Social media and real life

Few would disagree with Ruth Wishart’s observation in her Sunday National column that “it’s always a mistake to confuse social media with real life” but I have lately begun to suspect that the difference between the two may be rather less than it pleases us to suppose. Ruth goes on to allow that social media “sometimes offers a useful guide to paranoia levels”. Perhaps it might be a “useful guide” to other aspects of what we now refer to as “real life” mainly so as to distinguish it from the virtual world of social media and online gaming, where not so long ago the contrast being drawn was with the fictional world of books, movies and TV. Why was it felt necessary to warn folk off confusing fiction and reality if there was not enough similarity between the two for such confusion to be likely? Perhaps, then, we are advised to avoid confusing social media with real life for the same reason – that the two have enough in common for such confusion to be a distinct possibility.

The essence of fiction is not that it offers a false reality so much as it presents a distillation of the familiar. The world of fiction is made interesting by being more intense than the reality to which we are accustomed. Time itself is compressed, Colours are more vivid. Contrasts are sharper. Sounds are clearer. It’s real life simplified and exaggerated and concentrated rather than a different life altogether. For story-telling to be engaging it must be to some degree relatable. Stories are, after all, exploratory expeditions of places our real lives are unlikely to go. They are an extension of the innate human urge to build mental maps of the reality each of us inhabits or may travel to at some time. Stories give us additional data for those maps.

There are, of course, many different genres of fiction. But even if the characters in the tale aren’t human the story is always woven around the relationships between and among them. The particulars of trust and betrayal and shifting loyalties may be writ large and bold, but they are recognisable and relevant and applicable to ourselves even if attributed to aliens or fantastical creatures. Fiction equips us with experiences we might not otherwise have. Experience that is potentially useful in resolving situations encountered in real life.

It’s easy to suppose that social media might work in the same way. When we engage – actively or passively – on Twitter or Facebook we are exploring. We are testing different kinds of life-stuff. Or trying out our own life-stuff in different contexts. If as Ruth Wishart hypothesises, social media can provide us with a useful guide to paranoia levels why not to level of anger or devotion or hatred or whatever. Social media shouldn’t be confused with real life. But neither should it be thought of as completely divorced from real life. There is a connection. It is entirely possible that social media might tell us something meaningful and perhaps useful about reality.

If there is great anger about some issue on Twitter it would be foolish to suppose that anger exists only on Twitter. It surely has a counterpart in real life. Just not quite so intense, being diluted by all the other life-stuff that is stripped out of the Twitter version. That anger may not only be fiercest on Twitter, it may also be first. Because issues airing on Twitter naturally attract those most interested in that issue and/or with the strongest feelings about it, the anger – or whatever other emotion – may be noticeable on Twitter long before it is detectable in real life. But real life may well catch up. Especially if the media treats the Twitter anger as if it was real-life anger. That which is causing an inferno of at least partially contrived outrage on Twitter today may well be a cause of significant and genuine public concern tomorrow. The more so if the media are striving to stoke the fires of outrage.

Further into her column Ruth Wishart writes this.

They say folks get more small c ­conservative as they get older. I’m ­disputing that big time. I feel more bolshie, more ­impatient than ever. Yet what ­experience does bring is not a ­passion for retaining the status quo, but the ­knowledge that building something that lasts, that our grandchildren can ­enjoy and take pride in, takes solid ­foundations.

Ruth Wishart: Yessers should focus on independence, not some political ‘gods’

I am, I think, approximately the same age as Ruth. I too like to think I’m more bolshie and impatient than ever – even if somewhat less able to translate the bolshiness and impatience into action. What experience has brought me, however, is the knowledge that nothing lasts and that our grandchildren will surely tear down whatever we build in order to build something of their own. Not even the foundations will be exempt from ‘improvement’. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I hope to leave to future generations of Scottish citizens is not something that lasts but something that those future generations can shape to suit their own needs, priorities and aspirations. Most importantly, I want to bequeath to them the capacity to perform this shaping hindered only by the small c conservatives of their own time serving as the counterforce that homeostasis requires.

Were this social media the impetus would be to focus exclusively on a single point of agreement with Ruth. Or, more likely, disagreement. Not being real life, social media imposes no strictures on heeding the nuances. “Nuance is for poofs!” as one interlocutor on Twitter once informed me in what I chose to understand as an attempt to enlighten. “Well, hurrah for poofs!” says I. If “poofs” have an exclusive claim on nuance then Twitter is a “poof”-free zone to an extent that doesn’t reflect real life. But that too is OK. Because social media isn’t real life. If it were, what would be the point? We already have real life. What use is another? Social media and ‘new’ media in general is excellent as a novel adjunct to real life. It would be pish-poor as a substitue.

Eschewing nuance in a way that would doubtless satisfy my bigoted Twitter interlocutor, we might represent attitudes to social media as being as polarised as attitudes on social media. Social media is on the one hand held to be irrelevant and of no consequence because it bears no relation to real life; while on the other hand it is a pernicious influence that is corrupting all of society. My actual perspective is that social media is potentially very relevant to real life as it offers a glimpse into the ‘public mind’ – albeit a glimpse requiring a deal of interpretation. I also take the view that any corruption found in social media is at least as likely to be a consequence of real life corruption as a cause of it.

Social media is fine so long as you don’t confuse it with real life. Better you should regard it as an exercise in story-telling with all that this implies in terms of exaggerated intensity and over-simplification. As much as fiction, social media is a place of imagination. As Alfred North Whitehead advises,

Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts. It is a way of illuminating the facts.



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5 thoughts on “Social media and real life

  1. Food for thought there, Peter. I actually do believe that things last, but that every generation pummels that thing until it suits that generation’s narrative and expectations. The pummelling might end in what looks like, but usually is not, destruction, but that is rarely the intention, I think, except for the terminally ill-intended, and there are plenty of those, but not enough to overturn the good-intentioned, whose intentions and their consequences quite often do not tally in the end.

    I remember that, as a young, fired-up, person, I tended to see the world in black-and-white. Now, as a curmudgeonly and older person, with that fire damped down a fair bit, I see all the shades of grey – and, no, I’m not a participant in sado-masochism. Correction: I am a bit of a masochist, as all Scots are when we kick our own backsides, rarely waiting for anyone else to do it to us so that we can punch them back. We appear to have an aversion to landing a well-aimed punch to the metaphorical, deserving jaw or solar plexus of political opponents.

    For young people today, and probably many not-so-young, social media is a way of life, as newspapers and human contact were for we older bodies. In time, I think, the young will learn to negotiate much better than they do right now. Or, perhaps, they might not, and will remain forever, unformed, uninformed and immature subjects of public opinion that will never rise above the mundane and simplistic. Being older, I fear the latter, naturally.

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  2. ‘My actual perspective is that social media is potentially very relevant to real life as it offers a glimpse into the ‘public mind’…’ Nope. It offers a glimpse into the public mind of a SMALL SECTION of the public, a dysfunctional small section. How many people in Scotland have dross like Twitter? Is it something like 15 or 20 percent? What you tend to get there, from my experience (I no longer have a Twitter account) is the more shut-in, mentally ill subsections of the population screaming like chimps in a cage and flinging poop at others from behind the bars.

    Twitter attracts total nutcases (I call them ‘grievance monkeys’) who will jump on you at the least provocation for saying something they don’t agree with (even if it’s true), whether you know them or not, and then get their nutcase pals to jump in on you to attempt to drive you off the platform for having views heretical to theirs. Getting abuse from insane, say, young white middle class Americans (and deranged young Scots, who are now basically Americanised in their brainwashed state), who know nothing whatsoever about real life, is not my cup of psychosis. Social media thinks way too much of itself. Cos the people there over-compensate for lack of real life and real world sophistication and experience. No wonder they’re so angry. And that will never, ever change.

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  3. It’s not a matter of being too ‘delicate a bloom,’ I have lived a real, and difficult, life, far away from the tiresome self-aggrandising chatter of needy chimps and ideology-wielding nutcases. Self-reinforcing echo chambers are just not my thing, what can I say? Let them all get on with it. There is no irony in my position as far as I can see.

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