I’ve not had anything to say here for a long time. Or, that’s not true. I’ve had about as much to say as usual, but often I’ve barely had the executive function to write it down. Too many health issues. And when I have I’ve kinda been writing a book.
So, I’ve been hanging out on Twitter. Twitter’s where I go when I can’t lift my head from the pillow and the most exertion I can manage is to hold my phone in one hand and thumb scroll through my timeline; and my concentration is all but maxed out after 140 characters. I know it’s gone up to 280 now. On some days that does, legitimately, pose a challenge for me.
On days, or weeks like these, Twitter, and more recently Facebook, are a lifeline to me. They’re my route to company from anyone other than my partner. Even the cat doesn’t come and see me in my bedroom – allergies.
I found myself getting into Facebook just as everyone else appeared to be realising how problematic it was and, at least thinking about, leaving.
The news that they were selling data and advertising to anyone who’d buy it doesn’t feel as though it’s particularly affected me.
As far as Facebook is concerned:
I was born in Timbuktu – I’ve never been to Mali.
I went to a high school the name of which I can’t pronounce, and the location of which I couldn’t even guess.
I gained my degree in Paleolimnology (I just Googled it and I still couldn’t tell you) from a University in China.
And I’m currently living in Geneva – I do have Swiss family, but they don’t live in Geneva, and, of course, neither do I.
Oh, and I get two birthdays a year now, as explaining that my actual birthday isn’t even close to the random one I gave Facebook every year was just too much like hard work. I never could pin down the right way to say, ‘I’m sorry, I know you’re being really nice and everything, but you’ve got the date way wrong because I lied to Facebook’. I suppose it’ll make a bit more sense to people now.
Obviously the Cambridge Analytica/Aggregate IQ/alleged election rule breaking/etc matter is new news, and a problem worthy of bringing to widespread attention due to the potentially serious implications it holds for democracy.
Although the issue of data sharing more generally does rather beg the question of what anyone thought a company that produced nothing but free apps for their phone could be doing to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
But I don’t think it means that Facebook is evil.
I think the platform is morally neutral, and that how you experience it depends on what you use it for; and I don’t believe that Mark Zuckerberg set out to become a real life Lex Luther.
Social media was invented by a bunch of college nerds. Really, really smart college nerds, from elite universities. But a bunch of college nerds nevertheless. Mark Zuckerberg is still only 33. I’m not sure any 33-year-old who has had just one job in his entire career is sufficiently qualified to steer a company the size of Facebook, in an industry that barely existed when they first created it; especially not without making a bunch of really colossal fuck ups along away.
I’m not sure that anyone in the world at this point is qualified to helm companies with the degree of reach and the scale of influence as the major social media companies. They’re creating huge problems that have never had to be addressed before; and probably more that haven’t even been identified yet, in every legal jurisdiction except Iran, China, and North Korea.
I do think that Zuckerberg, and the rest of the people helming Facebook are genuinely trying to remedy the problems they’ve created, I think as byproduct of their business model rather than by its design. However, I also think that the manner in which they’re going about it underscores the fact that the goals and interests of the business and its executives are not always necessarily complimentary to those of, well, anyone else.
And then there’s the issue of online abuse.
I know about online abuse.
I’ve received quite a lot of it.
After what started off as an album of screenshots about post-Brexit referendum hate crime that I made because I was annoyed with someone whitesplaining racism to my boyfriend, first went viral, then became a campaign that attracted worldwide media attention, and then produced an official report in conjunction with established anti-racism organisations.
My block list currently has tens of thousands of people on it. Tens of thousands of people who hate me. They’ll never meet me. They know next to nothing about me. But they hate me. And that hate, I think, judging by what I read of the messages that made it through to me, is at least stoked, if not fueled, by the fact that social media gives them a method of contacting me to express their feelings towards me.
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of what Leslie Jones went through on Twitter.
Twitter being, of course, notorious for its massive numbers of online trolls and abusers, and even more so for the seeming reluctance of the people running it to do anything about them. Although, somewhat surprisingly, this 2017 UK study, named Instagram as the worst platform for online bullying, with Facebook in second place.) I’m decidedly less convinced the 41-year-old Jack Dorsey is up to the job of CEOing Twitter than I am about Zuckerberg at Facebook. And even less so that he has largely benign intentions for his company.
But I’m not Leslie Jones. And I’m never going to receive that kind of level of online abuse. It helps that I’m white – Twitter can be a pretty racist place. But mostly that’s because I’m not famous, and I’m never going to be famous. I’m certainly never going to be involved with a Hollywood film; and so I’m never going to have a million people caring less about my existence, or what I have to say, all at the time.
The people who follow me – my Twitter audience hovers around the two thousand mark, give or take depending on whether I’ve said anything negative about Jeremy Corbyn that day – do so because they’re interested in the kinds of things I tend to talk about, rather than being specifically interested in me.
Or they follow me because they’re my friends.
The thing with my Twitter friends is; I initially set up my Twitter profile as an anonymous account, and only told one person in the offline world that it existed. So, most of the people who I’m now friends with on Twitter, are friends that I made on Twitter.
Some of my closest friends are Twitter friends – some of whom I now also know offline, but just as many that I don’t. But when you message someone as many times a week as you would a friend you met at work, or in a bar, or at jujitsu, I hardly think it matters. To the validity of the friendship I mean.
It definitely doesn’t matter when a person, having your email address, decides to try to Skype you after you tweeted that you just left your first day at your new job, after having to quit your old one and take seven months of due to the severity of your mental illness. Which they hoped you didn’t mind, but they’d been in bits when they’d recently been in the same position and they figured that you’d be the same, and didn’t want you to have to go through that alone.
And basically, the reason that I still love social media, is that Twitter, and WordPress, are the reason that I’m still alive.
They’re also the reason that I still believe that the world is good.
I joined both Twitter and WordPress in 2012, when I was incredibly mentally poorly. Then, and for several years afterwards, I was in an incredible amount of pain that I spent a lot of time wishing to release myself from by dying.
But I lacked the ability to express this out loud to anyone. So I told it to the internet.
With some vague idea that if I left the description of my feelings out in the nebulous ‘there’ of the internet, and could learn to be okay with that, then I might eventually be able to be okay with looking at it, and working on it inside of myself. And from there, possibly to be able to explain it to other people.
And it worked – as you might have noticed. Mental health is now one of the things I rarely shut up about, along with disability, feminism, and any other vaguely taboo problem that I feel might benefit from someone banging on about it until everyone starts thinking that it’s a normal thing to talk about.
But it mostly worked in a way that I’d never envisaged. Not that I envisaged much, I put literally zero thought into it before I did it. It worked because of the social nature of social media.
People I’d never met, in places I’d never been, came across my posts and my tweets as they were tapping around the internet, and thought to themselves, “there is a person in pain, I must do something”.
And they did so much.
People who’d been through what I was suffering reached out to try to help me over to the other side; people who were going through similar things connected with me so that we could go through it together; and people who for the most part had very little understanding of what I was feeling but wanted to help anyway, went out of their way to keep me company.
Someone sent me a book that they thought would help. From Australia.
A bunch of soldiers in America took turns to talk to me so that I’d have something to distract me from thinking about suicide. While I’d thought, and still think, that having PTSD because you’ve experienced war – in any capacity – must be worse than anything I’ve been through, they figured that it must be harder to be going through it without a bunch of people who’d been there and got it beside you.
While I was actively suicidal people all over the place rearranged their schedules to make sure that they could check in with me so that I only had to make it until the next person was due to chat to me. Because the longer you’re alone with those thoughts the harder it is to bear it until the next time you have to speak to somebody, and because if you’ve told someone you’d still be alive at 4pm the guilt at the thought of not honouring that commitment serves as a motivator to get you there.
Honestly, so many strangers, from so many places, gave so much of their time and energy to be there for me when I most needed it that even now, six years later, just thinking about it makes me cry.
And then people started reaching out to me to let me know that I’d helped them. A teenager in Saudi Arabia told me that she’d printed off some of my posts about anxiety and depression, showed them to her mum, and then they’d both taken them to her doctor to ask for some help.
People kept telling me how my bravery – I really don’t think that I am particularly brave – was inspiring them to keep going. Even if whatever they were facing wasn’t even a similar type of problem to the what I was dealing with.
People contacted me to say that my explanations of own issues and feelings had helped them to understand their own loved ones’ demons, and given them a better understanding of how to be there for them.
And knowing that I was doing some good to someone gave me the impetus to keep going; until I’d got through it about as far as I’m ever going to; until I felt comfortable enough to put my name to it; and until I finally found my voice away from the computer keyboard.
And then social media gave me a new, self-employed career once I finally had to accept that I couldn’t manage both my health problems and full-time employment anymore.
“But, Sarah, your positive experience doesn’t cancel out the morass of horrible ones.”
No, it doesn’t. I appreciate that, I really do.
I know that there are even people who’ve had a similar experiences to my own who feel that on balance social media is a negative aspect of their lives.
But it wasn’t just my positive experience. It belonged to all those other people who turned to me as well. And it’s a statistical impossibility that we’re the only ones out there.
Besides which we know that social media has given a platform to people whose voices wouldn’t previously have been heard, and an outlet and a community for people marginalised as result of disability, their sexuality, their religion, or a host of other reasons.
It drives positive campaigns from the ice bucket challenge to #MeToo. It brought awareness to Black Lives Matter. It gets information out of war zones.
And I am concerned about the implications for democracy. I am very concerned. I’m very politically active – I’m on the exec of my local party, and ahem try to manage their social media. (I’ll tell you which one if you ask, but I envision this blog as a safe space, for readers as well as myself, and I feel like a safe space should be party apolitical.)
And I’m outspoken about how awful I find the abuse – especially when targeted at someone for their race, gender, sexuality, etc.
I worry a great deal about the fact that our society is divided to the point of being in a defacto culture war, and I want to better understand how social media has fostered or enabled this.
But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water. We can’t unmake the internet, nor should we; and I don’t think we should be trying to unmake social media either.
I think we need officials who actually understand how technology works.
We need more research into the implications of social media on both society and individuals.
We need greater transparency from social media companies – and if they won’t create it willingly, we need our newly knowledgeable officials to force them. It is unfortunate to that end that as populations we have elected inward looking governments at the same time as we’ve embraced open social platforms.
And we need proper regulations – so the interests of these companies never override the interests of societies – more effective and enforced terms of service, and more civilised norms across the gamut of social media platforms.
Which can be done.
That anti-semitism row that’s been in the press the last few weeks? The horrible upswing in anti semitic posts online that came with it? Wouldn’t have happened Germany. They are, understandably, more cognisant of the need to keep a lid on that kind of thing over there. So, Twitter does not show tweets containing banned hate speech to German users.
Because I still love social media.
So, like the gorgeous ball dress that I clumsily stuck a stiletto heel through and ripped, a relationship with someone you still love, or, dare I say, *whispers* the European Union, I think we should do the work of trying to mend it, before we write it off completely.