We humans are great at creating tools with unforeseen consequences. For instance, when we invented the wheel, we had no way of knowing we were also laying the foundations for the TV show Top Gear. Did our forebears pause to consider the impact that prolonged exposure to Richard Hammond might have on future generations? No. But then people from the past really are the most selfish bastards you’re never likely to meet. You’d think we don’t exist, the way they carry on, with their discovery of tobacco and their non-degradable plastics and so on.
Like the wheel, social media is another invention that is starting to resemble more of a millstone than a breakthrough. By way of illustration, if anybody out there fancies winning next year’s Turner prize, here’s an attention-grabbing performance art project for you: see how long it takes to get yourself murdered using nothing but Facebook and Twitter.
Should be straightforward. You don’t even have to go outside. Just sit at home methodically typing the most grotesque and inflammatory statements you can think of, rounding off each post with a link highlighting your precise co-ordinates on Google Maps. Start at 10am and, providing you have been provocative enough, a self-righteous mob should be sawing your head off and kicking it around like a football by teatime. Think of it as a crowd-sourced version of Dignitas. There are less physically agonising ways to die, yes – but this is one of the easiest.
And it’s not a far-fetched scenario: last month, a teenager went on Facebook and posted a string of tasteless jokes about a recent child murder. Before long, a 50-strong “vigilante mob” turned up at his home address. He was arrested – apparently for his own safety – and then jailed. Hang on, I’ll just type that last word again in capitals: JAILED.
In recent weeks we have been dealing with the side-effects of hyper-connectivity, and it’s not pretty. When whoever invented Twitter invented Twitter, they could surely have never conceived that their precious brainchild might ultimately lead to Philip Schofield handing a list of suspected paedophiles to the prime minister on daytime television, in what I, for one, was hoping would become a regular new This Morning “format point”, inbetween the Milf makeovers, celebrity interviews, and the occasional headline-grabbing interludes where they get someone to drop their pants to raise awareness of bum mumps or something.
And of course it’s not just Schofield who’s in trouble. Last week, thousands of Twitter users presumably rushed to their keyboards to frenziedly delete anything they had ever said or implied about Lord McAlpine, desperately trying to mop up any evidence of gossip before his legal team could harvest their details as part of The Biggest Libel Case Ever. It’s safe to assume that none of these users contemplated the possibility of being sued by a peer of the realm when they originally signed up to the service but nonetheless, for good or ill, that’s where they find themselves.
Remember the Mogwai from the movie Gremlins? It was a fun and harmless companion, unless you got it wet (which caused it to multiply), or fed it after midnight (which turned it into a destructive, sociopathic demon). It was easy to inadvertently “misuse” – and doing so could quickly spiral out of control and ruin your life. Every Twitter user has, in effect, been sold a digital Mogwai minus the instruction sheet.
Actually perhaps – to return to the wheel for a moment – a car is a better metaphor than a Mogwai. A car is a powerful machine that can also be dangerous, but you’re implicitly aware of the risks when you sit behind the wheel, having seen The Dukes of Hazzard and, yes, what happened to Richard Hammond. But God knows what it was like in the early days of motoring. Maybe some people simply didn’t understand how cars worked, and tried to drive them up trees at 90mph. Maybe there was no agreement on which side of the road to drive on, so people used to engineer head-on crashes just to make a point. Maybe it was legal to mount the pavement and squash anyone in a bonnet. Fortunately, our predecessors gradually got better at driving, got a feel for the rules of the road, and then passed this knowledge down through the generations in the form of an arcane text known as “the Highway Code”.
Maybe it’s time to start compiling a friendly “highway code” for social media to alert future generations to potential dangers:
Rule No 1 is: don’t form a mob on the basis of anything you read less than a minute ago.
Rule No 2: accusations of child abuse don’t go down very well, even if you try to ”lighten the mood” midway through them by typing LOL.
And rule No 3 is: don’t be a dick.
Not sure you need any more rules than that, to be honest. That’s the internet solved, then. Next week: Palestine.
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