A new year is a time for reflection; a time to think about the past, and the present, and the future; a time to cherish what is good and assess what is bad; a time to think about what can be changed; a time for resolutions.
We have resolutions for our personal lives – to quit smoking; to exercise; to spend more time with loved ones – but perhaps we need some resolutions for our social media. The Internet heaves with otherwise good, smart people behaving like boors and fools. Tidal waves of tedium, hailstorms of hysteria and blizzards of bullshit crash, swirl and roar.
1. I will have a sense of humour.
The Internet is not real life. It interacts with it but it should not define it. Online dysfunction, social or epistemological, has a lot to do with people losing their sense of perspective and inflating the importance of transient or trivial matters. Being receptive to the comical absurdities of our behaviour helps one to maintain a sense of perspective.
2. I will keep my cool.
I have no wish to promote a spiritually stunted kind of objectivity. Emotions are important. Anger, for example, motivates us and intimidates our enemies. Yet it can be useful in its time and place. It inspires people who are likely to agree with us yet it tends to repulse people who are agnostic. It intimidates opponents in a physical setting yet as well as being crude it is almost entirely useless on the Internet. It makes us less reasonable, and less self-aware, and makes us do ridiculous and obnoxious things. When we are angry on the Internet we should step away, and breathe, and look into the sky.
3. I will check my sources.
Lies, as Mark Twain observed, can spread around the world before the truth has got its boots om. Social media has ensured that lies can spread around the world while the truth is looking for its socks. The temptation to react to apparent outrages, or promote convenient assertions, overwhelms our critical faculties. Even if the truth does get its boots on and stumble into the street it is too late. The lies have gone. How many times have you seen falsehoods get thousands of retweets and corrections get twelve? In 2018 we should at least resolve to check our sources before we promote claims, and assess evidence, not just implications.
4. I will not virtue or vice signal.
“Virtue signalling”, as a term, has been overused: an ad hominem argument for pseudo-intellectuals. At its core, however, is the insight that the Internet allows us to replace virtuous deeds with virtuous assertions; to pose as good people without doing good things. This should be avoided, obviously, as should its companion: vice signalling. We are attracted to subversive and iconoclastic opinions, which can be courageous and incisive to express. They can also be childish, obnoxious and destructive. Many people say obscene things under the delusion that it makes them fearless heretics, while others, perhaps more annoyingly, express mundane opinions with the same jejune pretensions. We should choose ideas based on their logical and evidential value, not their trangressive connotations.
5. I will not dogpile.
The suicide of the pornographic actress August Ames, who had been abused and criticised for alleged homophobia after announcing her refusal to have sex with men who had appeared in gay porn, renewed the debate Jon Ronson had explored in his superb book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?. We all recognise the unfairness of people being attacked by thousands of absolute strangers until John Q. Average tweets something we find dislikable and we swan dive into a dogpile. Abuse should be avoided as a rule, of course, but we should also be aware of the effects of mass hostility on someone’s mental health before unnecessarily contributing denunciation.
6. I will not connect all events to my personal obsessions.
Whenever something happens in politics or art, people see it as justification for their beliefs. If an alien has the misfortune to land on Earth you can bet the little bastard will be used to show that countless things are right and wrong. “What the alien tells us about atheism…” “Why the alien proves Donald Trump is a bad president…” “The alien demonstrates that the world is flat…” If events have implications for our beliefs then we can make that case but we should not be monomaniacal or opportunistic. It is irrational and it is very, very dull.
7. I will not comment on things I know (or care) nothing about.
Bitcoin. “Cat People”. The Last Jedi. Every now and then a subject inflames social media and the Internet is overwhelmed with thousands of opinions. People feel compelled to comment even if they neither know nor care about the subject: directly, with prejudiced pronouncements, or with bad jokes and futile complaints. This does nothing except waste their time and clog up people’s feeds. To avoid squandering our precious hours on the Earth we should abstain from compulsive commentary.
8. I will have a life.
Remembering that we should have lives off the Internet makes us less obnoxious online. More importantly, it makes us less obnoxious in real life. Apart from a few exceptionally influential people, we are more significant in what we say and do than in what we type. Friends and family will remember us when everything that we have published on the Internet is long-archived and ignored. I began by saying that we should keep a sense of perspective so as to avoid embarrassing ourselves online, but we also need a sense of perspective to avoid neglecting that which exists beyond our screens.
Let me end on a cheerful note. For all the bullshit on the Internet I have talked with dozens of fun, interesting people: bloggers, tweeters, commenters, journalists and scholars. I have laughed a lot and learned a lot. I am grateful for that. I wish all readers a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.