Monday, November 11, 2013

Something Thoughtful


It began harmlessly enough.

On Facebook, a chap said he was doing a book cull and found it hard to throw out books, but he had found three or four that he was going to give to the Sallies. Two or three replies appeared in which other people added how hard it was to part with old books – even ones that would never be read again – and where they tended to take their unwanted books when they did decide to give them away.

Then the whole tone changed.

Somebody butted into the conversation with the posted comment “Don’t give it to those bigots!” because the Sallies opposed homosexual law reform and gay marriage. Somebody remonstrated that the Salvation Army was a genuinely charitable organization, which did many good works. But the intemperate polemicist now had the bit between his teeth. The Nazis did some good things too, he posted, like curing unemployment, but you wouldn’t give anything to them, would you? Other angry voices entered the fray, noting that there is now an international measure of how unreasonable an argument is becoming, and that is when somebody invokes the Nazis as a matter of comparison.

Insults flew back and forth. Posted remarks became as intemperate and hysterical as the polemicist who called the Sallies “bigots”.

Finally, the chap who had made the original comment (about giving his books away) shut down the conversation thread and deleted all comments. He had only meant to make harmless conversation and it had ended up as a verbal brawl.

This (true) tale from the land of Facebook is unfortunately not an unusual one.

Facebook is a good place for harmless chit-chat and socialising, all of which I regularly enjoy. But so-called “discussions” routinely degenerate into the equivalent of shouting and the trading of insults.

Why is this?

Partly, I suspect, because the medium is most used by a sitcom-fed generation who think debate and discussion mean the trading of snappy, un-nuanced one-liners. The medium is simply not the place to go if you are looking for reasoned debate. A “discussion” on Facebook – on any matter other than harmless social trivia - becomes a competition to see who can find the clinching zinger; the sort that sitcom characters say as they exit out the door to canned laughter. A real discussion on real issues requires paragraphs of reasoning. The Facebook medium doesn’t really allow these and readers of Facebook aren’t looking for them anyway. Possibly, also, those who attempt “discussion” on Facebook are rather frustrated people who have no other platform on which to vent their ideas.

There are worse things than Facebook out in cyberland, however.

Have you ever had the experience of looking at a clip on Youtube and then noting the comments that follow it? The clip could be anything – the latest sensation “trending” or “going viral” on Youtube and getting millions of hits; a piece of archival footage; a complete movie; music of any genre or period. Comments following the “viral” sensation will always be banal and often semi-literate. There are not likely to be many comments at all under a piece of classical music. But for everything else the routine is the same. Underneath the given clip, there will first be three or four appreciative comments thanking whoever it was for posting the clip. Then the Billingsgate begins. “What a load of s**t. Why did you post this?” In no time at all equally scatological comments will be defending said clip and soon we have what is apparently the standard insult among American teens “You’re just a retard” etc.

The ease with which comments can be made on Youtube [and Facebook] is one matter here – some people can’t resist expressing an opinion when it seems there is an audience to read it – but there is also the idea that one is obliged to express an opinion at all
In most cases, no opinion is really required.

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