Has a reliance on social media made you a mean person?


Lucy Mangan

October 19, 2015

The internet was made to be a great democratising force, but is humanity any better for it? No, says Lucy Mangan, as the latest friend-rating app proves

Sometimes the world is definitely too much with us. The latest blow comes with the news that a new app – called Peeple – is being launched that will allow you to rate everyone you know from one to five stars. Peeple is the brainchild of Canadian Julia Cordray and Californian Nicole McCullough.

Their app, they claimed, would ‘revolutionise the way we’re seen in the world… [and] allow us to better choose who we hire, do business with, date, [allow to] become our neighbours, roommates, landlords/tenants, and teach our children’.

They described it as ‘a positivity app for positive people’. To which one can only reply – possibly from behind your priest’s skirts or (delete according to taste and temperament) just as you vanish into your lead-lined bunker in Montana – have you met people? Have you seen the internet? Do you know what happens when the two get together? The world wide web was meant, of course, to be a great democratising force.

“Plato wondered whether an otherwise moral person would still be so if he knew he couldn’t be identified. Wonder no more!”

Open access to everything, for everyone, all the time, everywhere. The endless dissemination of knowledge. Free flow of information, of questions and answers across time and space. Amazing. A technology so advanced as to seem, as Arthur C Clarke said, like magic. But here with us, right now. And what did we do with it? We filled it with cat videos and porn. And then we comment-enabled everything. And then we added social media. And all hell broke loose.

Why? Partly because the internet offers anonymity, and anonymity uncouples you from consequences and retribution. Back in the fourth century BC, Plato used the legend of the Ring of Gyges – which when worn would turn the wearer invisible – to wonder whether an otherwise moral person would still be so if he or she knew they couldn’t be identified or caught.

Wonder no more, Plato! We are all ring owners now. We are free – or at least freer than at any other point in human history – to behave exactly as we wish.

And what people wish to do, it turns out, is hector long, bully loud and troll incessantly those with whom they do not agree.

This includes respected historians such as Orlando Figes, who posted anonymous scathing reviews of his rivals’ work on Amazon (and flattering ones of his own), and the apparently infinite battalion of online warriors on social media who went after Caroline Criado-Perez when she raised an objection to the Bank of England’s decision to replace Elizabeth Fry on our bank notes with Winston Churchill.

Australian feminist activist Coralie Alison brought a storm of death and rape threats down on her head when she called upon her government to revoke rapper Tyler, The Creator’s visa because of his violent, misogynist lyrics. Kirstie Allsopp – lovely Kirstie Allsopp! – was harassed for once saying that she couldn’t lead the life and do the work she did without help (childcare, a cleaner and so on).

And anyone who has written for newspapers or magazines that allow anonymised comments below the line can find themselves attacked, no matter how innocuous their articles were intended to be.

“Do you hear your phone buzzing in your bag and excuse yourself to check it in the loo?”

I once wrote a lighthearted piece about the death of the nightclub and was vilified for weeks. ‘I just don’t look at the bottom half of the internet any more,’ says one writer friend. ‘It does you no good. No good at all.’ Psychologist John Suler calls all this the Online Disinhibition Effect .

Otherwise known, as a cartoon in webcomic Penny Arcade once summarised the phenomenon, the Greater Internet F***wad Theory. We are now at the point where we are almost resigned to a certain level of toxic disinhibition/greater f***waddery online generally, and on social media specifically. Just the price of doing cyberbusiness.

Of increasing concern, however, is what online interaction – especially through our ever-present smartphones – is doing to our interactions and our psyches in real life.

Psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist recently spoke about the increasing number of teachers – with many years’ experience of generations of schoolchildren under their belts – coming to him with worries about the number of students apparently unable to understand others’ facial expressions or intuit with their emotions.

In her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle – a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, who has long researched into how human beings use and are affected by technology – says that mobile technology is as potentially devastating to human empathy as other technology has been to the environment.

She points to research among college students (who, if not quite digital natives are certainly smartphone natives) that shows a drop in the standard markers for empathy over the last 10 years of 40 per cent – which corrolates with the rise of that portable, insidious, oh-so-deliciously distracting plethora of delights more and more of us carry in our pockets all day, every day, and into the night.

You can be sceptical (or immediately furious at her utter, utter wrongness, of course, in which case you may already have slipped on the cyber Ring of Gyges and be typing away on Twitter), but stop for a moment and think about how you use your phone .

Do you check it during conversations? Do you hear it buzzing in your bag and excuse yourself to check it in the loo? Do you use it to look up a fact or amplify a point during conversation with a friend? Are you with a friend at all? Or have you settled for another night in with Facebook, Twitter and text messages – so much easier than getting dressed up, meeting people face to face and having to, God, you know, chat, rather than fire off the odd one-liner?

All these things, says Turkle, are inimical to empathy, patience, the learning of all the skills that make us able to cope with, never mind like and love and understand our fellow man.

Our fellow man is messy, inconstant and it takes work to find him fascinating rather than confusing, and skills that are no less delicate or complex for the fact that we have historically absorbed them unconsciously amid the press of family and friends around us in the flesh.

“Mobile technology is as potentially devastating to human empathy as other technology has been to the environment”
Sherry Turkle

There was such a backlash against Peeple when it was first announced (the most succinct in response to Cordray’s description of it as like Yelp – the user review site for restaurants – but for people, saying that the difference is that restaurants don’t kill themselves) that the founders have since softened Peeple somewhat, assuring potential users that they will have more control over how they sign up and what is posted about them.

So, enough people cared enough about the essential venality of humanity to shut down – via a barrage of constructive criticism mixed with vitriolic abuse – a further avenue of its expression.

This is what modern progress looks like, people. Five stars to us!

This article was written by Lucy Mangan from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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