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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