Is Social Media turning us into monsters?

Antisocial Media
I started using social media a year and a half ago, mainly to promote my freshly published book, The Hydra. It took me a few days to figure out the main functions, a week to hone my marketing strategy and within a month, I found myself embroiled in bitter, acrimonious exchanges with anonymous trolls over subjects I had only a passing interest in. It all came to a head when, one day in July, I found myself about to publish a tweet in which I was calling someone an asshole. I paused, deleted the tweet without sending, took a deep breath and asked myself what the hell was wrong with me. This was not a part of my marketing strategy. And even beyond that, I am not the kind of person who calls other people assholes; not in social situations, not even when cycling to work and some aggressive, rude driver nearly runs me off the road. Yet there I was, about to commit to a bare knuckle, ad hominem insult of someone I didn’t even know. For no reason.

This was the moment I re-evaluated my approach to social media and found some helpful advice. The first and most important rule I learned was: If you don’t have something nice to post, don’t post anything. Before you send a tweet or leave a comment, ask yourself this: Is this a positive sentiment? Does this show me from my best side? Would I say this to the person’s face in a crowded room of mutual acquaintances? And if not: Cancel. Delete. Or at very least, reword. It’s okay, I discovered, to give your interlocutor the last word, even if you don’t agree with them. It takes more courage to walk away from a troll in silence than to descend to their level.

This strategy is working for me, and I’ve managed to avoid the worst of the trolls so far. Thankfully, 4,300 Tweets later, I haven’t had to block anyone and have only been blocked by a very few people, all without compromising on my opinions. Yet it does not answer the question as to why social media brings out the worst in otherwise normal people.

 

The tweets above from Nathan and Christa are nothing exceptional. I found them in – quite literally – seconds of searching for an example of hateful tweets. In fact, one might easily scroll past a dozen such tweets without batting an eyelid. Yet if you step back and consider their content, they don’t reflect particularly well on their authors. To wish ‘rabies’ on any person, whether you like his/her politics or not, is contemptible. To liken Donald Trump’s face with an ape’s posterior is puerile, untrue and unkind. I’m sure neither person, if they were introduced to Mr Trump at a dinner party, would say these things to his face. Moreover, I’m sure they never speak this way to anyone they interact with outside of Twitter. I don’t know them, but I’m willing to bet both Nathan and Christa are really nice, polite people if you meet them in the queue at the supermarket or in a local Starbucks. Most people are. So why be hateful online?

Anonymity
One explanation that is often advanced to describe extreme online behaviours is that the shield of anonymity encourages impoliteness. The detachment and privacy afforded by the cyber-world removes any accountability for our words. It also allows us to plug into a wider debate from the very private spaces where we are prone to let our guard down: One can tweet from the living room, from bed, even from the toilet.

This leads to a debate as to whether people are at their ‘realest’ when they are not being their ‘real selves’. Is Dave McKenzie, sales manager from Dayton Ohio, being fake when he wishes his clients a nice afternoon? Is the real Dave McKenzie the guy who goes home, logs in as “Knuckler1776” and abuses Hillary Clinton supporter’s for being ‘fat pigs’ with smelly body parts? It’s tempting to think so, yet I would take a more optimistic view. In life, we are always playing roles. When we go back to our families we revert to our childhood roles, at work we behave differently than we do when out for a night with our friends. None of these roles are any more ‘real’ than the others. What’s new about anonymous internet usage is that it allows us to play a new role. Adding this persona doesn’t make the other roles we play any less real. And conversely, taking it away won’t make us phonies either.

Algorithms of Hate
Another possible explanation is that the way content is sorted and customised by the various platforms encourages more and more extreme opinions. Custom sorted content means we see what we want to see, except often a more extreme version of what we first thought. So, for example, if I click on a Youtube video showing a refugee assaulting a German woman on the street, the algorithms used to suggest content to me will select other such videos. I find myself watching video after video showing African or Middle Eastern men verbally abusing, assaulting or harassing white, German women. As a user, it is easy for me to (erroneously) assume this content is representative and I quickly leap to the conclusion that refugees are everywhere, hurting ‘our’ women. A sense of panic engulfs me. Despite the fact that my feed is overflowing with clear examples of this kind of thing, the mainstream media appears unwilling to give it due attention. A conspiracy!

Now imagine my anger when someone I ‘meet’ on Twitter has the gall to suggest the vast majority of refugees are nice people, and that the instances of violence are relatively few. “Idiot, moron!” I think to myself. He, in turn, has been watching videos that confirm his previously held convictions, and my last tweet “Round them up at gunpoint and deport them! Claim our country back!” incites him to call me a “Racist turd.”

In reality, both he and I are good people with good intentions. We don’t really want Syrians refugees to suffer and we don’t want German women to feel unsafe on the streets. But the nature of the platform has made our views more extreme, our positions more entrenched and lowered our threshold for issuing gratuitous insults. Instead of bringing us to a possible common ‘middle ground’ position, we end up hurling insults until one of us blocks the other. Communication failure.

Putting the Social back into Social Media
Is there anything we can do to counteract this? I feel there is; a great deal in fact. Mostly, it’s about being mindful of how we interact. One method is the ten second rule. Before you reply to anything online, count to ten and then ask youself, can I make this message kinder? Another trick is ‘killing your adversary with kindness’. The troll culture has made us so aggressive that it can be quite a powerful argument if you simply turn to someone who is being aggressive and say something like “I know you are a decent, kind person. Even if we disagree, I respect you.”

Another idea I would suggest is not trying to use Social Media to push your ideas. Why not search for things you are less certain, but possibly interested in knowing more about? For example, I might have strong views about abortion policy, but I might not know very much about whether nuclear power is good or bad. I could interact with experts who have real knowledge in an open curious way. That benefits me far more and tends to lead to much more pleasant social interactions online.

My final thought takes us back to the idea of anonymity. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t already done so, to set up a real account, with your real picture and real name. You will very quickly find that the content you are prepared to put into the world is quite different, more civil, more human and kinder. And that, I choose to believe, is the ‘real’ you.

The moment I became a writer

The pub was crowded, as was usual for pub quiz night in our local Brussels boozer, an Irish pub by the name of ‘Michael Collins’. The quiz had reached that point where the organisers pause to tabulate the scores from the first four question rounds. Our team members all looked up from our scrawled notes and makeshift maps of African countries bordering the Congo, and began the ritual small talk. The latest movies and sports results, holiday plans, good places to eat.

“So,” Charlotte said, turning to me, “what is it you do?” Charlotte was new to our quiz team, and was still doing the introductory rounds.

“I’m an economist,” was my automatic response. I wanted to add, “but I’m really a writer. I’ve been writing all my life. The first draft of my novel is ready, waiting for me. It’s willing me to muster up the courage to nurture it fully to life.”

Instead I forced a self-deprecating smile and added, “Economics is boring stuff. You know, mostly just adjusting numbers in spreadsheets.”

That comment earned nothing more than a polite smile from Charlotte. Microsoft Excel might have pretty good mathematical functionality, but it’s a real conversation killer.

In my head, though, the conversation went on. As the quizmaster read out questions for rounds five through nine, and the team busily debated where the 1976 Olympics were hosted (Was it Munich?), and which country exported the most bananas (Costa Rica or Ecuador?) I found myself wondering why it was I was so shy about defining myself as a writer. By the time the final scores came in, and our team finished a lowly sixth place, I had come to a decision. If I was going to be a writer, I had to think of myself as a writer. And that would mean changing my priorities. The next day I told my boss I would be applying for a five month leave of absence.

Two weeks later I had packed my tent and sleeping bag, got on my bicycle and pedalled my way out of Brussels, out of Belgium, and right through the sausage-and-beer bloated midsection of Germany, until the Danube River bore me to Vienna. 1,400 km of cycling was enough to rid my mind of any recollection of the dreaded spreadsheets. I took a room in Vienna’s trendy Seventh District and spent the next four weeks poring over the text of my novel.

One evening, after rewriting a particularly satisfying chapter, I decided to break out of my hermit cell and found my way to a local beer garden, where I chanced to meet a Californian guy who had been an engineer and was now running workshops for alternative medicine and yoga.

“So what kiThe Hydrand of work do you do?” he asked me.

My glanced drifted momentarily to the string of lights suspended across the trellis at the edge of the garden.

“I’m a writer,” I answered.

And that was the moment I became a writer.

Rendering Joy: the most difficult and most under-appreciated craft

The Art of Joy

The thought has often occurred to me that there is an imbalance in the way we value artistic quality, when it comes to rendering negative versus positive emotions. The expression through art of negative emotions is very often seen by critics and the public as particularly laudable. Poignant, gripping, gut-wrenching. One only needs to look at the cinematic offerings that plague the screens of Arthouse movie theatres the world over. Most are dreary, depressing affairs, detailing sordid experiences which culminate in unimaginable tragedy. And we, the middle class connoisseurs, gush appreciation as we discuss the deeper meaning behind this vitriol, in between snatches from the circulating plate of canapés and sips from our glasses of Pinot Grigio.

A masterful composition - Rockwell captures a moment of pure joy in a way few, more 'serious' artists, ever could.
A masterful composition – Normal Rockwell’s “Christmas Homecoming” captures a moment of pure joy in a way few, more ‘serious’ artists, ever could.

In reality of course, the portrayal of misery on screen or through other artistic media is not particularly challenging, at least to the extent that it provokes some sort of strong emotional reaction in the viewer. That is because our brains are hard-wired to react to negative images, which in an evolutionary sense might signal threats to our safety or well-being. We quite literally respond more quickly to negativity. As a result, fear and distaste are perhaps the easiest emotions for an artist to excite in his audience (with the possible exception of the titillation provoked by pornography). Consider the multitude of poor quality horror films out there. Even mediocre acting, direction and cinematography are no deterrent to the achievement of their intended effect – to make us recoil from the abhorrent.

What is much more difficult to convey artistically – and hence what I consider to be a higher form of art – is the opposite: Moments of pure, unadulterated joy or quiet contentment. In art as in real life, joy is something elusive. It is fleeting and often only retrospective. Do you for instance remember that summer’s day, when you were perhaps seven or eight, and you played badminton in the park with your cousins? Late in the afternoon, someone produced a five pound note which some auntie or other had bestowed for the general good of the group, and you all ran, barefoot, towards the jingle of the ice cream truck that pulled up at the gate to the park? The sun was low in the sky when finally you all crossed the bridge of stones that led back to your uncle’s house, where the smell of fish and chips awakened in you an appetite you had been too busy to realise you had? Of course you remember that day. It was perhaps the happiest of your life. But the very fact of this happy day is only something you have registered in retrospect, which itself evokes a certain melancholy…If you were to describe that day in art – a sequence of images perhaps – how hard would it be to convey that youthful, carefree spirit, without seeming banal or clichéd!

For contentment, the case is even more difficult. To be content is to be free of negative experience or feeling, and an absence is a thing very hard for an artist to capture and convey.

This thought is not new to me, and I daresay it’s been pondered by many’s an artist or writer before me. But it returned to me in full force the other day, as I chanced to visit, in the company of my brother, a museum dedicated to the works of the iconic 20th Century American artist Norman Rockwell, whose work my snobbery had previously always dismissed as “mere illustration”.

How wrong I was to do so. Rockwell, more than any artist I know, captures the elusive quality of joy in many of his paintings in ways ‘greater’ artists would surely struggle to emulate. The happiness in his work is inescapable, and doubtless contributed in no small measure to the mythos of the golden age that was 1950s America. One such scene is “The Runaway”, in which a friendly Massachusetts State Trooper converses earnestly with a little boy who has run away from home and made it as far as the high counter stool of the local diner. As the two speak, the grubby waiter behind the counter listens in and can barely contain his mirth. We imagine their conversation: perhaps the boy is explaining to the policeman his plans to join the circus and become a famous trapeze artist. We know the trooper will be taking note of the encounter in the little black book we see tucked into his rear pocket. He will be sure to check in with the boy’s parents that evening, just to make certain the truant has returned home safely before it gets dark. The image is basked in an air of familiarity, comfort and benevolence that makes the soul sing.

As my brother and I paced the halls of the museum, we briefly debated whether or not the happy sentiment Rockwell was leaving us with could be considered artistically valid. After all, so much of what is styled serious art is bent on reminding us that the human soul is a tortured thing; that doom is our natural condition. Yet why is joy not as valid an emotion as suffering?

In my opinion, joy is just as valid as its negative counterpart. Let Rockwell’s paintings be an inspiration to us all. Fellow artists: Let’s try to paint, compose or write some happiness. Make your audience feel your joy.

The Hillary Fallacy – why the “Kang and Kodos” logic does not appeal to me.

two party system

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite my better judgement, I have recently found myself getting into social media exchanges with supporters of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. These exchanges are often acrimonious and always pointless, because no one ever manages to convince anyone else of their point of view on social media. However, the arguments propounded provide some interesting insights into where this campaign has taken us.

When I express my preference for a third party candidate, Hillary supporters usually begin – not by extolling their candidate’s merits (even they realise this is a claim too far) – but by using the now familiar argument that a vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is a de facto vote for Donald Trump. This argument is of course nothing new. Years ago it was derided in a Simpsons episode in which Bob Dole and Bill Clinton are revealed by Homer to be nothing more than the hideous space aliens Kang and Kodos, bent on enslaving humanity. When a member of the crowd then threatens to vote for a third party candidate, the aliens mock him. “Go ahead, throw your vote away.”

Back to the Social Media exchanges: I usually respond to the Kang and Kodos argument by explaining that although I think Trump is a thoroughly repugnant individual and an awful candidate, at least he won his party’s nomination through a fair and open process, and he did so against the wishes of the party elites. The same, I point out, cannot be said for Clinton; certainly not after the latest Wikileaks revelations. I then note that I believe the price America would pay (i.e. a Trump presidency) in order to punish the DNC for rigging the nomination would possibly be worth it, if the sting to the DNC was so great that it delivered real electoral reform for the next primary process. After all, what is at stake is something greater than 4 years of stupidity. It is the essence of democracy in the United States.

What follows from Hillary supporters is a strange defence of the democratic nomination process being rigged. They often say something like, “Well, the process isn’t intended to be fair.” or “Parties can do what they like. They don’t even have to involve the electorate if they don’t want.” or else even “There’s nothing in the Constitution about how the DNC must organise its nomination process.”

This is of course perfectly true. Except when you combine the two arguments, “the DNC can rig all it likes and choose whomever it pleases” + “a vote which is not for the DNC’s chosen elitist is a vote for the other monster on the podium!” you essentially have an admission that the choice of president is in no way democratic. If the party nomination processes offer no real choice, then the two-party general election certainly doesn’t either.

So if the Constitution does not provide guidance on the fair administration of primary contests, perhaps it is time for Constitutional reform. After all, the current system is so badly broken that even the most ardent supporters of the candidate whom bookies say is going to win in November (let’s call her “Kodos”) can only invoke the Kang and Kodos defence to convince us to vote for her.

In the meantime, I will be using my vote in November to punish Debbie Wasserman Schulz and the DNC for what they have done to Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution. I will be voting for Jill Stein, and I’ll be encouraging red state voters to choose Gary Johnson.

Why is the world polarising? And what can we do about it?

In the aftermath of the First World War, at a time when massive social divisions were fuelling the rise of extremism both on the left and the right, and venerable empires in Britain, Austria and Russia were crumbling, Irish poet William Butler Yeats appeared to capture the Zeitgeist perfectly with his poem, The Second Coming, first published in 1919. It begins like this:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The thinking behind the verse was rooted in Yeats’ conviction that the world would turn in 2,000 year cycles (“turning and turning in a widening gyre”), and that we were due another significant crisis in his time, which was roughly 2,000 years since the birth of Christ.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the publication of this poem, one might legitimately pose the question, was Yeats a century off? Are we now entering a period in which the centre cannot hold, the fateful time when the “ceremony of innocence” will be drowned?

The recent events in the UK and the rise of populism in the form of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others suggests that if the centre is still holding, it’s only just holding. And it’s certainly straining under the weight of events. Meanwhile the tensions triggered by the apparently racially motivated shootings of black men in the US recall the image of a “blood-dimmed tide” being loosed.

Is this, as Yeats believed, part of an unstoppable cycle? A turn in the great wheel of time which we might observe, but are powerless to direct?

I for one refuse to believe that is so. I think we are the masters of our own destiny. And while there is a sick comfort in fatalism, in the abdication of responsibility to ‘Fate’, I believe we should resist this temptation and continue to fight for what we know is right: Compassion, justice and a fairer, better world.

If the wheel is “turning and turning in a widening gyre”, and if we can’t stop it, let’s at least direct it away from the cliff and onto safer pastures.

Reviews of The Hydra on Amazon

The HydraMost Recent Customer Reviews

5.0 out of 5 starsIngenious
The plot is very well written and the narrative managed to make the villain a sympathetic character even when you know he is guilty. The twist in the end actually surprised me. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Christiane C. Brossi

5.0 out of 5 starsCleverly written political thriller!
This was one hell of a political thriller. From beginning to end you are entrenched in this world. You are angry and contemplative. You are curious and shocked. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Allie Sumner

5.0 out of 5 starsStrong plot and intense narrative
Very well-played scenarios. The author knows the landscapes he talks about very well and built a strong plot around fascinating characters jumping wisely between time and… Read more
Published 6 months ago by Amazon Customer

5.0 out of 5 starsFive Stars
Great story. Kept me intrigued until the end
Published 6 months ago by Jocasa
4.0 out of 5 starsGood premise, good story!
I liked this book! Crazy scientist on trial for implementing his plan to solve the problem of human overpopulation and poverty. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Linda Andrews

5.0 out of 5 starsI loved this book
I loved this book! I couldn’t put it down! In the beginning, I thought I had the ending figured out, but Graham put a twist into it, that I never suspected. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Dianna Hamby

5.0 out of 5 starsIntriguing story…Fantastic read!!!
I thoroughly enjoyed this story and the characters….well written….I couldn’t put it down, had to finish it in one day! It had a bit of everything, including humour… Read more
Published 10 months ago by Maria Wiley Art