in human history.
One obvious negative consequence of this easy transposition of what would once have been harmless pub chatter into written, public communication is the proliferation of offensive comments, hate speech, and widespread bullying. But that is not the topic of this article. This article is about what consequences this extreme uninhibitedness in the expression of our views might have on the quality of our opinions.
Social media provides a strong incentive to share what we think with our network of friends, colleagues, or people we want to impress, but it does so at the price of simplifying the means by which we communicate. It is true, as recent history has taught us, that these platforms can be used very effectively for the grass-roots organisation of protests and riots; or to share videos of kittens, for that matter. Yet, is social media as effective a means when it comes to debating complex issues like, say, the Brexit vote, or the issue of sexual harassment on university campuses? It would not seem so. For a message to go viral on social media it needs to be simple, visual and, in many cases, shallow. Complexity is being compromised in order to attain ‘likes’, and excessively simplifying a message can jeopardise its actual meaning. Oversimplification often has a mystifying effect.
Furthermore, social media channels are not neutral platforms for genuine opinions: they produce stimuli and incentives to share content on them, encouraging only certain kinds of content and in certain ways. We are constantly bombarded with other people’s thoughts, to such an extent that this bombardment doesn’t make any difference to us. It’s like watching advertisements on television: they exist in the background, but there are so many of them that we stopped listening a long time ago and just got used to the noise.
To go viral, a message has to be simple, visual, and often shallow
Moreover, since data research has shown that social media users are more likely to share content they agree with (what a surprise!), the algorithms that determine what ends up in our feeds are constructed in a way that ensures that our digital personas are cushioned by the formation of bubbles of opinions we favour. This makes it even more likely that we will express our views in the most direct and narcissistic way: it is unlikely that anybody will disagree with us, and even less likely that we will be asked to defend our views against criticism. In a way, we often just publish our thoughts because we like to see them published – not because we actually have anything to say.
Does that not make us a generation of narcissists? After all, narcissism is the tendency to take pleasure in one’s own traits, or thoughts, or opinions. We are being constantly hyped up by platforms that show us pictures of ourselves, and that give all of our thoughts some sort of public value that they would not have if they had just been shared with a bunch of friends at the pub.
However, there is a way out of this externally-induced narcissism. An obvious place to start is to read a lot, and to read a lot of different opinions. Buy newspapers, read websites saturated with ideas and opinions different to your own: that is the best way of getting out of our social media bubble. Alongside that, we should take up the habit of asking ourselves a very simple question before publishing any article or post or thought on any platform: do I have something to say that someone will be interested in? If the answer is not a clear ‘yes’, we should consider whether to post or publish anything at all. Lastly, we need to re-learn to do what we are slowly forgetting: how to listen to others, and engage in actual discussions. On the internet, discussions tend to resemble a clash between conflicting monologues, where everyone sings his or her own song without listening to that of their interlocutor.
The abolition of any hesitancy in expressing one’s opinion to a relatively large public could make our generation the most open-minded, engaged, and active generation ever. Yet it could also turn many of us into a mob of self-obsessed bullies that record shallow opinions for the sake of seeing them on a screen, whilst being unable to listen to others with different views. Technology, including social media, is a tool, and it can be very powerful. How we use this tool depends on our own critical understanding of it, and, ultimately, our own will. It’s up to us to make the best of it – and we are not doing a great job so far.
Photograph: GotCredit via Flickr and Creative Commons