COMMENT: How to optimise your social media accounts? Maybe try deleting them

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THE French have a name for those moments when someone says something to you that is so surprising or challenging or just downright insulting that you suddenly find yourself lost for words, buffering, waiting for a pithy response that never arrives.

They call it ‘l’esprit d’escalier’ – or rather, that’s what they call the bit that happens later, when the moment has passed and we’re on our own somewhere (in the car or walking home, or in the case of the expression, at the bottom of the staircase). That’s when the perfect zinger always comes to mind, ridiculously, unapologetically late, and with no one left to deliver it to.

I mention this because it’s often occurred to me that Twitter, in particular – but social media, as a general rule – is the exact opposite of the ‘escalier’ mindset. These are the words that do pop into people’s heads on the spur of the moment, that do get said – and, for the most part, that we could probably live without.

But hey – so what, right? I mean, who really cares if the majority of people’s social media interactions are taken up with aimless, superficial chat?

It would be pointless (not to mention curmudgeonly) to complain about that – it is, after all, widely accepted that rudderless chit-chat serves important psychological and societal functions, and it always has.

Like people so often say, social media is really no different to the garden fence or the town square or any other place where the community’s news, views and gossip have traditionally been exchanged over the centuries.

In fact, the town square is quite a common analogy when explaining this kind of thing: the idea being that, in the layout of a medieval town, you’d have a church or a tower at the centre, which represents the hierarchy, and then you’d have the surrounding square, which is where everyone would congregate in a social network to chat and sell their wares and so on – you see how it works.

And it’s all very neat, even quite comforting in its way. The many concerns and fears surrounding social media, the theory suggests, can in some way be matched up to every other generation’s concerns and fears throughout the centuries.

And broadly speaking, that may well be true, but the problem is that there are some specific things bubbling away in our social media channels that we’ve never encountered before – some nasty, toxic, potentially deeply damaging things.

And while we may be aware of them as irritants, we might not always be taking them seriously enough as threats to our personal and collective freedoms.

A good way to think of it is to consider Jaron Lanier’s Wikipedia thought experiment (he’s one of the founding fathers of virtual reality, by the way, and a pioneer of the internet). He asks a simple question: what if Wikipedia showed every user who accessed it a different version of the facts? A version that was algorithmically matched to their online persona, their behaviours and interactions in the virtual world.

That would be insane – of course it would. Because facts are facts. It doesn’t matter who’s looking at them.

And yet that is exactly what is happening to us every day on social media. Our various ‘information diets’ are being determined for us by endlessly refined algorithms. We are being prompted, profiled and advertised into a closed circuit of like-minded content and consumers.

It’s a highly manipulative encouragement of group-think, and a dangerous ideological accelerant. Think about Leavers and Remainers or Trumpists and blue-state Dems on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not just ugly, it’s frightening.

And it also has a knock-on effect to the traditional media (where our ever-expanding population of what my young daughter refers to as ‘elderlies’ are mostly getting their info). Would a grossly partisan outlet like Fox News, for example, really be tenable without the resounding call-backs from social media echo chambers?

Psychological techniques are luring us in, and behavioural ones are then cementing us into certain ways of interacting online. And all the time, people – a tiny, techy handful of people – are accumulating a phenomenal amount of wealth and power in the process.

And while I’m not advocating anything as radical as Lanier’s recent battle cry for people to delete their social media accounts before the world deletes itself, I am saying that we should maybe stop and think for a second.

We should think about how we are dealing with each other, and about what might be going on in the other, larger parts of this online organism we’re a part of.

Me? I’m a social media hermit. I live outside the town, a long way from the sounds of the square. Which means I miss stuff – and opportunities, without doubt, must sail past me on a regular basis.

I’m sure I’ll need to revise that at some point, and I’m not holding it up as a way to go. On the contrary.

But a healthy scepticism may be advisable.

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