The Toxicity of Social Media

I’ve only been on Facebook for a short amount of time relative to most, a couple of months has gone by since I made the leap into this digital equivalent of humans in herds. I administer content management systems at work (ECM), so the least thing I needed was a personalized version. Then my blog came along and I gave into the temptation of having a platform to share my articles. While during my first week on Facebook, I was amazed by this unified form of consciousness I seemed to be observing, I quickly became aware of a darker side to this mass method of communication. Unlike social interactions in the flesh, people feel free to act or react in ways that they wouldn’t do so in public. I used to teach an orientation class at work on cyber manners, back when this new thing called the Internet became a tool for business. It was then that I was first introduced to the analogy of people acting the same way online, as they do in their cars, especially during incidents of road rage. The comparison was made of someone getting in front of you in the movie line, to if they did the same action in their car while driving. In the later example, you might scream and yell at the person, shoot them the bird and hold your hand down on the horn. While if you acted the same way face to face, you’d probably scare the shit out of everyone around you and might even get arrested.

The longer I’m on Facebook it seems the more I’m confronted with negativity. I discovered how easy it is to offend those around you with seemingly benign posts, or even your lack of. You can offend your friends by not liking everything they have to say, or by simply sharing your alternate point of you. The exchange of ideas and information, which is the very concept of social media by definition, is attacked when you engage or participate in it, or if you don’t. Most people are familiar with the idea of trolling, which is when others solicit responses from readers, only to be harshly criticized when they do. While I used to think this was an intentional and premeditated behavior, I’m starting to see examples of it where I truly believe the individual has no clue they’re actively pursuing an argument. Just today I awoke to the horrific news regarding the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the deadliest in American history at the time of this writing. While many members express their disbelief and sadness in familiar posts such as “Sending Prayers To Las Vegas”, which would normally seem to be a kind and appropriate gesture, there are those which take the opportunity to criticize and mock those doing their part, in their own way, to process and heal from such devastating news. Even changing your photo to reflect your state of mind, an individualized expression of emotion, becomes a target for those seeking to cyber kick you while you’re down.

I myself am guilty of such behavior. While I try my best to keep an elevated viewpoint regarding life circumstances and how you react to them, I recently had my own little version of a meltdown on Facebook. I became enraged in the constant regurgitation of news which had become public knowledge, unless you lived under a rock, of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico and the humanitarian disaster that followed. It seemed everyone was just saying the same thing over and over, expending great amounts of energy on communicating this message in every way possible, without using equivalent effort to develop solutions. I posted a message which I’m sure upset many of my Facebook friends, including one that stated “bye Felicia” in the comments of my post, and then unfriended me. The next day I apologized for my words that were clearly a symptom of how frustrated everyone was feeling with leadership’s response to the crisis.

So what is it about this medium that seems to bring out so much negativity? Why do we encourage free thinking and then hate each other when they take us up on it? Why are we so appalled when we find out our friends enjoy watching mindless, stupid, so called “reality based” television? See! There I go again!! Help!

Perhaps you’re one of those that has decided to take a back seat on Facebook, to simply observe everyone tearing each other to pieces and not participate in the negativity. Even you are not immune. Only two days ago a person communicated that they would soon unfriend those who haven’t responded to their posts, evidently being upset at the lack of feedback they were receiving. So even by not taking a stand on an issue, your passiveness is interpreted as having one. Your failure to either state your displeasure with events or defend them, can put you on someone’s shit list. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Is the solution to this toxic environment to surround yourself with friends that think and act like you, that agree with everything you say, that offer no intelligent discussion or varying points of view? As strange, boring and slightly sociopathic as this may sound, there are those members that frequently state you notify them if your political or ideological views are not the same as their own, so they may unfriend you.

So where does this leave us? A good friend of mine, whom I affectionately call Mr. Hurley, recently stated “let’s all just agree to disagree and sit down together and watch…” was some tv show, probably a stupid reality program, but he seemed to have the right idea. We need to express some tolerance for each other (a recurring theme as of late), and we need to stop devolving into children when we see and hear things we don’t agree with. As a species we seem to really like this idea of constant communication and exchange of ideas, look at how many people are addicted to their smartphones and portable devices. But if this is how the human race really feels and behaves when we have license to, we’ve got a pretty scary future ahead of us. As a former docent at a local zoo, I can tell you it’s a lot like how chimpanzees behave towards each other. One second full of love and compassion, the next beating the crap out of each other to assert their dominance. Perhaps Facebook is bringing out the worst in our evolutionary past? If animals like ball pythons can have vestigial legs, can we have ancient personality traits that are just waiting to be triggered? I don’t know about you, but the idea of chimpanzees with weapons of mass destruction at their disposal isn’t my idea of a good weekend. Let’s hope we realize this before someone wonders “what’s this button for?”

George, a male chimpanzee that called Zoo Miami his home, until his death 5 years ago.

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