People were bullies before technology happened, it’s just more visible now


The prime minister of the UK recently stood at the dispatch box and introduced to the floor of parliament the dangers of bullying on social media. The mood around social media and its negative effects is sincere in its development and concerted in its efforts. The American Journal of Epistemology recently published a study which described how and to what extend social media is having on younger generations; it’s bad, mental-health-problems, and it’s all because too much time is spent on platforms which allow communications through anonymity, and allow for highlights to be published of other’s lives devoid of context. In Australia the situation has gone so far that lawyers are suggesting that it should be possible to sue Facebook over bullying and harassment.

The situation is serious, it warrants real and genuine debate, but there are caveats to apply before we become enthralled with our own indignation. We can very quickly run through a number of points which can easily be identified as inflammatory to the situation. Of course lawyers want people suing Facebook, all the more business to charge you for.

And it is no surprise that media publications are inclined to publish pieces which need to include words like “Facebook”, “mental health” and “younger generations” – any phrase which piques interest and appeals to our Googling nature is going to get a place on a website. They are far less likely to publish contradictory articles or mention that scientific research is performed over long periods of time upon a mass of evidence and arduously-derived consensus. That’s not going to get any pulses racing. Not going to get any mouses clicking. Not going to get the very mechanisms of social media which they deride whirring in order to share the product of their work.

Only five years ago Facebook was only a year into being a publish company, it’s share price hadn’t risen an ounce and commentators were questioning whether the platform really had what it took to become a major company. That was five years ago, in 2013. And 2013 was only 9 years after Mark Zuckerberg had written the first line of Facebook code in his dorm room at Harvard. Tech companies, and social media platforms in particular, have an ability to grow into big businesses in a time frame most other industries might simply consider a development phase.

And in that growth perspective gets lost. Who – pray tell – would like to assert the argument that bullying, harassment and miscommunication are new to society, or humanity? I can’t say it’s a stance I’d like to defend. Yet in public commentary on the topics are led in such a way that puts social media companies at the point of the arrow, as though they are the mechanism by which new, hitherto unknown ills are inflicted on society. The truth of the matter is far deeper, far more troubling and far more mundane than any news headline would like to admit: human beings are shit, we’ve always been shits, and we will probably always be shits.

There is a sincere debate to be had about how to treat anonymity and the effect it has on one’s ability to inflict verbal harm on another. But here again we land on more caveats, because despite our inclinations towards moral indignation offense does not equal harm, lest you license everyone to cry wolf. And, further, anonymity online has been hugely important to the gay and mentally ill communities online, being able to discuss their experiences with like-minded folk regardless of geographical proximity. So careful, preacher, of what you wish for.

Whether we discuss these issues pre- or post-social media we are left with a conundrum: wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice? The simple explanation is tempting, no doubt. But that does not make it true. And while people find it easier to be nastier with one another, the whole debate really points to one, fundamental and untackled truth of human nature: we’re not always particularly good to one another. And that shall remain true if undealt with no matter the medium of its exhibition.

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Ben Allen is a traveller, a millennial and a Brit. He worked in the London startup world for a while but really prefers commenting on it than working in it. He has huge faith in the tech industry and enjoys talking and writing about the social issues inherent in its development. Find him on Twitter @benjijamesallen

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