The Social Media Minefield

Social media is a minefield of yet unchartered etiquette and sometimes awkward informality. We haven’t quite cottoned on to the fact yet that what might be inappropriate in person should carry through to what we type from behind the screen. The technology’s moving faster than we know how to deal with the altered social states it provides us with. We are all so hooked on our phones it seems impossible that there was a time when the internet didn’t exist. Some of us are old enough to remember the pre-smartphone age, while a generation of children and young people are growing up having never known life without gripping the world in the palm of their smooth-skinned hands.

I encountered something on Twitter yesterday that unnerved me, and it made me wonder how much damage social media is doing to how we interact with each other. I will shortly be attending an interview with a healthcare professional working for the Department of Work and Pensions. During this interview I will effectively have to prove that I’m a disabled person. Following this, my interviewer will advise the government on whether I should be granted a Personal Independence Payment or not. This is a small benefit paid to disabled people to do just as the name suggests; to help improve their lives with money toward living an independent life.

I find the prospect of the interview terrifying. While I am glad the DWP has measures in place to ensure the funding doesn’t get abused, I’m sure every disabled person would agree that the idea of having to spend an hour being grilled on how genuine and impactful your affliction can be isn’t pleasurable. Believing that forewarned is forearmed I asked on Twitter if anyone who had been through the interview could tell me what their experience was like, adding the words, “Please don’t scare me. :(“

The first person to respond was someone I don’t know particularly well and who doesn’t know me beyond my writing. He suggested that a bag would be pulled over my head and I’d be dragged away, before describing what he himself said reminded him of a horror film. I firmly believe the intention was humour. But I actually found this image terribly upsetting. In fact, every time I try to imagine what the interview might be like, this is the image that pops into my head.

I try to be the first to laugh at my disability; mainly because I spent a long time feeling bogged down by it. I found it as hilarious as my family did that it was me who mowed my parents’ lawn when they spent a month in Australia this summer. Me! The woman who walks like she’s a bit tipsy. Wobbly lines in the grass. It’s funny! But I think maybe what social media has done is diluted the ability to read social tells. Some people now seem oblivious to when a joke is appropriate and when a little more delicacy is required. It’s what Louis CK so perfectly articulated in his now viral appearance on Conan. In that moment of fear and vulnerability what I needed was reassurance that the interview would not be all the terrible things I imagine it might be.

It’s not really good enough to go down the Ricky Gervais road of ‘it’s not my fault if you don’t find my joke funny’. It’s arrogant, immature and it negates the need to be responsible for how our words affect other people. We also need to start learning the difference between ‘offensive’ and ‘in bad taste’. The intended joke about my medical interview did not offend me, but it was certainly a touch tasteless, ill-considered and was missing a little compassion. Something that lacks class is not necessarily offensive, despite ‘SORRY I OFFENDED YOU’ seemingly being the only comeback in our vocabulary when we misjudge a situation nowadays. Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke’s notorious performance at the VMA’s, for example, did not offend me. I was a child of the 80s. I lived through Madonna. But the display was certainly in bad taste. There is a difference.

While Facebook generally remains a place we reserve for our friends and family, Twitter is more open. Twitter allows us to connect with people we’d never normally have access to, link with those who share our interests and form genuine real life friendships we’d never have found without it. But it also breeds a kind of familiarity that not everyone’s learnt to reign in yet.

I am ultimately a very private person. I’m very careful to word my writing about my life, my illness and how I’ve dealt with it in such a way that it tells my story, but not the story of my friends and family. Only those close to me know just how little I’m actually saying when I talk about my illness publicly. And even when I do write about it, it still feels uncomfortable and vulnerable to me. But I choose to share the details I do to allow myself to feel less alone with it, and in the hope that others looking for support find it in my writing. Staying invisible made me miserable.

Social media is a living, breathing beast powered by us. It will, I have no doubt, continue to be a source of irritation to all of us at some point during every single day we use it. Whether we’re rolling our eyes at cringemaking name dropping on Twitter, biting our tongues at that old school friend who posts hourly pictures of their pet iguana on Facebook, facepalming at teenage girls Snapchatting their disrobed torsos to every boy they know, or tutting at celebrities quite clearly plugging sponsored products via their PR-manned Twitter account. It is our responsibility to consider what we say and to whom; to possibly spend an extra two seconds deciding if a joke is appropriate to that person in that moment, and that we also agree to be humble enough to recognise when we’ve got it wrong, rather than sulk about it. In short, we need to stop paying lip service to Ricky Gervais and lend our ears to Louis CK.

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