Friday, 18 January 2019

Would we be better off self-policing our conversations?

A decade ago or thereabouts I joined YouTube for the first time. This was in the era of social media excitement; when the idea of a website in which people could share all sorts of rare clips for free was as joyous and inspiring as a website in which anybody could sell their unwanted items or a site on which one could renegade with old school friends. In other words this was the unspoilt, innocent era of digital before it all got ruined.

My era of innocent was to last a mere week or two before I deleted my account. The incident in question was so utterly ridiculous that it almost begs me not to retell it, but for the purposes of this post I must. I found myself browsing through a succession of rugby videos and stumbled upon one of Richard Hill being caught offside during a Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh around the turn of the millennium. I can’t recall the exact year off the top of my head but it was the one England lost (and with it the chance to win the Grand Slam). The poster had revelled in the fact that, not only had Hill been caught offside and his team lost, but he was also given a “damn good shoeing” as well. A couple of minor points to note here should you not be familiar with the finer details of rugby union, firstly that it is accepted practice that a player (especially a forward) is considered fair game to receive a proportionate level of violent retribution should he be seen to deliberately be lying on the wrong side of a ruck and therefore slowing the ball down illegally. Secondly that Richard Hill was one of the finest players England has ever produced and probably one of the greatest flankers the world has ever seen - certainly one of my favourite players. With all this in mind, I decided to offer my opinion that, although this was not his finest hour, perhaps the poster could have attempted to have better reflected Hill’s abilities and achievements without resorting to a cheap shot combination of a less-than-flattering video clip and highly derogatory and goading language. I can’t recall my exact words but they were fairly reasonable and certainly didn’t contain any swearing or taunts.

Within a day I checked back to find that the poster had replied to my comment. In fact there were a couple of comments. The first was akin to something an illiterate teenager from a kitchen sink estate would write, basically insulting me in crude, barely legible language. The second wished me cancer. 

Well, what do you say to that?

I can’t honestly recall whether or not I responded to that but within a few days I decided to shut my account down. What was the point of joining a website on which these sorts of comments are casually cast under the cloak of anonymity on such frivolous topics? Life’s too short I thought sadly, before turning my attention to other matters of interest. It was only a matter of time, however, before I relented and created a brand new account, deciding that I could at least turn a blind eye to comments in order to avoid denying myself the greater benefit of access to some great content on YouTube. 

That has largely been my policy since that moment in time - indeed I still have my YouTube account and I rarely bother to comment, content simply to watch without passing comment. I often reflected on that initial experience, however, and came to the quick conclusion that there were simply a number of inadequate, quite odd individuals who had suddenly been given free reign (ie an equal voice) by the introduction of such sites on the internet. In years gone by these people would be confined to mumbling incoherently to themselves but now they can type away their insane ramblings on a multitude of web platforms in what is a side-consequence (perhaps a small price to pay) of social media websites for the masses to enjoy.

My experience since then has led me to revise this view. Of course, I still believe that there are some deeply odd people out there, that much has not change, nor is it ever likely to. But I have of late reflected on the fact that conversation in general tends to be shepherded in artificial directions when it comes to digital exchange and this is in stark contrast to the way in which we always used to operate. As a reference point I have watched the Billy Connolly programs on BBC iPlayer in the past few days and was fascinated to listen to his description of some of the Glaswegian pubs he frequented as a young man. These were environments far removed from the sanitised buildings that most boozers can now be described as, each with their own idiosyncratic tendencies; their own characteristic ways, their own characters. What they all had in common though was that they offered a place in which men could sit, relax and talk about whatever it was that took their fancy. Sure, this would mostly involve staple topics such as football, work and women, but ultimately nothing was off the agenda if it was interesting enough to make its way in between the mouthfuls of ale.

There were rules though. Unwritten though they may have been they did exist in order to govern the exchange of thoughts and ideas of all those who frequented the taverns of the land as deeply ingrained as the scratches on the tables and the stains on the bar:

- Basic manners. 
- Respect. 
- Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.

Okay, fair enough, but there is nothing especially unique about these - most institutions hold these as a given. Moreover, though, there were other things to consider that gave the aforementioned a greater context:

- People have a right to privacy
- If you don’t know someone, be careful about what you say to them or about them
- Any problems are dealt with there and then.

As such, this was the law of the jungle. You can see three blokes propped up at the bar, talking bollocks and drinking pints. You might not agree with what they say. You might vehemently oppose their views. But it’s a pub. They’ve come for a drink. What good will come from approaching them and challenging their opinions? Besides which, they are reasonably drunk and quite big blokes. It might not end well. You certainly don’t want to call them a cunt.

Punch ups would take place and of course I’m not advocating open and free violence to blossom throughout the land. But this firm of self-policing had its benefits. For a start, one tended not to engage on unknown topics with unknown people. Conflicts were for the most part avoided on the basis that there was sufficient variety of thought and opinion for everyone to get on in their own groups without fighting breaking out every five minutes (indeed, many people might just fancy the idea of a “quiet pint” during which talking was not a sought after requirement). Any issues that did occur were (and this is the important bit) dealt with there and then. They did not linger, fester or grow to the point of bitterness and resentment. Pubs were forums for debate in person should drinkers wish to chat and the consequence of forcing outlandish views in the non-digital face-to-face era would often involve the very effective deterrent of a punch in the face.

One might consider how different the likes of Twitter would be if everyone viewed debate via the lens of the old fashioned pub. Instead, because the jeopardy of physical retribution and more importantly the desire for basic manners have been removed, anything goes. It doesn’t help of course that statements are limited to a small number of characters, very often with complex arguments being bypassed in favour of one-click emojis and easy-accessible gifs. There is something quite exhausting about a lengthy exchange of opposing views during a well-managed debate; at the end if the two opposing factions could fast to their opinions then they may as well shake hands and walk away, agreeing to disagree, but at least hopeful that they managed to snare some “floating thinkers” during the course of the exercise. When one compares this with an exchange on Twitter, is it any wonder that death threats and such like are so readily tossed about when in the space of several seconds one finds that a mocking response to their perfectly reasonable statement has been retweeted around the world (by “world” of course I mean all those who hold the oppose view and who regard those on the other side of the argument as vermin). It’s easy to see how anxiety and stress can quickly creep in if one is typically inclined to respond to all notifications and to feel the need to check in on what the latest reaction is to their comment. 

This phenomenon predates the likes of Twitter in the medium of emails - and by that I mainly refer to work emails. When it comes to the exchange of thoughts, issues and ideas via email with ones work colleagues, the outcomes are different to what we frequently see on Twitter (at least for now) but the dynamics are compatible - resentment, anxiety, irritation and regret. Most people have a starting point to their working day and an end point and those of us who are motivated to succeed will naturally do all they can to make the right things happen during that period of time. When it is time to depart the physical location in which one works, the actual conversations finish for the day, but of course the digital conversations can continue. Naturally, this is often be a useful and necessary lever to ensure that messages arrive in time and employees can catch up when needed, but in many cases this leads to digital trigger syndrome where all the safety catches I described in the pub scenario are removed and it becomes just too tempting to send a follow up. The problem is of course is that it’s a follow up composed when the sender is tired, perhaps resentful and operating without the insurance policy of having “live” people around to sense check their words. There is then the stress of having ones downtime agonising over when the response will come and what it will contain. My conclusion has been to switch off my work emails from my mobile device after I finish for the day on the basis that if there is something of such urgency that my immediate attention is required prior to the start of the next working day that someone will call me directly. Such occurrence is not unknown but is so infrequent that this approach has by definition proved itself to be a preferable policy to having emails constantly running 24/7 with the temptation of reading and replying dangling all too attractively before me.

When it comes to Twitter, since my shut down last year I have occasionally had breaks and I’ve found the best way to enforce these it by actively deleting the app from my phone. It’s easy enough to reinstall and it’s only by removing the ability to touch the thing that I truly ignore it for whatever period of time I deem fit. There are those who are perfectly adept and at ease with switching off to most of the conversations, but I am not one of those, at least it does not come naturally. Likewise, it’s all well and good to hold the view that we should simply turn the other cheek when presented with inflammatory comments and general goadery as these people will soon stop if they fail to elicit a reaction. There is something in that, but of course this is when I refer back to the self-policing argument of yesteryears pub; sooner rather than later the goader would receive a whack for his efforts and would fall into line with the rest of the boozers; that is to say they all have their own views, some moderate, some extreme, some held passionately, some held casually, but they apply the “is it worth it” filter before voicing.

I think it worked rather well. Of course, what this probably boils down to is our ability to switch off and lets things go. Mine could do with some further adjustments... 

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