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The Comedy of Errors

Viral Infection: One Middle Aged Man on His Changing Relationship with Social Media

12 April 21 words: Ash Carter
illustrations: Ali Taylor-Perry

Our Editor Ashley Carter explores his changing relationship with social media, and whether it might not be the right place for a middle-aged man to exist any more...

It’s the prerogative of all mankind to lament, when reaching a certain age, the sudden reality that things just aren’t quite as good as they used to be. 

I can still hear the tone of disgust in my Dad’s voice as he lamented the death of music. On one dreary Sunday afternoon car journey, after finally succumbing to the whining pleas of a fourteen-year-old me, he mercifully provided a brief respite from the otherwise relentless Rod Stewart soundtrack that filled every other audio moment of my childhood. A flick to Radio 1 and all of a sudden Sir Rod’s dulcet tones were replaced by Missy Elliot’s Work It. “That’s not music,” I heard barked from the front seat, Missy barely even having enquired whether it was, in fact, worth it. “She’s just shouting about sex.” And like that, we were Sailing again. ‘How can you possibly be so out of touch?’ I arrogantly thought, grimly unaware of the fate that lay in store for me too. And here I am, entering the Autumn of my life, and with a simple statement weighing heaving on my ageing heart: the way my Dad felt about music is how I feel about social media - it used to be great, and now it stinks.    

I’ll leave it for the people who actually know what they’re talking about to discuss the dangers of polarizing political debate, spreading misinformation and creating echo chambers of restricted thought, I’m here to focus purely on the superficial. While fully aware that I’m strapping a giant pair of rose-tinted glasses to my face, I look back fondly on the early days of social media as some sort of technological Shangri La. It was a place where you could connect with friends who you’d otherwise have lost touch with, get a glimpse at the lifestyles of actors, musicians or athletes that you admired, and just generally exist in a non-physical space, free of the pressures of having to interact with real humans. When I was invited to my ten-year school reunion, it felt freeing to say no without an ounce of hesitation. After all, I was ‘friends’ with all of these people online, and could have talked to them at any point and actively chose not to. Why spoil that with a cheap pint and sweaty, nervous small talk in some awful rented room above an Ilkeston pub? But all of that feels like a distant memory, replaced by nameless, faceless people screaming at each other and horrible edited inspirational videos.  

I should make it clear that I’m under no illusions that it was ever a perfect platform. Take the time that I was mistaken for a paedophile, for example. An Australian man with the same name and a passing physical resemblance got exposed in the days when it was still fairly normal to have your phone number on your Facebook profile. One minute I’m enjoying a pint at Broadway, the next I’m being called a nonce in a thick Sydney accent, the first experience of an avalanche of abuse I’d receive for the next two weeks, until I changed my profile picture and name to that of an elderly Chinese woman.

Social media got its hooks in us the same way certain areas of New York got addicted to heroin in the seventies. Almost overnight the streets were flooded with cheap, uncut and readily available dope and then, once they’d got you all good and addicted, the price rocketed and the quality dropped way down. In the space of a decade or more, we’ve become dependent on a product that is slowly driving us all insane, and offering fewer and fewer legitimate benefits in the process. 

One minute I’m enjoying a pint at Broadway, the next I’m being called a nonce in a thick Sydney accent

I think there’s something to the argument that people aren’t meant to meet in groups without cause. Whether it be to hunt, pray, celebrate, fight or whatever else, throughout all of human history, we’ve only ever gathered together for a tangible reason. Now, millions of us all exist in the same space, hour after hour, day after day, without any clear purpose. And when people don’t have a reason to justify their self-destructive behaviour, they’ll do anything to find one – hence the endless, pointless arguments about any minutiae of modern life that consume Twitter. 

I single out Twitter, that miserable haven for solipsistic narcissists, swirling in their cesspool of performative, insincere outrage, as the main culprit in this shift, but it’s far from being solely to blame for the decline of social media. Facebook exclusively exists, it would seem, as a platform to expose your racist elderly relatives, and for people to engage in needlessly hostile debates, safe in the knowledge that they’d fold like a cheap tent if they ever had to do the same in person. Whereas Instagram seems to have surrendered itself to an army of bots invading every comments section with requests to check out giant arses, no-talent singers or conspiracy theories about 9/11. Sure, there’s still your least successful school friend sharing inspirational quotes and the odd photo of a mate on holiday, but they’re lost in a sea of adverts, spam and nonsense.  

I was also quite content living the lie, reinforced repeatedly throughout childhood, that we’re all unique and special in our own way, without having it shattered by social media. Gone are the days where someone will say something funny, people will laugh, and that’ll be that. Now any joke that is made online exists in a timeless bubble, doomed to be repeated over and over again until the very concept of what humour is has to be challenged. Whether it’s a dance, a meme or a certain turn of phrase, we’re like lemmings desperate to shamelessly copy and paste some minor variation of a theme to our own pages. The concept of originality has been replaced by the anxious desire to be exactly the same as everyone else. It’s like that one friend who has to shout “What’s in the box?!” every time the film Se7en is mentioned. But it’s every friend, it’s all the time and it’s about literally everything.

I used to believe that social media was a reflection, albeit exaggerated, of real life, but as I get older, I’ve come to believe that it’s actually an entirely separate world of its own. The abyss between the two has grown so wide that statements any of us would make in normal, everyday conversation seem out of place on social media. There have been several instances in the last year alone where I’ve posted something innocuous that I either have said, or would say, in person, only to receive DMs asking if I was feeling okay. It’s become a breeding ground for insincerity that’s making us worse human beings, and a great chasm has grown between it and me as the realization that I’ve poured hours of my life into a false economy dawns, and I question whether I have the power to separate myself from it. 

I’m acutely aware that the problem could well lie with me, and that the social media era of 2010-16 is just my Rod Stewart. Fear is a powerful motivator, and the comfort of blaming the world for my own inability to keep up with its changes is far more appealing than accepting the fact that the party at which I once felt most at home is now uncomfortable and baffling with its loud music and confusing terminology. I suspect that’s just the nature of life: a steady stream of increasingly uninteresting parties preparing you for the big one that you’ll have to leave permanently. And I don’t mind admitting that, for all I hate about social media now,  it’s something of a comfort knowing that long after I’m dead and gone the part of me that called a complete stranger a dickhead during a forgettable Facebook argument in 2012 will live on forever. 

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