I don’t share the dim view of social media that seems to prevail. While I recognise that much of what gets published on social media is ill-informed and semi-literate drivel, and that some content is seriously objectionable, I regard this as a relatively minor inconvenience that is massively outweighed by the fact that millions of people have been given a voice where previously they had none. Certainly, I would prefer that people wrote in ‘proper English’ and used punctuation and paragraphs and the spell-checker. But that is only because this makes the material easier to read. Not everybody has the same language skills. And if they are ill-informed then this is as likely to be because they have been wilfully misled as due to a lack of basic research skills or an unwillingness to learn.
I am content that all should have a voice even if that does result in an often discordant, sometimes impenetrable and occasionally ugly cacophony. After all, we get the same kind of thing in real life and deal with it with barely a thought. Listen to some pub conversation and it’s like Facebook Live! Now there’s a scary thought!
Just the other day I was involved in an exchange which illustrates this point. I had, somewhat reluctantly, been drawn into conversation with a couple of people, one of whom is a an old friend who I know to a fairly ardent Unionist and very much anti-SNP. Normally, we would stay away from talk of politics other than a bit of light-hearted banter. But my friends companion notice my Yes badge and insisted that he wanted to ask me questions about the independence campaign. He didn’t, of course. What he wanted was an opportunity to make all manner of inflammatory and fact-averse claims without allowing me to respond.
We’ve all experienced this, I suppose. The individual who comes out with a childish comment about Nicola Sturgeon or a regurgitation of some gobbet of propaganda picked up from the British media, then immediately insist that they don’ want to talk about politics. Until, that is, they think of another infantile jibe or bit of disinformation which is also followed by insistence on changing the subject so that nobody gets the chance to respond.
The parallels with ‘debate’ on social media should be obvious.
The particular ‘conversation’ I’m referring to ended with one of my interlocutors reminding me that he is a successful businessman – as if this implied infallibility! – and he could testify to the impact that all the “extra taxes” imposed by the SNP (he meant Scottish Government) were having on his business. I think you know where this is going. I asked him what “extra taxes” he was referring to. He replied that he was a businessman and therefore he should know. I asked him to identify at least one of these “extra taxes” He responded in the same evasive vein. Perhaps half a dozen times, I asked him to deploy the expertise with which he was supposedly endowed to help me understand what these “extra taxes” were and how they were affecting his business. The exchange ended with him declaring that there was no point in talking to me, and walking away as I agreed that, if all he had to offer were unsupported and untrue assertions, then the ‘conversation’ was, by definition, pointless.
My point here is that social media hasn’t created a new way of communicating or a new kind of discourse. It has simply provided a new virtual venue for the same exchanges we have in real life. If you are intolerant of views or the manner in which they are expressed on social media, then you are all but certain to be just as intolerant in the real world. If you are in the habit of deploying bombast rather than reasoned argument and fiction rather than fact in a pub conversation, then you are at least likely to do the same on Facebook or Twitter.
Some argue that online exchanges are ‘special’ because he participants are not face-to-face. But there is nothing novel about this. We’ve had SMS messaging for nearly thirty years and telephone for considerably longer. Prior to that, letter writing served the same purpose of communicating over a distance. We had to learn new skills to successfully manage verbal exchanges with the aid of non-verbal cues. Similarly, new skills were required to cope with the restrictions on message size which pertained in the early days of text messaging. These are transferable skills. We brought them with us to social media. So it isn’t quite the unfamiliar environment that some seem to suppose.
I strongly suspect that the people who get most exercised about the supposed awfulness of social media are mainly those who have long enjoyed privileged access to the means of mass communication and who are less than happy about losing this status. And, of course, those who have long used the traditional media for political ends and now resent that power being challenged.
One thing that these groups have in common is that they have been accustomed to communication being almost entirely one-way. They talk down to us. We look up respectfully at them and listen. Evidently, the BBC still believes this is how it should be. They find it disconcerting that people have acquired the means of speaking for themselves. The traditional media used to tell us what the public thought. and what the public thought was generally presumed to be what the media told us the public thought. Now that every single one of us has the means to convey our views to a potentially huge audience, the old media’s power to define the public mood is much diminished.
Getting down to cases, it may be thought curious that the opponents of Scotland’s independence movement seemed to recognise the power of alternative media somewhat earlier than those in the vanguard of that movement. I vividly recall the frustration I felt at SNP meetings where an entire evening could be spent discussing campaign strategy without social media even being mentioned. Meanwhile, British Nationalists were expending substantial resource in an effort to control or discredit what they knew to be a serious threat to media dominance.
Social media may not present any impediments to effective communication that we, as a species, haven’t dealt with before. But effective communication requires more than the absence of impediments. While speech is an innate capacity, communication is a learned skill. My hope is that, as people realise its power and learn to use it well, social media may emerge as an effective means of challenging established power. My expectation is that Scotland’s Yes movement will play a leading role in making this so.
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