Is social media helping to keep us stuck in the past?

I was listening to an interesting podcast recently. It was a discussion with the writer Michael Sacasas about his article – We Are Not Living in a Simulation, We Are Living In the Past. The discussion is a little heavy on philosophy, but the general gist of it is that social media is keeping us stuck as we replay the same debates over and over and never move on.

You may remember I wrote something similar last month – Is the amplification of every slight and grievance helping us? And I have been thinking more about the issue. It will not be news to any of you that our institutions and society are basically stuck in an endless loop. We seem incapable of dealing with legacy issues and how to move forward. I have noticed how the post-Good Friday Agreement phase corresponds to the rise of the internet and social media.

Now I should point out that we did an absolutely fabulous job of hating each other before the internet ever came along, but I do think the grievance machine that is social media is having a pretty toxic effect on us all. We see the same battles being repeated endlessly on social media – each side utterly convinced of their righteousness.

A particular problem is the focus we give to the ramblings of professional attention seekers. You can count on the usual suspects to chime in on every issue. Much of modern journalism basically consists of writing stuff you saw on social media, so recounting the ‘shocking thing that X said about Y’ is an easy way to generate stories. The online ad model encourages divisive content as this is the stuff that gets the clicks and the comments. I will be the first to admit I have been guilty of this myself. If I am pressed for time and we have not had a post up for a few days I could whack up a controversial Tweet and let you all fight the bit out. We have decided to do less of this emotive stuff and stick to more reflective sensible posts – we are going for the slow news model.

Then we have the stuff that constantly reminds us of the past, like the OnThisDayTheIRA Twitter account.

I was trying to think of a term for something that is both simultaneously helpful and unhelpful. It is easy to make the case that accounts like this do an important job of reminding people of the horrors of the Troubles, but at the same time, this constant looking to the past is likely not doing us much good as a society.

The ultimate issue with social media is that journalists and politicians think it matters. If a politician tries to do anything outside the parameters of what their supporters think is acceptable, the mob immediately rounds on them with their virtual pitchforks and torches. You very soon get the message that it is better not even to try.

What to do?

The best thing a politician or any of us could do is follow Mick’s example and get off the feckin’ thing. But they are not going to do that as Twitter is super addictive, and they justify it by saying they need the exposure. Can I suggest a comprise? It is summertime, take a week or more off the grievance machine. I tried this recently and when you go back on Twitter after a break, you are struck by the ‘noise’. It is like in the old western movies when they open the doors to the saloon, they are all fighting. One tip that works well is only looking at social media on your laptop or computer, preferably for a fixed time – e.g. 10 mins before lunch. I don’t exactly know why but the social media spell gets broken on a computer, smartphones seem to amplify its addictive nature.

At the very least, you should be conscious of when you are being ‘triggered’ and ask yourself, is this useful or constructive?

All of us could do with getting off the screens more and going and chatting with people in the real world. People – they are quite nice once you get to know them.

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