Anti-social media

The recent imprisonment of Swansea University student Liam Stacey, for firing off drunken Tweets about the collapse of Fabrice Muamba, is the latest example of society’s rapid adjustment to a world driven by social media. I was at the game when the incident occurred, and was frantically scouring Twitter for news of Muamba’s condition while I sat on the train home. The incident had been hugely upsetting for everyone who saw it, and had I seen Liam Stacey’s post I suspect I too would have retweeted it in order to unleash hell on poor Liam’s timeline.

That Stacey followed his insensitivity with some apparently vicious racist Tweets to those who condemned him means sympathy for the drunken student is correctly in short supply. Racists deserve to be in prison – or in the ground, to be honest – but surely imprisoning drunken students is the thin end of a very big wedge. All of us have friends who revel in being the first to pass on – usually via text message – those slightly naughty or tasteless jokes that invariably accompany tragedy. Sometimes, even a cynical, jaded media type such as me finds these gags a little too close to the bone. Rodney Marsh famously lost his job for his ill-judged tsunami ‘gag’ on Sky Sports; a joke that most people had heard a day or two before he inadvisedly retold it on live TV.

I have blogged before – and doubtless will again – about brands who have misused social media, but at the heart of the problem is that brands don’t Tweet, people do. And people aren’t infallible.

With each of us only a single angry, drunken or misjudged Tweet away from either a prison sentence or professional suicide, I have found myself spending a lot more time contemplating the nature and content of my online activity than I used to. I am steering away from forums and comment sections, trying very hard not to click on links that I know will raise my blood-pressure, and refraining from Tweeting anything overtly partisan that I know will upset a good number of my followers.

Ultimately, I have realised that there are an awful lot of people in the world whose views I disagree with to an extent that I will never, ever agree with them or even in some cases acknowledge their right to hold the opinions they do. I have spent my life befriending people who don’t hold repugnant or ignorant views, and avoiding contact with those who do. Why should the digital world be any different?

In short: don’t argue online. Ever. You can’t win. Unfollow or block people whose views annoy you, whether they know about the snub or not. Stop reading comments sections – they attract trolls like purpose built goat-bridges. Refrain from contributing to forums unless you’re positive you won’t be offended by people whose opinions are different from your own. Don’t be unnecessarily provocative, unless it’s to racists, homophobes or creationists, in which case you’re allowed because some things need saying. Finally, if you wouldn’t say it – whatever it is – to someone’s face, don’t say it online.

None of those rules are original or particularly insightful, but the reason I have written this post is that there are an increasing number of people taking Twitter-breaks or signing off from facebook. If this behaviour becomes a trend – and, as more people get tired of being yelled at or imprisoned, I think it might – it will have repercussions for brands. If only the shouty, pointy types remain on social media, chances are the rest of us will be elsewhere, being entirely reasonable and non-judgmental. And who knows where that might be?

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