Fri | Apr 23, 2021

Kristen Gyles | Social media: A parallel universe of many double lives

Published:Wednesday | February 24, 2021 | 12:05 AM
The jury is out on whether or not social media has kept us in the know more than it has ironically crippled our social awareness, but it’s not too late to re-evaluate and recalibrate its influence on our behaviour.
The jury is out on whether or not social media has kept us in the know more than it has ironically crippled our social awareness, but it’s not too late to re-evaluate and recalibrate its influence on our behaviour.
Kristen Gyles
Kristen Gyles
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Social media has really been changing us. And not necessarily for the better.

During the later stages of high school, I had a friend who I was at first very fond of. We had good conversations at school and he was usually pretty friendly. After a while, though, he became very active on social media, and also became pretty comfortable spewing insults at people over some very political disagreements.

I wondered how and why I found him to be so different in person, but at some point after a continued stretch of perniciousness online, it suddenly occurred to me.

He really wasn’t very different from so many persons who occupy cyberspace. That is, he was seeking desperately to exert as much prowess and to make as many jabs as possible while the opportunity was there. In person, things would be different.

The truth is, it’s not as easy to be a jerk while looking someone right in the face. It’s not as easy to make a nasty comment about someone when they’re sitting right beside you, and it’s not as easy to lie blatantly when you’re being stared down.

So many persons live lives of cowardice that don’t allow them to stand side by side with the things they say and do online. From time to time, I do a rough check on the social media accounts or profiles associated with the nasty, violent or just downright slanderous comments I see online. Oftentimes, the comments are made by persons who have names like ‘Paul Bearer’ or ‘Sexy Slimmaz’ with a picture of the sunset as their display photo and no discernible trace of who they actually are. Then, it all makes sense.

I suppose we all want an avenue within which to be our true selves without condemnation. That’s understandable. But if all it takes for us to retreat behind the shadows of fake profiles and bogus personas is condemnation, we are cowards. It seems people want to have the option of speaking their minds, unfiltered, without standing by the dirty looks they’ll get for being trashy. If people choose to be disrespectful and spew undiluted vitriol from their mouths, they should be equally prepared to be viewed as disrespectful and vitriolic. And this applies both online and offline.

Outside of the more obvious ‘fake news’ problem social media users have to contend with, this is the interpersonal challenge now starting to confront many online junkies. In an obvious effort to remedy the problem, many social media platforms have overhauled their usership standards and have upped the ante where censorship is concerned. This means one cannot say ‘hateful’ or ‘bigoted’ things online any more. That is, unless they are directed at Donald Trump. But, I digress.

Of course, these are private companies, with the option of doing whatever they want. No one can fault them for deciding that only comments which include the letter ‘b’ will be allowed. But these actions have created a whole other type of problem altogether – blatant and unmasked bias that sees proponents of more conservative ideology being targeted and slandered. And this just enrages them, adding more fuel to their fiery zeal, creating bottlenecks of unmanaged emotions.

The unfortunate reality of cyberspace is that it is not as free and open as is assumed by many. Shortly before US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, social networking app ‘Parler’ was made virtually inaccessible for download after both Apple and Google had Parler removed from their play stores. Boasting itself as a ‘free speech’ app, Parler had left users to police themselves without engaging in the widespread shutting down of accounts they felt were posting ‘hateful’ content, unlike Facebook, Twitter and others. This meant virtually anyone could post anything and much of the content ended up being pretty offensive and slanderous. Apple and Google aside, Amazon also lashed out by withholding its cloud hosting service from Parler, essentially forcing the app offline until it could find a new server hosting provider.

THE ‘CANCEL CULTURE’

Depending on which side of the divide you are on, this may have been a socially responsible move that was long overdue, or it may have been the first step down the rabbit hole to a global ‘cancel culture’ of intolerance. Many social media platforms have become algorithms for reinforcement of what has become ‘progressive’ views, and that in and of itself has created the amplifier effect of creating more angry traditionalists who feel it’s themselves and their misunderstood peers against the world.

Beyond these unforeseen glitches with the intended functionality of social media, another issue is that some of us seem considerably less rational while online. The glimmer of 1,000 likes quickly becomes the blinding light that stuns us into such confusion that we no longer know how to think. For many, there is a huge disconnect between who they profess to be in ‘real life’ and their notorious online personas. Many treat social media as though it’s an alternate universe altogether.

A classic example of this is how some Jamaicans will sit and construct wordy and erudite social media monologues on, let’s say, what they would call “our diminishing respect for women’s bodies” and later the same evening find themselves partying to songs that encourage ‘gyal’ to “Cock it up, skin it out” and “Skin it out wide”.

The jury is out on whether or not social media has kept us in the know more than it has ironically crippled our social awareness, but it’s not too late to re-evaluate and recalibrate its influence on our behaviour. Social media isn’t a getaway from real life so people need to become more responsible about their online interactions. An easy rule to follow is that if you can’t say it face to face, you shouldn’t be saying it at all.

Kristen Gyles is a mathematics educator. Email feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com and columns@gleanerjm.com