Last year was not a good one for social media in the reputational stakes. As legislators began to move in on the tribal warlords of Silicon Valley—above all the king of kings Mark Zuckerberg—veteran comedian David Baddiel toured the UK with a comedy show called “Trolls: Not the Dolls” and presented a BBC documentary entitled “Social Media, Anger and Us”.
In Parliament, the government published its draft Online Safety Bill and sent it to a joint committee chaired by Damian Collins MP, self-appointed scourge of the tech giants. His conclusion, in characteristically bravura terms, was that “we need to call time on the Wild West online… the era of self-regulation for big tech has come to an end.” To continue his analogy, anyone reading the smoke signals would be in no doubt that the internet had a last stand coming, and social media would be its Wounded Knee.
I don’t want to defend the worst excesses of social media (which are really the worst excesses of all of us, magnified a million times). I’ve no doubt that platforms like Twitter, Instagram and TikTok can cause harm to the vulnerable and unwary, and that they have affected the way in which we speak to each other in the public square. But I would like to advance one tiny murmur of support for social media, and perhaps suggest that the landscape is not unremittingly bleak.
I was a mid-stage adopter. I joined Facebook about 15 years ago when it was still almost entirely campus-based (by a fluke I still had a university email address), but I didn’t take Twitter seriously until a few years ago. Now, as a writer and commentator, I find it absolutely essential.
Since I joined Twitter, my consumption of current news on the internet has plummeted: that is, if I want to follow unfolding events in real time, I won’t turn to the BBC—they are an impeccable news source but they are relatively slow because of their requirement for multiple sources—or another news website, but to Twitter, through which I will navigate to highlights from a range of media platforms. You may have to stock up on pinches of salt and keep your wits about you, but you can monitor events much more closely and quickly this way. Every journalist I know says much the same.
But there’s more than that. The breadth of commentary—let us use that catch-all term—which I now consume is infinitely greater than it was before social media. I am exposed to so many more opinions: some of them junk, certainly, but many more at least interesting and often compelling. Not only can I read a variety of perspectives on the news which immediately interests me, I can have daily moments of serendipity when I find myself reading fascinating articles about Dostoyevsky, or the New York art scene, or the latest scientific discoveries. These are subjects I would not seek out, but my raveningly curious mind consumes them on sight.
Current social media reminds me of the cabinets of curiosities which were so popular with the wealthy and educated classes from the 17th century onwards. We all “curate” our own timelines on Twitter, for example, but each is still what John Evelyn called a “paradise and Cabinet of rarities”. It reflects but is not bounded by our interests, and it plucks its artefacts from the deep ocean of the world’s media.
Of course it is more than that. Social media can become a place of shouts, cries and angry laments, a kind of unremitting echo chamber of furious dissent. We are empowered by it but we are also made literally irresponsible: we type things on social media that we would never dare say to people’s faces if we met them in person. But that is us, society, misusing an inert and inherently value-neutral platform. Twitter magnifies and distorts, but it does not make monsters from clay.
From time to time, people I follow on Twitter declare that they are taking a holiday, or abandoning the platform altogether. Of course that is their choice. Some feel they can no longer cope with the energy it creates, no longer, in social media parlance, allow it to live rent-free in their heads.
As we face another year, I will not be stepping back. I probably spend too much time on social media, to the exclusion of other improving activities. But what a rich harvest there is to be had, if you collect the crop carefully. There are bubbles and echo chambers, but there are great forests of knowledge too. We are back to our cabinet of curiosities: for some it is too much, and they draw the cover over it. I am greedy for its contents, and always eager to see new additions.