Drama vultures: Some comments on social media

For young people, social media can be a very significant part of their social life. As Mark Brown put it, “Social media went big at the same point that austerity did. We lost our libraries, youth clubs and schools funding but we got smartphones and snapchat instead.” It has also been a means of connection for people who were technologically savvy but socially isolated. This is a surprisingly broad group, including both “geeks” (with subgroups of angry young men who have been radicalised by anti-feminism and the alt-right), those with social communication deficits (who like entirely written communication, as it means that they no longer feel excluded by the pace and non-verbal elements of real life social interactions) and people who are socially isolated because of their geography, disabilities, sexuality, gender identity, culture or more introverted personality, as well as an increasingly broad demographic who have simply discovered the convenience of social media as a means to connect with likeminded others. It can be enticing as a way to gain some social validation, either through “likes” of your content or photographs, or through a sense of belonging to a community of people with shared values or interests. And with so many different platforms, there can be many different qualities to this interaction, and functions that social media serves in people’s lives.

With niche communities, pockets of self-referencing and self-reinforcing cultural norms appear. Whether it is the sensitive niche sexualities of tumblr, or the offensive-as-possible culture on 4chan, the visual memes of imgur, the glamorous selfies of instagram, the endless stream of headlines from twitter, the business focus of linkedin, the many facets of reddit, videos on youtube, livestreaming on twitch or periscope, various blog platforms, an almost endless variety of podcasts, massive web forums on every topic imaginable, or even the comments sections of various publications, each has a different personality and norms. Some are ephemeral, with content disappearing after a certain time. Others stand as searchable archive with a long-term record of past content. Some allow people to broadcast outwards and collect followers, whilst others are focused on more reciprocal relationships. Some allow privacy restrictions that mean you can limit access to friends and family. But most have some means for others to indicate their approval or disapproval. And that means that there can be a sense of being judged or rewarded according to what you post. Sometimes this is based on the quality of the content, but it can also be based on political/group affiliation or appearance – with attractive young women who post photographs or video in particular getting a lot of attention. Some sites allow interesting or amusing content to float to the top where more people will see it, allowing particular posts to be read by remarkably large numbers of people. These can include inspiring content like non-zero days or unintentionally hilarious content like the penis dunking thread on mumsnet (mildly NSFW) that had me failing to contain my laughter during a BPS committee meeting. Some people seek out notoriety by writing controversial or entertaining content. Others who feel they don’t get enough positive attention seek out more negative peer groups, or seek attention in less functional ways. There are also less healthy pockets of social interaction on the internet. There are pro-anorexia communities, and sites that discuss and even encourage self-harm and suicide. There are bullies and trolls, and even people who fake being bullied in order to seek sympathy or justify introspective disclosures*.

One of the great advantages, and problems, with social media is the potential to be anonymous. This is a great leveller because it makes other users blind to your gender, age, race, appearance, physical ability/disability, sexuality, wealth, social class or other sources of prejudice – although many people choose to display these characteristics anyway and seek out similar people for a sense of belonging within specific online communities. However, the very anonymity and ability to create a character for yourself online can be problematic, as anybody can pretend to be anything. As well as the proverbial middle-aged lorry driver pretending to be a teenage girl, there are people pretending to be of different social demographics to infiltrate or undermine these communities. For example, many alt-right trolls attempting to fuel the gamergate conflict signed up “sock puppet” accounts as women and people of colour to pretend that their movement was more diverse or to defend them from criticism for sexism and racism. More obviously there are trolls, who use the anonymity to bully, harass and try to get a rise out of others, safe in the knowledge that social media is functionally a lawless zone, where only the very most serious of attackers, who challenge national security or make repeated overt threats towards targets in the public eye ever see any attempt at identification or prosecution.

By contrast, if you slip up on social media and say something stupid or embarrassing it can be shared with hundreds of thousands of people, your identity can be outed, and the impact can spill out into your real life in unpredictable ways leading to a roulette of inequality in which an ill-judged racist or sexist joke having more consequences than a year-long campaign of rape and death threats.  Or, you can become a target whose personal details are released on the internet (known as doxxing) by someone who dislikes your opinion or feels slighted by you, or subject to “revenge porn” where intimate photographs are published by an ex-partner without the consent of the subject. In America you can even become the target of hoax calls intending to send in an armed response team (known as swatting). And (as in many things) it is women and people of colour who always end up being disproportionately punished.

Having been on the internet since the 1990s, I’ve had an interesting personal history on social media. I was part of the eBay forums around the launch of eBay.co.uk for several years. As well as giving advice about scams and using eBay to buy and sell, there were lively off-topic discussion, running jokes and fundraising activities. But even within a seemingly diverse and healthy community of strangers there were many interesting signs of dysfunction. There were cliques and factions with marked animosity between them. There were people who claimed to be things they were not, including a “detective” and a “vet” (who was so desperate to uphold the facade she tried to get the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to amend a register entry for a genuine vet to match her name). There was a lady who faked her own death and posted as her (supposedly bereaved) husband, but was rumbled by an astute poster spotting contradictions in her story. When I foolishly mentioned being a psychologist in a conversation that only contained four other active users, that information spread much more widely than I had expected. I started to receive disclosures and allegations, messages about distressing feelings and even what appeared to be a suicide note (with the help of moderators I alerted authorities, and the suicide was not completed) so I soon learnt to be much more private and anonymous.

On clinpsy we have also had our fair share of tea-cup sized dramas, despite having very little need to intervene as moderators compared to the large volume of members and posts. I blogged about some examples two years ago, and I can only think of two people we have banned since then (although I did block someone from registering after they were very antagonistic and inappropriate on facebook after we failed to activate their registration between 10pm one night and 4am the following morning). I did recently have the interesting experience of having someone apply to work for me who had been banned from the forum. They didn’t seem to think I’d know about that, despite the fact that they used the same email address in their application as they had when they had been banned. They withdrew their application when I said that I knew and we’d need to have a conversation about it if they wished to progress their application.

It is an interesting thing that social media crosses the boundaries of communication that we are familiar with. The written form seems somehow impersonal and emotionless compared to forms of communication that contain the non-verbals, and yet somehow emotions are conveyed and evoked. The nature of speaking to strangers who may or may not be conveying the truth, and where we know little about them except for what is posted, involves a lot of extrapolation and ambiguity. It is hard to judge the response of the audience or how far information will spread, and deceptive safe feeling that we are posting in our own homes and usually under pseudonyms, yet it can suddenly become very personal and intrusive. On the clinpsy forum we monitor usage quite closely, and have zero tolerance of personal abuse or inappropriate content. In order to avoid knee-jerk responses or being hooked into unhelpful patterns, and to help us keep on top of maintenance and development tasks on the clinpsy forum, we work as a team. We keep a log of moderator discussions, user reports of concerns and reasons for banning users in a hidden moderators area on the forum. We tend to have quite a rapid response time for removing content for moderator consideration, and quite consistent views about where to draw the line, which has made clinpsy relatively drama free.

That isn’t the case on other forums, where much more banter and jokes are let fly, and these can be quite offensive, particularly if the dominant demographic is young white men. Racism, sexism and misogyny are quite prevalent in some online communities. Many women hide their gender to avoid quips about getting back in the kitchen, or banter about rape (which can be a term used in video gaming communities to refer to trouncing another player). But in some places it can even go a step further than that. 4chan, for example, used to ask for topless photos if anyone mentioned being female with the delightful phrasing “tits or GTFO”, and provoked many young women (at least one of whom appeared to be below the age of consent) to share sexually explicit images of themselves. 4chan also had links to child pornography (although I believe that this was eventually prohibited and split off onto another forum). Reddit has subreddits for misogynist men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and incels (men who consider themselves to be involuntarily celibate – that is, they are too unpleasant to attract consenting female partners but do not recognise this, and turn the blame onto the women instead, with extreme examples like Elliot Rogers and the man behind the recent Toronto van attack), although again some attempts at prohibition and moderation are creeping in after bad publicity following the recent school shooting.

As a female poster in some male-dominated communities it was initially quite a culture-shock, but it is good to socialise outside the same narrow bubble, and there are also very positive aspects of being part of an online community. There is a hive mind of information on every topic that means you can gain immediate and often highly skilled advice on everything from how to rewire a light fitting, or how to distinguish a wasp from a mortar bee, to which model of television has the best features within a certain price bracket, or how to complain if a parcel doesn’t arrive. The community might be a rapid source of news, or entertaining new memes. There can be reviews of films, music, events or games that lead you to try new things, and erudite discussion about politics, current affairs, history, different cultures, religion, sports, science, religion, mental health, relationships and any topic that takes your interest. There can also be mutual concern and support when things are not going well, and shared delight when people experience unexpected success. So there are definite positives. The problem is that they can come at a price, and some people are more likely to pay the price than others.

Anyone who has been part of an online community knows about how they seem to inevitably create remarkable interpersonal dramas. These are like road traffic accidents – as a neutral spectator they both repulse you and make compulsive viewing, but as a participant they have the ability to cause genuine harm. When a person starts posting erratically or there is public conflict, or even when a person or group is bullying a vulnerable member if they do so in a way that is seem as amusing, it is viewed as entertainment or public spectacle. And, like a fight in a school playground, they inevitably attract a circle of spectators who both encourage and influence the unfolding drama, both joining in to sub-conflicts in the audience, and throwing in more fuel if it seems to be petering out. I’ve been in that circle a few times for different reasons, and it isn’t a fun experience. And as it starts feeling more personal and more antagonistic emotions start showing in how you post, and that seems to fuel the aggressor to go in for the kill, and other posters to join in. Our ability to reason and to predict the way that others will interpret and react to our posts reduces, and the stakes start to feel higher, and yet it somehow becomes harder to leave the conversation whilst feeling threatened or misunderstood. So you get drawn in to the battle, trying to clarify your intended meaning, defend yourself from perceived attack, or persuade others to see your point of view. Perhaps you criticise the other person, who then becomes more antagonistic or defensive. By the time you are in the thick of things there isn’t an obvious exit without either victory or shame.

Walking away from an online community because you don’t like how you are treated feels a lot like social exclusion and can have a significant impact on your sense of self, but to stay once you have attracted negative attention can mean the slow attrition of insults and snide digs that someone once described as “death by a thousand paper cuts” (a less severe/more protracted version of the Chinese torture method death by a thousand cuts, in which it is hard to criticise any individual action as being unduly aggressive or breaking any rules). Frustratingly these can often be the kind of microaggressions that align with real life experiences reflecting the casual degradation of disempowered/minority groups. And, as ever, women and minority groups seem to be disproportionately the target for them. Even a phrase like “calm down love” is loaded with patronising layers of meaning about women being ruled by their emotions and lacking the calm logical analysis of men. It implies that caring about anything enough to show some emotion about it is already losing the battle.

There is little time for compassion or reflection online, and it is hard for an onlooker to intervene in a way that is helpful to diffuse conflict. Thus vulnerable people may end up re-victimised, and people with dysfunctional ways of relating often play these out over and over online. I can particularly recall one poster who had a distinct cycle of debate, feeling criticised, rage and then burning out to a final phase of being shamed and apologetic, trying to make amends to avoid rejection – and the community becoming increasingly intolerant of these emotional extremes. At times it felt like observing a digital version of a disorganised attachment relationship, with the forum community functioning as the inconsistent/abusive parent. It came as no surprise to read disclosures about an abusive childhood, use of crisis mental health services and a personality disorder diagnosis. But s/he was far from alone in having dysfunctional ways of relating to others online. In fact it seems that many people with such difficulties are strongly attracted to the accessibility and 24 hour nature of online communication, and can find significant support from strangers there. But it often comes at a high cost, or with significant risk, because of the prevalence of trolls and the way dramas are amplified by having an audience, and the way social media can serve as a written record of whatever unfolds that is hard to erase. There might be the right to be forgotten under GDPR, but how does this actually work in practise when comments are quoted and replied to, or captured in screenshots and posted elsewhere?

There are plenty of examples of how vulnerable people are enticed by the sense of belonging in a group, or the superficial success of social media influencers, but harmed by the messages they are given. This can range from unhealthy roles models such as the one I blogged about previously to being encouraged to harm others or given advice on how to harm themselves or commit suicide (the Daily Mail recently ran a scare piece on a “Blue Whale” game that culminates in telling children to commit suicide, though snopes felt there was little evidence to substantiate this). It would seem to me that the bigger concern is the indoctrination of larger numbers of young, socially isolated people in toxic beliefs such as alt-right ideologies, through writing that blames others for their ills. Whether it is “psychologist” Jordan B Peterson whose 12 rules for life serve as an introduction to his regressive beliefs including “enforced monogamy” in which he appears to advocate that to prevent male violence women should be allocated to partners and forced to remain monogamous to them (which is rightly being called out as sexist/stupid/victim blaming). It might have sold 1.1 million copies, and he might make £80k/month in patronage, but this isn’t a new enlightenment. Enticing simplistic sexist answers are not the cure for angry young men who feel left behind by progress, I would argue they are the very fuel that will convert them into the school shooters, rapists and perpetrators of future violence and harassment. But it is hard to offer up an alternative perspective or contradictory evidence when an angry mob descends on any divergent opinion, claiming that they are the true victims and that the sexist/racist drivel they promote is being censored by sensitive snowflakes (the new version of “its political correctness gone mad”). Ironically, these repugnant views that are allegedly suppressed/unspeakable are getting lots of airtime, whilst stifling free expression of opposing/alternative views** as progressive voices fear becoming a target of the mob.

In short, its a messy and unregulated space, and there are both interpersonal conflicts and large scale culture wars playing out in it. How to protect people in a digital age needs a lot more thought, both at the level of educating children about critical thinking and empathy, and in terms of regulation of social media, and enforcement of crimes committed via digital media. But with middle aged and older politicians doing the legislating it is hard to see how that is going to happen.

*if you find this surprising, consider the bug chasing community, who are people actively seeking HIV infection in order to gain care, sympathy and a sense of belonging
**including me, as I avoid using certain terms on social media or in the tags and category labels for this blog, as I dislike the surge of abusive/antifeminist responses they trigger

The Emperor’s new clothes

I used to believe that the more you read, the more you would know, and the the greater the insights that would open to you. That was before I stumbled into the world of online influencers, and their self-improvement and entrepreneurship blogs. The first few seem interesting enough, with their generic advice to do what you love, to take risks, to work hard, to seek feedback and to do something with meaning. By the time you have read ten you start to see the same themes being regurgitated again and again, and to notice the gaping holes in the evidence or ideas presented. Read a hundred and you realise how many entries are a thin veneer of received wisdom over recycled content and self-promotion. A lot of people seem to be posturing about their finery, but not to have much substance underneath, and I really don’t want to be one of them, or to support that culture. So I have been reflecting about why they have rubbed me the wrong way.

Many blogs and “channels” of thematically promoted content tell you that to become successful (read popular or wealthy) you need to emulate the tried and trusted pattern of becoming a social media self-improvement guru, and to learn to do that best you’ll need to subscribe to the premium products or insights from the person writing, and those that they have attached themselves to (and probably get affiliate fees from). It suddenly feels like a pyramid scheme without any substance. Others tell the story of the remarkable success of mould-breaking ventures, and then at the bottom of the piece acknowledge that the author is involved in these examples financially or benefits from their success, and has therefore shaped the narrative in a way that promotes their interests rather than maximises learning by admitting the real stumbling blocks along the way.

Most post from a position of privilege, and entirely fail to recognise that their success would not have been possible without their wealth, social networks, safety nets, confidence, marketable appearance or demographics. I’ve read several that think that the ability to take financial risks is a personality trait that leads to success, rather than recognising that starting at a point successful enough for that to be possible is a precursor to that ability. It is much easier to work for a year without pay or gamble your savings if you have means to still pay the rent and bills, and no dependents. To pick one example that typifies the genre, “Only do work that is incentive-based… be part of the results economy” implies you have a choice of work available to you, and that it is in a format other than a minimum wage or zero-hours contract. The same with challenges to step out of transactional relationships and into transformational ones. To say “If you’re afraid of losing what you’ve currently got, you probably won’t risk it. You’ll probably do everything you can to AVOID losing it. And therefore, you’ll have given up your WHY. You’ll have stunted your progression” blames people who are stuck in the poverty trap for not being able to take the risks of the author’s middle class educated peers with much wider opportunities open to them, and a safety net to catch them if they fall. “Increase your motivation” implies that you aren’t highly motivated to avoid the adverse effects of not being able to pay the rent or bills, or to feed your dependents. So whilst he says “one decision separates the wealthy from the non-wealthy” I think he has the causality reversed. Being wealthy and privileged allows you to position yourself where further success is more likely, and makes taking risks easier.

Or consider the claim that “extreme frugality enabled her to retire at 32” that has led this wealthy white American woman to have a Guardian article, long-standing blog and a book deal about being frugal and less attached to wealth and material possessions as a marker of success. It sounds great. Until you learn of the fact she and her husband own a million dollar plus property that is let out, as well as their 66 acre detached “homestead in the woods”, and that he works earning $200k+ per year as a non-profit executive, whilst she earns a substantial income from her writing and media work. So really they are people who have chosen to work from home more, but who are still in the top 1% for income and assets. Reducing their spend on artisanal cheese, eating out and make-up, and wearing hand-me-down and second-hand clothing does not make these people role models for frugality, because as Jarvis Cocker said so well, you can play at being poor:

But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad* he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.
*banker also works here

And that is one of the key things missing from many of these blogs. The idea that being able to save up, or use your spare time, or take risks implies that you already have those resources of money, time or energy to spare. That you aren’t living from hand to mouth, and don’t need to keep an emergency fund for if the car breaks down, or your benefits are sanctioned, or you need time off work because you are sick and get no pay because you are on a zero-hours contract or working in the gig economy. Socioeconomic status affects our perception of the world, with lower earners seeing the world as more challenging, and higher earners being more solipsistic and having a sense of being able to change the world. Autonomy is more attractive and comfortable to wealthier people, whilst those who are in lower socioeconomic groups value greater interdependence. Research shows that richer people have less empathy and less awareness of the external factors that affect success. Having an easier life means many people are more confident they will become successful, and expecting a yes based on past experience can help that confidence become socially persuasive to others (in an extreme example, it can get a business to a $9 billion valuation with $700 million of investment, without the claimed technology).

The idea that we can all “make our fortune” places systemic inequality in the background and personal attributes and effort into the foreground. The same thinking shows up with the perception that people can snap out of depression or mental health problems if they choose to do so, or put in more effort. It rests on the belief that these personality traits are under our control and can be created with the right mindset. I suspect that comes from only looking backwards from success, rather than forward from an equal starting point. It fits with the egocentric perspectives of those who have the status to give advice to others, rather than the evidence or the experience of those who have struggled with their mental health. It leads to superficially plausible ideas that we can change our mindset and then sort out all the difficulties in our lives if we choose to. Sure, there is fairly solid evidence that lifestyle changes such as increased exercise or social connection can impact upon mood, and the success of CBT shows us that challenging our thinking can also make positive impacts to quality of life. However, it ignores the external constraints. The idea that you can address your own low mood by going to the gym more, or getting out into nature or socialising suggests the funds for gym memberships, or travel, or eating/drinking out, and the time to do it in, as well as the lack of current stressors to deal with. It also suggests a frame of mind that has the capacity to plan ahead, rather than constantly fire-fighting in the present.

In the entrepreneurial world, bloggers often add in the assumption that a good idea and hard work is enough. That presupposes that you are an educated white (or possibly Asian) male, who will be taken seriously by investors or industry peers, and that you have the knowledge, resources and networks to build your minimum viable product or service, and bring it to market. That’s a lot of assumptions, particularly for women and BME entrepreneurs who find many more systemic barriers to success, and often struggle to even get a seat at the table. Take it from me, as a highly educated and relatively privileged white woman, that having the knowledge skills and networks to be an entrepreneur is really hard. Finding the right support takes time, energy, social networking, and means/willingness to travel, as well as practical support like childcare. It would be very hard to wrap around a day job, let alone shift work, unpredictable hours, multiple jobs or being a single parent or carer. So if you can make it despite these things you are an amazing exception, and running a whole different race to most of these bloggers. In fact, you’ve probably run a metaphorical marathon before reaching their starting line.

That same mentality fools people into thinking that success (and therefore wealth) is somehow a meritocracy. That the people whose ideas make it into a mass market or getting bought out by a big name player are somehow the best of the bunch. I suspect the reality is that equally good ideas and products fail all the time, because of the lack of access to the resources required to get through the early stages of development and in front of the right people. Because there is a publication bias, we hear about the success stories disproportionately, whilst the companies that fail only get mentioned if their instigator goes on to do something bigger and better that becomes a success. Then they can be spun into a narrative of persistence and resilience in retrospect, rather than the crushing and all-consuming catastrophes they feel at the time. That leads to a false belief that success is earned, and therefore open to anyone. Whilst people do acknowledge barriers to attainment, the perception is that your background is a relatively minor variable in your success, whilst hard work and ambition are the true determinants of social outcome – that is, most people believe wealth is a meritocracy. The reality is that the UK has relatively low levels of social mobility, and both here and in the USA, the meritocracy myth has been used to justify policies that increase inequality.

At the same time, we have developed a culture that increasingly exploits the more vulnerable demographics in the population in other ways, from marketing cheap unhealthy food options to them with aisle end promotions, brand tie-ins and toys, to the four times higher incidence of smoking in lower socioeconomic groups, or the ridiculous cost of credit for those who cannot access bank loans, which has become one of the primary elements of the “poverty premium” in which poorer people have to spend more to access the same services. Because decisions are made by people who have success and power, they often share the illusions that they earned their status, and thus that anyone who hasn’t gained success has somehow failed to earn it.  To quote an article I’ve linked above:

In David Cameron’s “aspiration nation”, you were either a striver or a skiver; the very act of hoping to reach upwards became a moral obligation. Those who could not draw on existing reservoirs of privilege were told to worker harder to catch up.

That’s a toxic narrative that increases inequality and blames those born into deprivation or adversity for its impact. True equality is to change things so that no matter what context someone comes from they can run the same race.
I think that is my take away from reflecting on this topic – that it is hard to recognise the impact of experiences that differ from our own, and easy to assume that our own attainments come from effort rather than privilege. I’m sure I’ve done that before, in both my personal and professional life. As a blogger I can only share from my own experience and reflections, I can’t be certain my own learnings will generalise to others. So it is another reminder to “check my privilege” and to ask a lot and listen a lot to those who really know about an issue before forming opinions. As a therapist and someone people come to for advice it is all to easy to feel like you have strategies to hand out like sweets to recipients, and to end up replaying advice that worked for someone else without considering the specific situation and history of the individual you are dealing with. In the desire to be helpful we can end up missing a core facet of what is going on for that person, or giving vacuous advice that doesn’t apply to someone from different circumstances. So it is really important not to fill in the blanks with assumptions or from your own experience, but to really listen to the experiences, ideas and beliefs of the person you are working with. That is the start of an authentic and respectful relationship, and in my view the feeling of being understood, accepted and valued is the core attribute in helping empower people to make positive changes in their lives.