Saturday, November 21, 2015

We've been bingeing on social media – it's time for a fast

African National Congress stalwart Mac Maharaj​ spent 12 years in prison plotting with Nelson Mandela before becoming a minister in the first post-apartheid government.

Reflecting on that time, Maharaj told the Financial Times that time was the most valuable thing they had. In government, there was no time to talk.

In prison Maharaj and Mandela discussed everything. Smashing rocks under South Africa's diamond-bright sky, they argued about ideology, ethics, language, poetry, culture. They were able to listen, and persuade.

You get the feeling that in our 21st century democracies time scarcely exists, despite the gravity and complexity of the issues we face. Here, members of parliament run all day trying to keep up with an impossible media cycle. Their staff are on coffee runs around the clock, ticking off engagement boxes, checking social media notifications. Our politicians might have time to test ideas with focus groups, but not with each other.

They become experts at "thin-slicing" – a term Malcolm Gladwell​ popularised in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. It means making snap decisions based on thin slices or narrow windows of information, rather than weighing things up and the experience of many others.

Parliamentarians are trained by their circumstances not to pause for long but develop strategies that create a semblance of having dealt with issues. While they have always been expected to respond to issues promptly, the speed at which issues come up (and arguably the expectations journalists have of them to respond quickly) has intensified.

Every democracy has been challenged by the rise of social media.

As unpleasant as prison was for Maharaj and Mandela, they were given the luxury of time to make sense of the world without the incessant beat of Twitter and Facebook. Mandela studied his captors, learned and learnt to love their Afrikaans language.

Facebook and its clones may be making us "infobese" – exposed to news and views, but still hungry and no wiser. ABC Four Corners this week showed us our young people overly anxious about the future, supercharged by social media.

Google the words: "Love to hate Facebook" and you'll find an avalanche of posts. Many of those who hate Facebook also acknowledge that they can't live without it. It's become essential, but they don't like it.

Social media still unsettles me, years on. All the more so when I hear it will one day determine the results of elections. It's apparently close to overtaking television and radio as the main means of reaching voters.

Here's what worries me:

1. It can shrink rather than enhance connections. By allowing us to view rather than take part in others' lives, it can turn us into voyeurs. It's a medium for performance rather than conversation. Even the harmless-looking LinkedIn tells users how many people have been looking at their profile.

2. It makes everything seem as urgent as everything else, putting the sacred next to the profane on the same screen and asking us to look at the lot. It's true that advertising has always sat alongside news on radio, television and in print, but we used to know which was which.

3. It doesn't invite sustained thinking or action. Scott Stephens, charge of the ABC's Twitter account, says while social media lands him in the middle of wonderful discussions he wouldn't have otherwise had, it's a bit like photography as described by Susan Sontag​ in the 1970s. It can convey meaning powerfully, whipping up a moral storm, but its power evaporates because it isn't a tool for action.

4. It seems to be eroding our capacity to be patient and civil with each other. Although it pretends to "engage", it often just entrenches tribalism. We speak to "our kind" with less desire to reason or exercise empathy for others. It can really take its toll, especially if you're on the receiving end. After a day filled with Twitter my husband becomes terse in real life, until he adjusts.

What can we do about it? Here are some ideas:

1. Spend some of the time you would normally spend on social media volunteering and interacting with real people, face to face.

2. Use social media prompts about friends' birthdays to actually phone them. You'll deepen the relationship.

3. If you have a Twitter account, follow people who have different views to you and be open to considering them, even if you know you won't agree.

4. From time to time go on a fast. You'll return to social media less jaded after some time in the real world.

5. Go for more walks. It'll help you join the dots.

6. Go bush and camp.

7. Have more dinner parties where your mobile stays hidden.

In asking for slowness, real-world connections and reflection I am not suggesting doing nothing. I am suggesting getting more of what matters done.

First published in The Canberra Times, Friday November 20, 2015. Photo courtesy of Reuters.