A group of people I know regularly gather at an Irish-themed restaurant in Bangkok that is owned by an Englishman, managed by a Dutchman, staffed by Thais and frequented by Canadians, Americans and Australians, among others.
Even though I am in the UAE, I know what goes on there because I’m Facebook friends with the venue and many of its patrons. I’m also active on Twitter, which means I get regular updates on what’s happening with folks I know on five continents.
When thinking about my online adventures recently, I recalled reading an article by the great Hungarian-born British humorist George Mikes in which he wrote that “staying at home broadens the mind”. From memory, his reasoning was that, sooner or later, all the interesting people he cared about would come to visit him in London.
Mikes died in 1987 but if he were alive today, he would probably be keeping in touch with his far-flung friends using social media.
The irony of that term, of course, is that using social media – or, indeed, doing anything in front of a computer screen for too long – often prevents us from participating in actual social activities. The rise of Facebook and Twitter has meant that we can “meet” people, form friendships and have conversations without the hassle of leaving home.
I know social media can also be used for broadcasting news and propaganda, but I want to concentrate here on how this phenomenon has changed us on a personal level.
What particularly attracted me to Twitter in the first place was that it gave me the opportunity to interact not just with people I know, but with people I would like to know. My first big thrill came three years ago when I received an email declaring that the British broadcaster, comedian and all-round clever person Stephen Fry was following me. (At the time, he had a policy of following everybody who followed him, but I think he would have chosen me anyway.)
I’ve never had a Twitter conversation with Fry, but a few weeks ago I did get a reply to a tweet I sent the American actor Harry Shearer, who voices characters on The Simpsons and starred in the spoof documentary This Is Spinal Tap.
For the most part, however, my online conversations are with people I know, or those who could be loosely said to be in my peer group. I have more than 2,000 followers, but I regularly interact with about two dozen of them. With the rest, I’m mostly a passive observer and occasional retweeter.
What worries me when I read my Twitter stream is that a growing number of my virtual friends, mostly the ones I’ve never met and I’m never likely to meet, seem to be suffering a form of online Tourette’s syndrome. I don’t have to read too far before there is something that even this jaded journalist finds obscene, offensive or inappropriate.
Recently, I stopped following somebody because I felt his posts were banal, irrelevant and crude. Almost every tweet included the same expletive, often more than once per sentence.
Now, I know there are people who have “unfriended” me for various reasons – but not, I hope, because they think I am relentlessly rude or disrespectful. I have made mistakes on Twitter, and I have regretted, even deleted comments because, on second thought they seemed unfair or otherwise ill-considered.
It may not be cool to say so, but I take tweeting seriously. I try not to say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person and, when I step over the line, I retract and, if necessary, apologise.
However, it’s clear that some people are emboldened by the relative anonymity, and especially the perceived power, afforded by social media. They believe this tool gives them a licence to swear, to shout abuse or to vilify others.
I’m not saying that the Twitterverse is, as some have suggested, an unmoderated mess that should be shut down. It is self-moderated and it’s as messy as we choose to make it.
If you use social media, you decide who you are going to follow, and others decide whether they want to follow you. That gives individual users much more power than they have watching television or listening to the radio.
If technology is making us less polite, less thoughtful, less tolerant and less considerate to others, then it’s clear there is a social problem that we need to talk about – and not just online.
On Twitter: @debritz