Every so often there’s a big media scare about social networking. And it’s always bollocks Daily Mail hysteria rooted in a parent’s fear that they can no longer control their kids or that the print industry is on its knees. And it makes me cringe at the wilful ignorance of editors and journalists.
Nonetheless, I do think social media can be a danger, but it’s not pedophiles or rapists or vengeful ex-husbands that are the threat – it’s merely that some forms of social media change the way we interact with the world.
When I first got a computer, there was no broadband. There were no blogs. There was no facebook. There was no Twitter. I used a dial-up modem and my website was built entirely in HTML. It would take me hours to write/create a page, and when I’d finished it, it just sat there on the net. This wasn’t web 2.0. There was nowhere for me to announce that a new page was up, aside from the website itself. There was no way for people to leave comments, aside from a rudimentary guest-book that rapidly filled up with spam. Once every few months I might get an email from someone who liked my website.
So, when I wrote a page I was dimly aware of an audience, but they weren’t in my face. And as such, I didn’t pander to them. When I wrote a page of fiction, I would allow the ideas to coalesce and gestate in my mind before I uploaded the finished article. If I disliked what I’d written, I would go back and amend it. Then I got a messageboard, and I found that every time I’d written a page, I would alert the messageboard members and they would swoon and flatter me. Then I got a myspace and a blog, and soon I stopped writing on my website, because it was easier to write about my dinner and get feedback (comments! Praise!) straight away. It fed my ego immediately. No wait. Instant delivery! Then along came Twitter, and I didn’t even have to compose proper blog entries. I could just bang out reams and reams of tiny messages and before I’d even started writing a tweet I’d be getting a response about the previous one. Everything sped up. There was no time or space for ideas to develop in my mind. Bang! One idea! Bang! Another idea. No editing, no thinking, just a constant stream. In some ways this is no bad thing. Twitter is particularly suited to my mind. (As my ex-girlfriend and I discussed, different people use their brains in different ways. Her brain fermented over time, like beer. Mine fizzed and popped like coca-cola). Twitter is a brilliant place for me to shit out a hundred different ideas a day. The problem is that it stops me doing other things: it prevents me playing the long game. Why bother waiting weeks or months for feedback and approval, when I can get hundreds of messages a day, all about ME, ME, ME.
In the four years since I wrote my first novel, friends and peers have finished their second and third books. They have stepped away from the pits of instant self-gratification and immersed themselves in things that take time: plot, character, visions, revisions, editing, correcting, polishing. And it’s something I find almost impossible to do. Aside from work, this blog entry is probably the longest thing I’ve written in months. And even now, my brain hurts.
That’s the other way in which web 2.0 is a danger to me: it changes the way I process information. Or to be more precise, I no longer process information – I merely consume it. I speed read hundreds of articles a day, absorbing lots of information, but rarely actually thinking about it. Instead it is simply instantly transformed into a series of rapid-fire punchlines and pithy one-liners. I find myself refreshing pages over and over again, waiting for more news, desperate for change. I find it harder to concentrate. When I’m watching football or a film, I find myself checking Twitter on my phone or looking at Facebook.
There was an experiment years ago – I can’t remember the details, but it involved a mouse. The mouse had a chip implanted into its brain, and when it pressed a certain button in its cage, the chip stimulated the mouse’s brain and gave it a hit of pleasure. And eventually, the mouse just pressed the button all day, without doing anything else. Inevitably, the mouse died of starvation. In slightly less melodramatic terms, that’s how I approach the internet and social media. The buzz of interaction and feedback – of approval – overrides all my other needs and everything else, friends, relationships, family is allowed to wither. And of course, the vagaries and ambivalence of human relationships are never as instantly gratifying as a random stranger on the internet bestowing unqualified approval. The wonderful and terrifying thing about social media is how ruthlessly quantifiable it is. Followers, fans and mentions can all be counted. It’s rarely about the quality of relationships, only the quantity.
This isn’t really a criticism of the internet, it’s more an investigation of how it affects me, and what I can do to stop myself being glued to the PC all day.