Social media is a fickle place. It's where people can enjoy relative anonymity if they so choose, and treat the whole experience like a social experiment.
Without having to face their "adversary", there is little protection in the way of good old fashioned manners, respect and in many cases, common sense.
People often equate these experiences as running into a "troll", but I think it actually goes much deeper than that. A "troll" is someone who seeks to provoke an argument for the purposes of inflaming them and attacking them for (presumably) entertainment, or making themselves feel powerful.
But in my experience at least, there seems to be an erosion of general human interactive expectation of respect and manners - in many ways, social media seems to have a social contract all of its own.
If you are brave enough to cite an opinion that (heaven forbid) someone else decides they disagree with, you may expect to be bombarded with personal attacks, being called names, even being threatened both in the public forum and via personal messages.
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This has become par for the course. We are told to just expect it - if you can't handle it, then don't post it.
I think that deserves a rather sarcastic round of applause, don't you?- Zoe Wundenberg
In reality, none of these examples are the first iterations of social media. Its roots go back to 550BCE if you can believe it, with the earliest form of a postal service, with the telegraph in 1792, the pneumatic post in 1865, the telephone in 1890 and the radio in 1891.
Following the earliest forms of the internet dating back to the 1960s, we saw the development of email, internet relay chats (IRC), and instant messenger in the '80s and '90s, before the dawn of what we now consider the social media age through digital platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
However, as different from each other as each of these examples of social media from the history pages is, they are all based on the fundamental tenets of the origin story of social media as we know it today: forging and maintaining connections between friends and families separated by continents and oceans.
It's amazing how literally thousands of years of technological and social development all forged with the intent of bringing us together has been almost undone in the last 15 years alone.
I think that deserves a rather sarcastic round of applause, don't you?
Social media is often used to bully, "troll", intimidate, and threaten people these days, and those of us who experience this behaviour are repeatedly told that if you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. But it's also a place where people can find their "tribe", meet like-minded people from all over the world, and engage in meaningful discussions about important subjects, interspersed with collective self-care via threads flooded with pictures of cute animals and funny pet videos.
From a psychological perspective, I find it interesting that once you have the option to remove the mantle of identity from your persona online, many people feel "free" to levy accusations, threats and character assassinations at others without fear of social repercussions in "the real world".
However, when social media can impact our "real world" feelings, mental health and even physical wellbeing, it's time to acknowledge that we are not exempt from our implied social contract to, you know, not be an asshole to others, generally speaking.
Are we only polite(ish) to each other in the "real world" because our faces are attached to our mouths when we speak? Because we can't hide our identity?
Is social media where we really become who we are internally, free from the constraints of social responsibility?
Or is it away of blowing off steam? Of taking our own social, psychological, and even sexual frustrations out on unsuspecting strangers we will likely never meet in "real life"?
I'm honestly not sure what the answer is. I'm even less sure I want to know. What I do know, is that when personal responsibility for our words online is a choice rather than an obligation, I think it speaks volumes about those who choose to take that responsibility to heart, don't you?
- Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocate at impressability.com.au, and a regular columnist for ACM.