Oh, it’s a problem unique to the Information Age, for sure.
You know someone casually, a friend of a friend, perhaps, or a passing acquaintance you quite like, but only on a very superficial level. You don’t know anything about them, you don’t particularly want to know anything about them. They’re the wallpaper of your existence – perfectly pleasant in passing, but any attempt to sit down and have a conversation with them would look and feel slightly awkward.
In the 200,000 odd years we’ve been shuffling about on this godforsaken planet, this has worked. Circles of friends operating to to the same principle as Dante’s seven circles of hell, with generally accepted and suitably challenging boundaries. The indecisive destined to remain forever on the outer limits with the virtuous pagans and pervs sneaking glances at The Tower of Lust, while unconsciously stuffing handfuls of Glasgow salad into their gobs.
Social media has blown through these generally accepted boundaries like a satanic wind. Before you know it, you’ve accepted a Friend Request from the aforementioned individual (because it would be rude not to), and suddenly, without warning, through their daily updates, photos and location tagging, you know what they’re eating, who they’re sleeping with and where, what they and their other friends think about who they’re sleeping with, who they argue with, and most disturbingly, that they’re a casual racist/homophobe/misogynist.
The former? Even an unsociable witch like me can cope with those. But as I learned last week, simply scrolling merrily past statements, photos and videos depicting offensive ‘gags’ is something entirely different.
I’m fortunate enough to live in a democracy, and mature enough to understand that there will always be people whose views I don’t agree with. I actively seek and enjoy debates with friends of many ages and lifestyles whose views on politics, animal welfare, immigration and sport are wildly divergent to my own. I’m not precious.
And yet, it shocks me to the core when I see a post shared on my timeline by someone I just assumed was, well, not a screaming racist.
Facebook has reacted with varying degrees of enthusiasm towards complaints about trolling, bullying, revenge porn, inappropriate content and many of the other, previously undiscovered, traits of human nature that we’ve developed and nurtured through universal connection. However inept their efforts may appear to be sometimes, boundaries are being defined and it feels like we’re slouching forward in the general direction of safer times.
But this? There’s no frame of reference and certainly no etiquette guide to casual, almost unconscious denigration of difference. Do you hide their updates and pretend like nothing happened, even though every time you see them you want to scream “What were you thinking?!” into their baffled and freshly spit-flecked face. Do comment on the post yourself, calling them out on their stupidity, knowing that you will be effectively lighting the blue touch paper on an online row that will eventually end up with someone accusing someone else of being a Nazi?
Do you just unfriend them and get on with it, vowing to deal with that awkward email later?
I have no answer for you. I even sought the opinions of two valued, real world friends, both users of Facebook and quite well versed in the conventions of cyberspace but while both were decisive in their responses to deliberately inflammatory statements, they were less so on more ambiguous, but still offensive, posts. Odd, isn’t it?
All I can say is that it’s led me to contemplate how horrendously ill-prepared we are to deal with this brave, shiny new world we’ve built for ourselves but don’t quite know how to operate yet. And having read an obscene amount of science fiction in my youth, I can confirm that far greater minds than mine worked through the notion of screwing with the natural order of human behaviour in many forms a long time ago.
The broad conclusion? It never, ever works out well for the meat robots. So I should probably stop worrying about it.