I remember how much I used to love and advocate for social media — yes even in the time of MySpace, which started its peak around 2005 or 2006. The Internet was this amazingly fun place that also felt to me like the most inclusive. It allowed me to find my voice and encouraged my own self-expression in ways I had never been confident enough to before. It empowered me personally to not only come out, but feel like I wouldn’t be a “freak” because so many other people online shared my exact feelings. The Internet provided a level of exposure to people both like me and not like me that growing up in a small town never could.
Unfortunately, that phase of the Internet is over. But I’m hopeful it’s not dead forever.
More and more, the Internet has become a place where people fight constantly and alienate each other for having even slightly different opinions. People don’t just seek out others online with similar views, they feel immediately entitled to their own online social sphere.
Social media algorithms have put us in such a horrendous place. Facebook, just as one example, is designed to show you more posts based on the stuff you like and the people you interact with. So if over the years, you liked more right-leaning posts or more left-leaning posts, your news feed learned to show you a lot more posts like those. 10 years ago when these algorithms were either nonexistent or just launching, the Internet forced every possible angle on you: everything you agree with and disagree with. But these algorithms have very slowly and carefully pushed us into our own cliques, so that now when other opinions come along, they seem so frighteningly outrageous after having been fed so much constant reinforcement from within our own cliques. I believe this is the primary contributing factor of the “divide” in America the media speaks of.
The other component is the downside of too much connection. Every thought, every moment, every feeling is now not only documented online but emphasized. In an attempt to make themselves feel better about their lives, social media users started only posting optimistic, but exaggerated snapshots of their real lives: vacation photos, shiny new purchases, crazy night life videos, etc. (How many times have you seen someone in a club dancing and acting crazy for a Snapchat video only to stop and resume regular behavior once the video ends?) This excessive need to promote personal brands and feel better about ourselves has made everyone quietly feel worse. And it’s just been a constant back-and-forth competition ever since.
This behavior also very clearly explains to me one of the most toxic behaviors online in the past few years: digging up people’s pasts. Anyone can go off and find someone’s lame or offensive shitpost from 15 years ago and send it off to go viral on the web and immediately demand an explanation for this behavior.
Imagine, in real life, face-to-face, having to apologize in 2019 for something you said to someone in 2006. It doesn’t happen because in most situations, it’d be pretty ridiculous. This behavior online has always come off as far more self-serving than anything else. It enables people to feel like they’ve done good today and served some justice at the expense of someone else.
Now, I’m not saying that people should just be able to say whatever racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic comment they want and get away with it. But what I am saying is that in the quest to give everyone a voice and freedom of expression, the Internet has totally forgotten about the human being behind the voice: the person who makes mistakes, occasionally lashes out and says stuff they don’t mean, holds personal emotions outside of what they post, grows, and evolves as a person.
I am a queer man. 10 years ago, not only did I not even know that about myself, but I sure didn’t support gay marriage, I used the word “fag” up and down, and pretty much viewed flamboyant gay men as beneath me. All of that was very clearly wrong — it’s like I’m the exact opposite person today that I was a decade ago. It’s called growing, and I suspect I’m not the only person who has changed radically over the past several years.
People are always going to be wiser with experience, and people are always to some extent going to be a product of their environment. If you are constantly surrounded by people who hold one view, chances are over time you’d start to share that viewpoint as well. However, if at some point you escape that bubble, your perception of the world changes as does your views and morals.
I suppose this has been mostly stream of consciousness writing, but I guess the main points I’m trying to argue are these:
- Stop comparing yourself to other people online.
- Stop tearing down other people online for your own benefit.
- Allow people to grow and evolve naturally online just as they do in real life.
- Fight your confirmation bias as much as you can online. Expose yourself to opinions you align with and opinions you totally disagree with, then form thoughts of your very own.
It’s just so disappointing to me how it seems no one can get along online anymore. It’s as if the same powers that gave everyone an equal voice on the web have turned against us.
I just hope soon we can find a happy medium: maintaining and building upon the progress toward true equality and acceptance social media helped power-boost while also bringing back proper exposure to all vantage points, understanding human nature, and learning to healthily laugh at ourselves and each other.