Most big stories in today’s media include analyses of the way social media reacts to the events being reported. If a politician is caught lying, or if a celebrity is seen doing something unsavoury, newspaper coverage will usually include something about what people are writing about it on Twitter. Indeed, sometimes Twitter itself even becomes the way people in the public eye bring about their own downfall, as happened when Labour’s Emily Thornberry tweeted a picture of an English flag and a white van during the Rochester by-election and had to resign as Shadow Attorney General. Twitter and other social media platforms are crucial for anybody in public life, and most well-known people now regularly use the internet to keep in touch with their fans and disseminate their ideas.
The fact that communication is so easy seems like an entirely positive part of modern life. Politicians and governments can communicate directly with citizens. Activists can use social media, as we saw during the Scottish referendum, to exchange ideas, organise and bring people together. Writers, actors, sports stars and musicians can speak to their fans and are able to read and respond to what those fans write back. Even the Pope has a Twitter feed, giving God a (broadband) connection with billions of Catholics all over the world. The ability to tweet and retweet cuts down distances. The Prime Minister or Prince Charles are no longer locked securely behind the doors of No.10 or Clarence House. Famous people can’t isolate themselves in their mansions like Howard Hughes. And God himself isn’t way up in Heaven anymore, but here on the planet sending his Word, via his representative on earth, whizzing through servers, wires and routers along with the billions of other bytes of data that move around the world every day.
In a remote part of the world like Shetland, where I live, this reduction of distances is surely a good thing. Shetlanders, or indeed anybody living in an isolated place, can join the conversation and be part of a global electronic community. We can sit in Sullom or Baltasound or Scalloway and send our thoughts out into the world for people to read, and we can see instantly what people from other parts of the planet are saying. Social media and instant communication, no matter where we live, can allow us to both keep the powerful in check – by not allowing politicians to get too far away from “ordinary people” – and mitigate the effects of geography. And, at its best, it can even help bring disparate groups and individuals together and unite them behind a just or emancipatory cause. The distance to a computer (in the relatively affluent parts of the world at least) is the same for everybody.
There is a fair bit of truth in this utopian picture, and it would be wildly reactionary to suggest that the way social media has disrupted traditional ways of communicating – letter writing, for instance – is a bad thing. But there is an element of social media use that is less than savoury, as we see, for example, when Katie Hopkins tweets her latest attack on disabled children or people with dementia, or when a feminist campaigner is bombarded with threats of rape. Why do people think it is OK to do this? What is it about social media that allows people to behave in this way?
One reason, perhaps, is that, despite the way telecommunications brings people together, it also atomizes people into faces in front of screens, typing out hatred and sending it into a void. Typing and sending a rape threat takes a few seconds and, once the mouse if clicked, the message is in some way divorced from its author and catapulted into the stream of words running across a monitor. To put this another way, people writing on Twitter often don’t mean what they say, in the sense that their words are a prelude to an actual event (this, of course, doesn’t reduce the seriousness of making a rape threat), but are engaged in some kind of wish fulfillment via their keyboards. The fact that they have written and sent their message makes what they are saying in some way “real”. They act out their terrible fantasy by writing about it and sending their words out into the world. A minority of psychopaths might go a step further and actually do what they say they are going to do, but for most people, their nastiness doesn’t carry them past clicking ‘Send’.
In Shetland’s own media and cultural environment, Twitter is less prominent than it is nationally, but that isn’t to say that the same arguments about social media aren’t relevant here. A lively internet community, for example, has developed on the website of the Shetland Times newspaper, where local stories are debated at length, and where it is not unusual for a letter or a report to be commented on dozens, even hundreds of times. And this, most people would agree, is a healthy thing. People in the community get the chance to have their voices heard, and those in positions of authority (such as councillors or politicians) can engage in dialogue with the people they represent. Even in a small place like Shetland, websites like the Shetland Times can cut down distances and provide an important medium for public debate.
But, just as people on Twitter are often nasty, social media users in Shetland sometimes let their viciousness get the better of them, or let their views drift headlong towards paranoia or hyperbole. There are, for instance, frequent comparisons made between the Scottish Government and the Nazis, or extravagant claims about the harm the recently built, publically funded cinema and music venue Mareel is doing to island society, or wacky statements about Shetland not really being part of Scotland. Reading some of this material, you sometimes wonder if the authors really mean what they say, or is it the case that typing and sending something into the social media space increases the tendency to make outrageous statements? Pouring scorn and opprobrium on the arts, for example, has been a favourite pastime of local internet contributors since Mareel was first mooted. The argument goes that, in times of financial austerity, the arts, a needless waste of money patronised by a small middle-class elite, should be the first thing to go. But how many of the people who fulminate against the arts would go any further than shouting into cyberspace? Would they, for instance, stand outside the door of Mareel and try and stop people going in? Or go to the annual Young Musician of the Year Award and throw rotten fruit at the participants? Or go to schools and bellow at pupils in art lessons that they are wasting their time before horse-whipping them over to the physics lab to learn about the second law of thermodynamics?
Of course no sane person would behave like this. But is it not the case that acting precisely in this way would be more ethical (in the sense of committing wholly to a cause or higher purpose one believes in) than writing about it on a website? It’s as if the act of commenting online negates any real action. I’m not, I hasten to add, advocating mass protests outside museums and galleries and am firmly in favour of public funding for the arts, but what I’m trying to show is that, despite the things some people write, most of the time they will never enact or engender any kind of change in the social space they are so obviously unsatisfied with. Ranting on social media will be as far as they go.
Social media, then, provides a safe, clearly defined environment into which anybody can send their thoughts. It is a space which in some way mimics reality (in the sense that it draws people into a community), but which can also isolate people from the reality they are criticising or the person they are threatening. It is a space which has rules, usually in the form of an unseen moderator, but rules which seem to differ from those of the world outside cyberspace. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan described the network of linguistic, legal and social norms that define society as the Big Other. The Big Other is the authority we all keep in mind when we act or speak. It is the thing we come up against when we make a statement or behave in a certain way. We would feel the influence of the Big Other, for example, were we to stand naked in George Square and proclaim our liking for child molestation. It is the hidden framework of society that regulates the way we exist in that society, that lets us know which ways of living are acceptable and which are not.
It might seem like different rules apply in social media, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What gets written on Twitter or on the Shetland Times website is still subject to the strictures of the Big Other. A vindictive, hateful statement sent out on social media is still a vindictive, hateful statement. People who produce comments of that kind should ask themselves if they would say the same things to a stranger they meet at a bus stop, or to an anonymous person they happen to see at the supermarket. If the answer is no (because, if they did, they would look insane), then maybe they should revise what they are about to type. Even though somebody is alone in front of their computer screen, the Big Other is still watching you.