There’s a saying by some geezer called Marshall McLuhan that goes, “the medium is the message.” In my limited understanding, that means something like: the limitations of the technology the message is spread on are gonna have a pretty big impact on what you’re trying to say. And after spending the last week thinking about why we all hate each other so much on the internet, that saying might have helped me figure it out.
Social media sucks and is making us all dumber, and we all know it. Whether it’s the 280 character limit of hot takes on Twitter or the 2200 characters you can use to sell bullshit snake oil on Instagram, these quick little bites of instant information don’t exactly make for actual discussion or critical thinking. And it’s not just this dumbing down that sucks - these social media giants reward anger over everything. Anger gets you to comment on a post. Anger gets you to reply to someone’s story. And, in turn, anger makes ad dollars.
New Zealand media giants love to post controversial articles about gender issues, race relations, sexism, and religion knowing that their loyal followers will be whipped into a frenzy of bigotry and hatred in the comment section (remember, anger = dollars). And when your anger is immediately rewarded with a dopamine hit from starting an argument, sending a tweet, or posting a status, why wouldn’t we want to keep blasting our misinformed, heat of the moment opinions online? Some dudes called Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered this phenomenon called ‘the backfire effect’ back in 2010, where they found if you argue with someone about an issue and present some evidence to support your case, it can actually push them to believe even more strongly in their position. So why do we try to change people’s opinions with anger and rage online, when it doesn’t really work at all?
But if the latest shift in our programming is one towards hate, what would it mean for us to fight back? What would it look like for us to truly love each other? And I don’t mean just tolerating one another and existing in our own little bubbles, but actually trying to love and understand these people we share the world with? What would it mean to sit down with people we disagree with and actually talking about our views, instead of just sending them the first study we find on Google that ‘proves them wrong’ and calling it a day?
There’s a lot of things around these days to be angry about, and for good reason - but maybe the internet isn’t the best place to be trying to convince people they’re wrong. Maybe we need to start looking for different mediums - a conversation, a coffee, an attempt at actually trying to understand each other rather than tearing the idea of someone down online. And, much like in Harry Potter, love is the ultimate protection against dark magic.