THE BLOG
24/10/2013 10:37 BST | Updated 23/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Why Social Media Feels All Too Real

When you refer to the offline as "real life", you imply the online isn't and, in doing so, you encourage the idea that what people do or say in social media is not, as such, real.

I went to see the documentary InRealLife recently and could not help but feel the title was reflected in the narrative the director imposed on the film.

Huge, unmanned data centres and giant cables, buried at the bottom of the world's oceans, were used to give the internet a physical otherness: a separate (and darker) reality.

When you refer to the offline as "real life", you imply the online isn't and, in doing so, you encourage the idea that what people do or say in social media is not, as such, real.

This becomes dangerous when people believe their online actions don't have real life consequences and feel more empowered to make hurtful and damaging comments they would not say to someone's face.

I have long been a critic of those who separate the online and offline into distinct and independent realities (something Snapchat researcher Nathan Jurgenson coined as "digital dualism" in 2011), while also recognising how we communicate is affected by context, in ways unique to each individual social networking site. However, in certain aspects of our lives, I wonder whether the online is actually becoming more real than "real life": a thought or action doesn't feel real until we give life to in social media.

As well as having an audience for our opinions, we desire their participation: retweets, likes and favourites affirm whom we are and what we have to say.

This also brings a pressure to keep evolving (and demonstrating that evolution in) our interests and opinions, causing us to value the quantity of our 'activity' over the quality of it.

Our views (appear to) reach huge audiences, are permanent and searchable, and (perhaps most importantly) their 'success' (or virality) is quantifiable.

"There is no mileage in being interesting"

We also take advantage of the fact there's no room for nuance in 140 characters and use it as a means to impose our views on others: when I say I believe something, I'm saying everyone should believe it too.

On the flip side, as Dorian Lynskey highlighted in a typically incisive Guardian piece recently, public figures are now afraid to say anything remotely opinionated for fear of it being taken out of context and misrepresented.

"Across blogs and social media you can see how the internet amplifies and facilitates the impulse to think the worst of people you have never met and to ignore any facts or context that might take the wind out of your indignation".

Lynskey said "the nontroversy factory leads to self-censorship and calculated blandness" because "we are, en masse, quite prepared to pounce on anyone who says the wrong thing."

I have argued before that our fear of being 'monitored' makes us afraid to offer our opinions, in case we offend or upset our bosses or clients, so we resort to 'safer' sharing: headline statistics or excerpts from an article without comment.

The lack of nuance encouraged by sites like Twitter and the emotional realism they engender, causes those with something to risk (a career, a seat in Parliament, a public profile) to say even less and those who appear to have nothing to risk (the young and disenfranchised) - and who have not had a medium to broadcast their opinions before now - to risk saying too much.

In the end, only the latter pay a lasting price.