It’s almost a year since Facebook Live launched, but already it’s hard to imagine the site without it. Instagram quickly followed suit, and earlier this month Youtube did the same. It’s become easier than ever to broadcast whatever you like, whenever you like – but for as long as people have shared anything of themselves online, they’ve been subject to criticism. From the comments section of online newspapers to the reply function on Twitter, it’s easier than ever to make your voice heard – but what happens when the voices that shout back only have hateful things to say?
Last week I did something and I can’t decide whether it was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid; I went on a twenty minute date which was livestreamed on Facebook pages of a global media brand I read all the time, all in the name of entertainment. Think First Dates meets Blind Date, but without the gallic charm of Fred Sirieix or Cilla Black’s warm northern accent to reassure me. Instead, there was a free-for-all comments section, where strangers were encouraged to give their opinions about me and the others participating in the video. I decided to volunteer for the experience because I was bored, first and foremost. Full disclosure – my first and last Valentine came when I was five years old. I’ve never had a boyfriend, and can count on one hand the number of dates I’ve been on. With all my friends in long-term relationships, I decided at the least it would be a funny way to spend a Tuesday night – and there would be free alcohol, which I’ve never been known to turn down.
The experience itself was totally fine. Everyone in the room was nice enough. There was free food, free wine, and I came away from it feeling like I’d at least tried to conquer my crippling social anxiety by throwing myself out of my comfort zone. It was on the bus home, however, that I made the reckless decision to go back and read the comments left on the Facebook video. I think ‘cruel and unnecessary’ is a polite way of describing the things people had to say about me and my physical appearance. I understand, people of the internet. I’m chubby and awkward and not that attractive – you’ve had to experience it for five minutes. Try twenty-four years of being me on for size.
What I didn’t understand was their anger. Why would complete strangers say such vile things about someone they’d never met? Moreover, why were they so willing to do so from their personal Facebook accounts, where I could see their full names, profile photos, schools, places of employment? It was as if they didn’t care at all about being identified. In the past, trolls have always been anonymous, hiding behind avatars and fake names in order to spew bile across the web. I could always dismiss hatred directed at me when it was from someone without a face and a name, but suddenly it had become so much more personal.
So has livestreaming made people more willing to be unpleasant to each other online?
‘I don’t think that livestreaming is the reason that this is the case,’ says Dr. Bernie Hogan, of the Oxford Institute of Internet. ‘I think it’s much more to do with algorithmic curation.’
Algorithmic curation is the technology behind websites we use every day – it measures what we interact with online, and adjusts what we see accordingly. It impacts on the adverts we see, what’s displayed on our social media feeds – and crucially, who we see on our social media feeds, which is why you can have a friends list of 500 people, but only seem to see the same 20 on your timeline again and again.
‘Algorithmic curation fosters something that I call “lowest common denominator culture”,’ he explains. ‘It’s the idea that we go down to the lowest common denominator of our assumed audience.’
So that tends to be humour – be it light-hearted, cat pictures, pop culture references, or – you guessed it - jokes at the expense of others.
‘As we try to appease that assumed audience, and as that audience gets back to us in a negative way, we kind of adjust our behaviour online. The thing is, with algorithmic curation, and Facebook only filtering your audience to be an “in group” and an “out group”, and your “in group” always being the people that agree with you or share similar opinions with you, you become less concerned with the opinions of people outside of your “in group”.’
In other words, if you’re only concerned with the opinions of the people who agree with you, why would you bother hiding your identity? There’s simply no need for fake accounts anymore – our social networks have become so finely tuned, they know what we want to see before we do, and any disruption to this makes us hostile.
‘It’s not that livestreaming is changing how we interact,’ says Dr. Hogan. ‘It’s that we’re doing a bad job of creating technology that allows us to empathise with each other, when those others are different from us.’
Livestreaming isn’t going anywhere – it existed for years before, in the form of websites like Twitch and Periscope, and now Microsoft have announced plans to include one-click livestreaming facilities in their new software. Its integration with social media has made us all broadcasters from the comfort of our own homes, enabling us to connect with old friends and new audiences alike, with unbelievable ease – but, it also intensifies our online interactions. It feels like you’re watching a film or television show with hundreds of other people, and commenting is a huge part of the enjoyment users get from this technology, but it’s all too easy to forget this isn’t film or television – it’s online theatre, and the actors can hear you, loud and clear.
There’s someone else sitting behind the screen, able to think, feel and react to the comments we make. As the barriers become increasingly removed it’s harder to recognise where to draw the line, and people become caught up in a frenzy to say the funniest, more outrageous thing, in order to garner replies, reactions and likes from the audience of their peers. There’s no time to pause and think – everything in our accelerated culture demands instant gratification.
‘It becomes extra obvious that the screen separates and protects us’, says Bernie Hogan of livestreaming. ‘It gives us yet another way in which people can criticise and yet another way in which we can create distinctions between who’s in the audience and who’s out. We reinforce our own egoism, rather than try to seek out and remind ourselves that other people are human, they have feelings and we should care for them.’
After my experience, a lot of people said I deserved what I got from the commenters online. I should have known better. So should we expect it then, the onslaught of negativity and outpouring of emotion? Is this just the price we pay for going online?
I put the question to Dr. Hogan, and he gives me an emphatic no: ‘Anyone who says you have to accept those comments because that’s the way it is doesn’t understand the way they are programmed by the media.’
There’s not just algorithmic curation at play - Facebook isn’t blue just because Mark Zuckerberg’s colourblind. Millions is spent year after year to find out how we interact with the internet, and to manipulate us into spending more time online. Living life online isn’t in itself negative, and the internet has a phenomenal power for good, but the way we’re manipulated by technology can result in a society that exists purely on an in/out crowd dynamic, based on shunning those who don’t fit into a prescribed notion we have of who we want to interact with. Like Mean Girls, but less pink.
Isolation and alienation are always going to occur when we forget the most basic of rules: we’re human. We should all take a break from the screen, long enough to think before we type. Contempt is quick and easy, compassion requires work, thought and consideration.
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Follow Hannah on Twitter @goodjobliz
This article originally appeared on The Debrief.