I’ve stopped all social media for a bit, except to post the odd pretty picture on Instagram’s slick but mercifully deserted Threads app. Here’s why…
The Covid and Brexit eras have seen an increase in a distinct pattern of online behaviour: the act of posting wilder and wilder ‘takes’ to move the focus from a wider issue and draw attention back to the individual. At any cost.
Most importantly, the act of building a ‘tribe’ in the process has become vital but, with the risk of these admirers scrolling by next time, those takes become more extreme, more desperate, more logic-defying and more blinkered.
Thus, a conveyor belt full of screaming toddlers in a social media race to the bottom fills your mobile device.
It all goes beyond the mere ‘echo chamber’ effect we all know so well. Unfortunately, something very different, and even worse, has appeared.
Some examples? GB-based anti-Brexiteers rushing to shout down actual NI people when they blindly pontificated about our Peace Process when it suited (and then disappeared just as quickly when they were actually needed to help with a still-collapsed, unreformed Stormont). Or pro-Brexiteers closer to home grasping at dubious anti-Protocol claims so laughable you wonder whether they’ve genuinely lost leave of their senses or, and I’m not sure which is worse, are pretending they have for the sake of a few clicks.
And, for examples of same effect during the Covid era, Amanda Ferguson sagely said “Covid reveals who we are” for good reason. You’ll have seen for yourself the worst of people you thought you knew well then watched as they were drawn further and further into the dark corners of online debate.
In all these cases, takes so increasingly outlandish to the point of self-parody are used. The person will even, on some level, know they make little sense but they successfully draw in a ‘tribe’ in lonely times.
It’s behaviour driven by that loneliness, by anger about that loneliness, and impacts the behaviour of people from all walks of life. Most of all, it is driven by a deep deep unhappiness now common in a troubled society.
In an age framed by crumbling infrastructure and services not to mention intentionally poisonous politics, this isolation is easily leveraged and even monetised by those with a dark agenda.
As a former Twitter user, the fact that Elon Musk has jumped on a grim conveyor belt of his own makes it clear to me that it’s a perfect time for reflection on social media itself. After all, his conduct goes to show that wealth in the billions and being surrounded by people is no protection against loneliness and a grasping need for attention. It also proves that tribal-signalling tweets will always be a quick answer for those who’d rather gather a mob than spend time in front of a mirror.
Beyond this I don’t have the answers, and I’m not sure I ever will, but as much as anyone I have some thinking on my own posting in the past to do.
So for now I’m sticking to pretty pictures until I can find a healthier way to be part of the online world.
In the meantime, if – social media-wise – you fancy something more like a lunchtime pub smoking area chat instead of a closing time tribal brawl, you might want to try Threads for a gentler, post-echo chamber online life. Your blood pressure might thank you for it.
Conor Johnston writes about subjects including mental health, communications, culture, identity and media.