By Jon Ronson and Alexandra Heminsley

16 November 2015 - 13:58

'Social media is like a mutual approval machine, where we frantically approve of each other.' Image
'Social media is like a mutual approval machine, where we frantically approve of each other.' Image ©

Charlotte Ogilvie

Two digital-age writers, @JonRonson and @Hemmo (Alexandra Heminsley), whose work appears both in cyberspace and meatspace, discuss the implications of new forms of communication in a podcast with journalist @GeorginaGodwin below. The accompanying text is an edited transcript.

How can social media be used as a tool for social good?

AH: Social media platforms are such huge connectors. Due to algorithms that didn’t exist when I was just beginning my running journey, I am now being steered in the direction of other runners like me, who are following and talking about the same kinds of things. It’s a space where young people can find each other online.

Curiosity used to be rewarded so fast. You could ask a question and people would send you links, want to chat about it, be patient if you didn’t understand and talk you through things over a series of tweets. Now though, the conversation can instantly turn. Not knowing something already can become a real source of embarrassment. This is especially true in communities where, if you’re not absolutely up to date on your terminology of everything to do with a topic, such as gender politics, you are too afraid to ask because you might get re-tweeted and 5,000 people could harangue you for 48 hours.

It has been said that social media is a new form of democracy. What do you think about that?

JR: We surround ourselves in social media with people who feel the same way we do and agree with each other. It's like a mutual approval machine, where we frantically approve of each other. If somebody gets in the way of that good feeling, we scream them out.

I'm not sure that social media is a new form of democracy, though. That instinct to try and shut down anybody who disagrees with you actually goes against the idea. In a democracy, you hear other voices, and you listen to people. Social media is really chilling free speech. As much as we all benefit personally and professionally from it, the way that these platforms are used can also harm what journalists need to be doing more of than anything else – writing in an unafraid way.

Do we need more regulations governing social media? If so, how could they be enforced?

AH: Instagram is an interesting one for this, as, in its early days, it became a hotbed for pro-anorexia images. Now, if you use those hashtags, you can’t access the images and are sent a link about eating disorders. Initially, this bothered me, as I wanted to look at the phenomenon from a journalistic point of view. I actually think it’s a positive thing now, though, especially if I imagine having a 12-year-old daughter looking up the tag – I’d be glad I was directed there.

Instagram seems to have found a way to just close down something that seems to be moving towards nasty instincts in people. The pro-anorexia images were not aggressive, but they were self-harming. Twitter, on the other hand, seems to ignore the issue entirely. I don’t know enough about technology to suggest what they could do to deal with the problem, but I still find it hard to stomach.

Have you experienced any kind of abuse on Twitter?

AH: On a very minor level – I was misquoted about something deeply nerdy about running. I tried to condense a central theme from a book about the topic, and did it quite badly. I talked about Park Run, which is a free local five-kilometre run that happens all around the country, and how, although it is free, it is still heavily sponsored. After that, I had three days of the biggest running event in the country, and the whole time, people were telling me that I was stupid, hated running and wanted to keep everyone unfit. It’s just not true.

You can’t fight it when there are that many people – it’s madness, and that was only a geeky running technicality. If there had been threats, or something more fundamental about my being, I don’t know how I would have coped.

How have you seen the traditional publishing industry adapt to incorporate communication in cyberspace?

JR: The mainstream media, who I work for, is insecure now. It's running out of money because you get everything for free on the internet. Personally, I've been really fortunate in that, if I've got a story that I really want to do, I can find somebody who can trust me to do the story, even if it's like old-style investigative journalism, which is quite expensive. I understand that I'm quite rare in that, because of the wealth disparity now. All of the money is going to internet corporations who are providing everything for free, which means that all the newspapers and magazines are getting poorer. As a result, investigative journalism, or just long-form journalism, is under siege.

How do you envisage the future of social media?

AH: I fear for Twitter's future. That said, the pitfalls that this generation has fallen into over the last five or six years won’t exist for the next generation. A nine-year-old now understands that adults can see if they're on Facebook in the evenings when they're saying they're doing their homework. And a 15-year-old knows that they need to be building a Twitter feed that indicates some kind of enthusiasm about the sorts of jobs they're going to want to apply for in the future. That absolute carefreeness is gone. The glory of Twitter, back in 2009, is long gone, and Twitter itself might be, too.

Jon Ronson and Alexandra Heminsley are part of a delegation of UK writers attending the Guadalajara International Book Fair in Mexico from 28 November to 6 December 2015, curated by the British Council as part of the UK Mexico Year of Cultural Exchange.

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