The invention of the telephone probably prompted great thinkers of the day to ponder the negative consequences it might have on society. "Now, before we all get excited about this, let's just hang on a minute," they might have written - but no one paid much attention. It's been fifteen years since mobile phone use started becoming widespread, and the vast majority of nay-sayers have, begrudgingly or otherwise, forked out for one. Social media, however, is coming in for a more sustained kicking – and that's hardly surprising, as it represents such a radical change in the way we communicate: a new syntax, a new etiquette and a whole new capacity for misunderstanding. Pope Benedict (above) this week issued a statement entitled "Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age," in which he advises against enclosing ourselves in a parallel virtual existence. Now, to be honest, if the Pope warns of the dangers of something my natural instinct is to rush to sign up to it, but there are normal people (ie, people who have had experience of social media and who aren't 83 years old, celibate and clad in papal vestments) who are issuing similar warnings.
A book entitled Alone Together by MIT professor Sherry Turkle is published over here in a few weeks time, and its strongly worded attack on social media has already caused quite a fuss in the USA. She refers to a "form of modern madness," and in an interview witheringly referred to funerals she has attended during which people dare to check their mobile phones for incoming messages. It must be tricky to land effective punches on an activity that's embraced by hundreds of millions of people and growing fast, but her cause is supported by many who believe that social media is making us more anti-social.
They point to cases such as the suicide in Brighton of Simone Back, who stated her intention to take her life on Facebook, but whose "friends" allegedly preferred to bicker amongst themselves rather than raise the alarm. They claim that online exchanges actively usurp real-life communication; one blog comment I read even suggests that "young people... limit their friends to those with whom they have a formal, digital connection." Strong charges, undoubtedly.
But such high-handed, patronising drivel. Sure, there are things about our new social arena that are bad. Its control by a small number of corporate entities, for one. "Slacktivism" is very real; our lazy clicking of a "Like" button, the signing of an online petition or changing the colour of an avatar will never replace getting off the sofa and doing something to help. I'm aware that social media can provoke feelings of anxiety in those who feel that they aren't "good at it" – ie, they don't collect friends or follow requests, post endless streams of weblinks or embrace the compelling world of barns and ploughs in Farmville. But I don't see society following an inevitable path to hell in some kind of digital handcart. I challenge anyone to recall some golden age when we always laughed and joked with strangers on a bus. We didn't. We generally sat in silence, and didn't blame anyone for it. Today, we sit in silence while exchanging messages with friends instead.
Of course people behave badly online, but they behave badly offline, too. We can be fallible, annoying, even brutal; the difference today is that academics can observe it on the internet, and then state that society is definitely becoming "less human" in an attempt to shift some books. Facebook acquaintances may not rush to someone's aid when they express distress online, but they might be equally likely to walk past someone crying on a street corner. There are people who immerse themselves in alternate realities in their bedrooms to an unhealthy degree, but prior to World Of Warcraft they may have immersed themselves in another solitary activity instead. Go into town on a Friday night; young people are not "limiting their friends to whom they have a formal, digital connection," they're drinking, flirting, arguing, laughing, having sex, just as they always did. Twitter and Facebook may appear as disjointed streams of rapid-fire information, but real connections are formed, friends are made and lost, issues are debated, love is blossoming. Social media is such an huge, complex, ever-morphing entity, and it doesn't deserve to be dismissed and damned out of hand – either by professors, or pontificating pontiffs.