Being together online. Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? The article in The Age about Facebook groups “Social discord” reminded me of why I cancelled my Facebook membership a few years ago. I recognise that Facebook is useful to keep in touch with people with whom, for whatever reason, it’s difficult to stay in contact. This capability can be a big deal for those who grew up or worked in other countries. But, just as one can be lonely in a physical crowd, there’s the well known paradox that even those with many social media “friends” can feel isolated and vulnerable.
Trolling and aggressive behaviour in general on social media, which was the main focus of the article, is obviously a very real phenomenon. I remember seeing a British TV show which tracked down a serial troll to the small village in Britain where she lived. When confronted by the TV presenter with her trolling behaviour, her reply was “I’m entitled to do that”. Jon Ronson’s book So you’ve been publicly shamed, is a fascinating-but-horrifying series of accounts from people to whom this happened. (The link points to the WorldCat record for this title.) Many of those he spoke to felt as if it had changed their lives forever, and for the worse. Anyone who has been verbally abused or ridiculed knows that words can hurt. Having large numbers of strangers do this must indeed be difficult to deal with. The messages are all to do with the recipient — You’re such a terrible person! You’re being too sensitive! You’re letting it get to you! It is always easier to blame the victim than, as the accuser, to look at one’s own motives or values. It is a pity that people who do these things do not have a degree of empathy that matches their verbal skills.
So why do people bother with social media, if it can be such a traumatic experience? My recent experience with Zoom has given me some idea about this. For those who crave interaction — and I think most of us are social animals — half a loaf is better than none. Seeing a face on the screen, and hearing the person’s voice, is a much more powerful substitute for the real thing than one might think. Zoom and the other videoconferencing platforms have staked out some territory, not just for social contact, but as a business tool as well. Many people will continue to use these platforms after social isolation comes to an end. (Obviously the companies involved are encouraging wide use of the free version in the hope that, later on, some brand preference transfers to the business version.)
The power of an image on a screen, and a voice on a speaker or headphones, is surprising. Rationally we know we are not interacting with a person, but if feels as if we are. I was interested to read an article about Zoom etiquette in this morning’s Age. People do not want not to create the wrong impression, or be inadvertently rude, in how they behave during a Zoom call. (When trying to find this article, I discovered quite a few others in similar vein — even an Emily Post parody article. Obviously people are trying to figure this new thing out.)
Incidentally, videoconferencing software comes with a bit of platform apartheid, as well. A friend suggested that he and I use Facetime. When I did a brief search on this, I found it was a software package unique to the Apple environment. There is a number of equivalents such as Google Hangouts or Duo which have been developed for Android, as well as old faithfuls like Skype. Whichever package becomes the de facto standard, it will likely be a cross-platform one.