Joan Smith: Unsociable truth behind social networks

A psychological crutch and a repository for morons' anger. Our columnist despairs at the nastier side of the internet
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The Independent Online

Could Neville Chamberlain have declared war on Germany using Twitter? I don't see why not. Seventy years later, Downing Street tweets. So does the Prime Minister's wife, Sarah, and Gordon Brown himself is on YouTube. Admitting that you don't tweet or endlessly update your social networking site is tantamount to declaring yourself a dinosaur. It got Matthew Parris invited on to the Today programme one morning last week after he mentioned in a column that he'd refused an invitation to contribute to a live Twitter feed (whatever that is) during a lunch to judge a student journalism award.

Parris's trenchant response – he wrote that pigs would fly before he did anything so inane while simultaneously trying to judge a writing competition – is rare in a world where people live in terror of criticising the internet, despite the fact that time-wasting, bullying and exhibitionism are rife online.

The internet is a fantastic tool for all sorts of activities from research and political campaigning to shopping. There are repressive countries, such as China and Vietnam, where it's regarded as such a powerful political tool that governments go to extraordinary lengths to close down opposition sites.

But the internet has changed the way we live in ways that aren't benign at all, as the entrepreneur Theo Paphitis pointed out last week. The chairman of the Ryman stationery company launched an outspoken attack on aspects of the internet, arguing – incontrovertibly, I'd have thought – that it "has polluted the air with meaningless babble and egomaniacal drivel".

A year ago, Paphitis became so concerned about the amount of time his employees were wasting on social networking sites that he restricted their internet access. Paphitis has applauded Portsmouth City Council for banning staff from using Facebook after it was discovered that town hall employees were spending an average of 413 hours a month on the site. The decision is controversial. But anyone who works in an office knows that some colleagues spend much longer than others on social networking sites.

The problem for employers is that normal considerations seem not to apply in much of the virtual world, leading to what Paphitis calls "an orgy of self-indulgence and exhibitionism". Here is an example: four months ago, a civil servant at the Department for Children, Schools and Families posted an angry anonymous message on the internet attacking the then communities secretary, Hazel Blears. Angered by revelations about Ms Blears's expenses, Lisa Greenwood used her work email account to post it on an internet forum. "You are only sorry that you have been caught," she railed. "You are a disgrace (including all the other honourable members). Why haven't you been sacked?"

Ms Greenwood complained bitterly when she was identified through her email address and sacked for gross misconduct. The irony of a public servant using her office email account to accuse a cabinet minister of misusing public funds was completely lost on her.

This highlights one of the chief problems with the internet, which is the way in which the practice of allowing anonymous or pseudonymous postings has encouraged a culture of arrogance and impunity. The "online community" is solipsis

tic to a degree; having nothing to say has never been an obstacle to bloggers, and the quantity of tedious personal information posted on the internet suggests an extraordinarily widespread craving for recognition and validation.

So does the phenomenon of Facebook "friends", a competition so fierce that I sometimes find I've been nominated as a friend by people I've barely heard of. (I don't use social networking sites, I hasten to add.) But the overall effect of the internet is atomising, encouraging people to think of themselves as the centre of a virtual universe where there are simply no limits.

One of the ways this manifests itself is in endless demands for "free" content; ISPs and the "online community" reacted hysterically to Lord Mandelson's recent proposal that persistent misuse of copyright material should lead to denial of broadband access. They used the feeble argument that a generation of young people expect to download whatever they like for nothing; what they're defending is theft, plain and simple, depriving people on low incomes – most professional authors earn only two-thirds of the national average wage – of payment for work which has taken years to produce. Musicians and film-makers are in the same boat, and there's no reason why they should put up with their work being shared illegally on the internet.

Even more worrying is the way in which the internet has unleashed unprecedented levels of personal abuse. Some newspaper websites have become notorious for the intemperance of readers' responses, displaying breathtaking degrees of misogyny, ignorance and aggression.

Posts that politely take issue with a published article are hugely outnumbered by snarling invective, much of it based on incorrect assumptions and careless misreading of the original text. Threats of violence and even death are not uncommon, as though virtual space is exempt from the requirements of good manners and the law of the land.

A psychoanalyst would see this as a manifestation of gnawing envy – the pseudo-democracy of the internet leads everyone to believe they're experts on everything. But it's also an intimation of the self-defeating nature of the virtual world.

Posting abusive messages via the internet may provide momentary pleasure, and some people do it frequently enough to suggest it might even be addictive. But it's actually just a spasm, a lashing-out that can neither rebuild damaged self-esteem nor cure the identity crisis which appears to lie behind so much online rage and loathing.

Social networking sites lead users "to believe that the whole world wants to hear about their every move, from buying a new pair of shoes to dressing in the morning," Theo Paphitis wrote last week.

He's right: for some individuals, the internet is a psychological crutch and social networking sites a popularity contest. But drivel is drivel, no matter how often you post it.

Alan Watkins is away

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