Social AIDs*

Some farewell thoughts on quitting social media.

Haters gonna hate

Yesterday I heard the news of Ed Piskor’s suicide. If you are not interested in comics you may never have heard of Ed. Perhaps you had come across one of this books, most notably the Hip Hop Family Tree series. Or perhaps his association with Jim Rugg as part of the ongoing Youtube video series “Cartoonist Kayfabe”. I’ve never met Ed. I don’t really have a perspective on him except through his work.

I’m not going into details of the accusations and rumours levelled at Ed in the period leading up to his taking his own life. I didn’t delve into the details when they surfaced and am not remotely qualified to comment. But this story highlights a campaign of vitriol targeted at an individual online to the extent that he felt he could not continue.

Then yesterday a suicide note was posted - seemingly from Ed - up on Facebook. Just as we had all watched the demonisation of an individual unfold on social media in real time - with accusations spreading like wildfire (and I am not for one second excusing Ed or debasing these accusations) - we started to see the very real unfolding in real time of attempts to clarify this note and attempts to contact and ultimately help Ed. These were futile. The note was genuine and his family confirmed that he had taken his own life some hours after the note was posted online.

Incidentally, yesterday - April Fools Day - also saw the “Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill” come into force. To quote the Scottish Government, the act provides “new measures to tackle the harm caused by hatred and prejudice.” The act - on face value - provides a concrete measure to tackle what feels like a growing mob rule on the internet. The kind of mob rule that in this instance has resulted in an individual taking his own life.

But the act is not without controversy and has been seen by some not as a means in law to provide protection but rather as a means to silence those who have views which others dislike, most notably around gender identity and the rights of transgender women. The Scottish Government have tried to qualify this saying “protections for freedom of expression are built into the legislation.” But for some - such as the author J.K. Rowling - this has widespread consequences for CIS women because in our deeply misogynistic society some women feel threatened by the potential dangers presented by biologically born men who self-identify as women.

What does this have to do with the death of Ed Piskor? For me they are related because both are intimately tied into the very public trial by social media that characterises mob rule in the digital age. And in the latter case that is on both sides of the debate.

I am not a women. Nor am I transgender. Furthermore I have transgender friends and consider myself a feminist. As a white, CIS male I have empathy for both sides of the argument. I fundamentally wish we lived in an inclusive society that fully embraced both perspectives. But sadly we do not. This is a battleground (or at least it often feels like it) I feel ill-equipped to participate in or take sides on. And it would not be an understatement to say it causes me a great deal of angst and consternation to regularly see these arguments unfold in a public fora where advocates on both sides decry you are either with us or against us. This seems very far from the aspirations of the Scottish Act to protect freedom of expressions and which seek to punish actions whilst permitting opinions.

Anti-social media and the shared disconnect

The polarity in this argument is not restricted to social media. We can see across human recorded history examples where society is asked to take sides along clear dividing lines, whether that is social media, civil and religious wars or even our very own (in Britain) parliamentary fabric. The House of Commons is a house divided along a single axis, a linear chamber to this day clearly demarcated by two red lines 2.5 metres apart “which, by apocryphal tradition, is intended to be just over two sword-lengths. It is said that the original purpose of this was to prevent disputes in the House from degenerating into duels.” This political house has at its core an architecture that divides and serves to encourage opposing views. You only have to watch the schoolyard cheers, jeers and heckles at Prime Ministers Questions each Wednesday to see that this is an environment that rewards boisterous and vociferous expression of rivalry rather than collaboration, cooperation and conversation.

So social media is by no means unique nor is it isolated but it has certainly helped to magnify, amplify and exacerbate fissures within society.

In the (relatively) early days of the internet - and certainly one of the things that attracted me to it - was the idea of the democratisation of knowledge. Having information available to all and providing a platform and set of tools through which any voice could be heard. That is how I first learned HTML. A language that could be used to mark up words to put on a computer that could be viewed by anyone in the world. The more I delved into the web the more I saw it as a valuable tool for breaking down the literal and social barriers to knowledge. In my experiences of archaeology even the most liberal of academics still perpetuated themselves as gatekeepers to how we understood and explained what happened in the human material past. I saw the internet as a means for breaking down these ivory towers, or at the very least building ramps to let others glance into their hallowed halls or perhaps even participate.

Social media arrived within this world and I was fascinated by the openness and connectedness it provided. It was fundamentally about sharing and bringing people together, often over large geographical areas (the WORLD wide web). As we reached the limitations of HTML, new technologies were developed to help people and technologies communicate. APIs were built to provide the loose architecture for people to build their own tools and experiences online. In the meantime efforts were made to standardise our tools as well as make human experiences online more accessible. As Tim Berners Lee had said back in 1999: “The Internet is for Everyone”.

At times for me the internet - and especially social media - made the world smaller. It connected me with people that I would never otherwise have met, on a global scale. At times where I have needed it I have found solace in and with kindred spirits. I have found allies that helped me fix problems, I found work, I got a book deal and even a place to live.

Bridges and walls

You could argue in this sense that the internet and social media is a success story. Everyone has in the palm of their hand the ability to say what they want to a global audience. But rather than serve to level the playing field and democratise voices it is hard to deny that it has also served to foster echo chambers; closed networks which reinforce existing views and prejudices. And rather than connect people it instead defines people by which side of a divide they are situated on, amplifying conversations that reinforce their stance and demonises those that oppose them.

I have certainly been guilty of this. #FBPE is a hashtag that cropped up in the wake of the Brexit referendum (yet more dividing lines). Meaning “Follow Back Pro-Europe” it served to help people proudly identify as supporting British membership of the European Union. In adopting this hashtag I was on the one hand trying to find others that shared my exasperation and frustration at losing a core part of my identity - my citizenship of Europe. But I was also making a vocal and visible stance that I was fundamentally opposed to those people who supported the referendum. Similarly in a bit to raise support for proportional representation at the 2017 general election I was vociferous in my support for any party that opposed the Conservative Party candidate in our constituency. This was the political equivalent of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and whilst I stand by the energy and devotion I put into this campaign (mostly because it was a reaction to our broken electoral system) I cannot help but wonder if in emphasising and regurgitating the divisive lines of our current political landscape I was in fact part of the problem.

With these divisions and polarity the opposite has emerged from my early experiences of the internet. Rather than a smaller, more connected world that rewarded the serendipity of strangers, we seem to inhabit a world which encourages division. And in that sense the world now seems larger and more alien. And - personally speaking - in the wake of these divisions I acutely feel the voids that develop between sides.

To return to the suicide of Ed Piskor and the controversy surrounding the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act, there feels like a growing chasm between sides that is now bringing about very real casualties. My instinct is to want to fill this void. To pour empathy and compassion into the gap to bridge this divide. But as the dividing lines become clearer and the gap grows this becomes harder.

Pulling the drawbridge up

There is a scene in the Zack Snyder Superman film Man of Steel that springs to mind here (sorry, I know a lot of people hate on this film but I’m a big fan). Struggling to come to terms with his developing super powers Clark Kent hides in a closet at school, overcome with the voices he can hear with his extraordinary hearing.

“The world's too big, Mom”

To which his mum replies.

“Then make it small.”

I've loved social media. As I have said it has provided a great comfort and help to me in difficult times of my life. It has brought me friendships and opportunities that I would never have found possible without it.

But I find myself now yearning for simpler times and quieter times. Without having to take sides and without being immersed in conflict. Without having to fill the chasm left behind as the gap between opinions grows greater. Like Clark Kent maybe I just have to make the world smaller.

Maybe it's age. Or perspective. Or exhaustion. But I feel like I have to walk away from social media. I’ve done this before but more as a detox. Now I feel I need a clean break. So I am logging out of my social media accounts. I am not deleting them. I think it important that they serve as a reminder (to me if not anyone else) of happier times. And perhaps I will find more time to blog. Like the good old days.

But just in case I’ll keep my comments closed. You know, to keep things civil. I'm only ever an email or text message away.

As the great William “Bill” S. Preston, Esq. and “Ted” Theodore Logan once said:

“Be excellent to each other.”

* Footnote

I called this post Social AIDs. This was a deliberate play on words and is intend more as a warning cry than a deliberate provocation. AIDs is a human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that came to prominence in the 1980s with widespread societal consequences. The HIV/AIDs virus fundamentally affects your body’s ability to regulate and defend itself. To me this analogy seemed especially apt. Because without stops and check our social media has become increasingly toxic and prone to incubating and amplifying the worst of us. The slogan associated with the public health campaign in the UK seems especially relevant here: “Don't die of ignorance.” Without wanting to take sides, I think in light of the death of Ed Piskor we can perhaps think on this before wading into another internet pile-on.