I logged on to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter five years ago as research for an article I was writing on how we foolishly duplicate real life via the Internet. I am quite happy to admit — though I suppose I should be ashamed — that my initial scepticism was grossly ill-founded. I thought at the time, like a Luddite troglodyte, that the Internet was going to destroy human intercourse (no, not that sort!) and make us into weird cyber creatures living in some parallel reality blah blah.
Now I confess that there can be no more delightful and useful discourse than in this absurd cyber reality. I’ll start with Facebook because I like it less. It is the most useful tool for staying in touch and pretending to stay in touch with people you are not remotely interested in. It allows you to be supremely false while claiming to be completely concerned. Birth, death, marriage, break-up, promotion and better and worse are all taken care of by the simple “like” button. This way you can pretend that you’ve seen someone else’s boring holiday photos by just barely noticing the one that pops up on your timeline or you can make a one-line anodyne comment about a new hairstyle that might have seen you gagging in face to face real life. You can appreciate other people’s babies when they are far away on Facebook and not breaking all your crystal knick-knacks in your drawing room.
The fakery apart, you also do sometimes catch up with long lost acquaintances. And you discover just how foolish, reactionary, sentimental, self-righteous and boring some people can be. A truly remarkable invention and I feel really bad for Mark Zuckerberg that oldies like me have so taken to Facebook that all the young ’uns have run away!
And then there’s Twitter. Words can barely describe the joy it can give you and since I have more than 140 characters to do it in, am going to try anyway. They’re all there — although many are hiding behind eggs or fake names — the outright nutters, the trolls, the ogres, orcs, comedians, celebrities and the class acts. I know that it is fashionable to be angry with trolls — the word given to a group of people who stalk you or are rude to get a rise out of you or to question or expose your beliefs — or to study them in some post-modernist claptrap manner.
All I can offer is that rarely do you get to see such a wide range of examples of just how high and how low human beings can sink. The anonymity of the Internet allows the human desire to insult to develop and evolve in fascinating ways. Some may be witty, others may be hurtful, still others may be downright unintelligent but they’re all there. And in so many cases, what are trolls but those whose voices are silenced in real life? I should have said “who” are trolls I guess but then where’s the fun in that?
Yes, there are trolls who are nothing but bullies, nasty and vicious, and like most bullies probably cowards in real life. And yes, there are people, including celebrities, who have been driven out of social media by these bullies. Perhaps twitter is not for sensitive souls, unless they restrict themselves to networks they can trust.
But there’s a lot more than that going on. I can safely say that Twitter beats any other medium as a means to finding out what’s going on from earthquakes to elections. I have come across a cross-section of charming, helpful and really funny people. Since tennis consumes a good part of my life, I have developed an incredible network of tennis fans, websites and journalists.
And as for my own few special trolls — well, I rarely if ever engage with them. But rest assured that even when they irritate me, I find them amusing. Maybe one day I’ll join them?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her onTwitter@ranjona