I’m reading Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, “Number 11” at the moment, in which he hilariously / tragically crafts a tale of a longtime friendship ruined in an instant by a misconstrued message on Snapchat.
It is left to the reader to decide whether Girl A mistyped the word in question (a possible iphone autocorrect problem) or whether Girl B simply misread it, but the upshot was, the message Girl A thought she sent, was not what Girl B thought she received, and as Snapchat doesn’t keep a record of messages, Girl B had no way of confirming what she thought she saw, but cut off all further communication regardless.
The thing that struck me as most tragic, and yet sadly realistic, about this scenario, was that Girl B was so willing to believe that her longtime friend would send such a hurtful message. She had just made a deeply personal confession to her friend, and was understandably feeling insecure about how that confession would be received, which maybe goes some way to explaining her willingness to believe the worst, but still I found the story disturbing for its echoes of the knee-jerk reactions so common among users of social media.
When we find ourselves bombarded with memes on Facebook and Twitter telling us to cut all negative people out of our lives, we automatically start to mentally question which of our current list of friends fall into that category. And once we put somebody into that category, we immediately start to read their posts with a negative bias. At the speed with which most of us view our Facebook or Twitter feeds, we don’t give most posts a great deal of consideration – a judgement will be made in an instant as to the positivity or negativity of the post, with no thought as to the context. In many cases we can only guess the intended target of the post – it may not be specifically targeted at anybody – but if something in the post strikes a chord with us personally, we will see it as being targeted directly at us.
With the exception of trolls, most people do not use social media as a deliberate tool to wind up their friends (though I have to confess to having posted a few incendiary comments at the height of the Brexit campaign, for which I will take this opportunity to apologise). But the ruthlessness with which certain social media users will block or unfriend others based on a quick interpretation of one or two posts, points to a willingness to take offence, to judge and find wanting, that I personally find worrying.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of negative people out there, and it’s never a bad idea to limit exposure to these people. But shouldn’t we be a bit more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, where social media is concerned? Is it so difficult to send the person a quick message to say “I found your post really hurtful / negative for these reasons” and give them a chance to explain (if their post was intended a different way to how you interpreted it) or apologise (if they simply hadn’t considered the way the post may be read)? And if they respond to say that your interpretation was correct and they don’t care that it offended you, then you at least know exactly what you’re dealing with.
Even better – pick up the phone or speak to the person face to face. Even telephone conversations can be misconstrued – nothing beats eye contact for avoiding misunderstandings. Yes, many conversations are difficult as hell face to face, and it’s so much easier to retreat into email and text messages, but how much do we lose by doing so? The more we avoid the difficult conversations, relying on social media, email and texts to keep in contact, the less valuable our friendships become. Our perception of each other ends up being distilled down to words on a screen, and very little conversation takes place, with each party simply posting about selected elements of their own lives, instead of asking each other about theirs. Social media is wonderful for keeping us up to date with the lives of those we would otherwise lose touch with – but let’s not start using it as a substitute for actual friendship.