You’re checking out your Facebook newsfeed, or your favourite news site. You see something that’s particularly controversial and suddenly an overwhelming compulsion hits.
You know you shouldn’t. You know you’re asking for trouble. You know you’re going to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, that what’s seen cannot be unseen, that giving into your urge is going to cost you a stiff drink, or at the very least, a healthy supply of chocolate and other comfort food. Yet you cannot help yourself. You click... on the comments.
Comment sections are like a law unto themselves. People seem to feel that because they have something to say, it is their duty to say it, no matter how banal or incredibly ill-thought-out. Comment sections also seem to bring out the animals in us. Who needs a fight club when you can tussle on a forum? You might not get the physical release (and physical bruises to go with it), but a battle of wits on a comment section can be just as scarring... especially when you realise how few people seem to actually possess wits. Eventually, just when you feel you are about to break, it occurs to you. There is a way out.
If you can prevent yourself from seeing the other arguments, if you can remove or block or un-follow or un-friend, the problem goes away. Oh, how satisfying to click the little blue ‘x’ in the corner of a Facebook post and have idiocy melt away as if it was never there. Oh, how wonderful to be able to report annoying users with differing views as spammers, as perpetrators of hate speech, for harassment.
The world becomes a peaceful place again. A better, productive place. Or does it?
The Internet as we know it today – what was once labelled “Web 2.0” – allows an incredible amount of filtering. You can avoid comment sections, only read news stories shared by people you admire and limit your Googling to cat pictures and the latest memes. In a world where the amount of information one has access to is virtually limitless, you can even argue that you have no choice but to filter it somehow. And why should that filter let in unpleasant things?
When newspapers were our primary source of information, we didn’t have the choice of picking and choosing. It was all bundled together in one package. You could discard page three if you found it distasteful, you could toss aside the business pages if they were too confusing, but they were there.
Someone else had done your filtering for you. Someone else had chosen which letters (the old-fashioned “comments”) you read, had summarised the important points for you. On radio, the talk show hosts would choose the topics that were salient; the hourly news report would sum up everything including the sports match you cared nothing for. Even television would package news – almost like a soap opera where the characters were politicians and the setting was real life. You’d be subjected to what someone else found important or interesting, including the weather for other parts of the world you had no intention of ever visiting.
Then news moved online and into the realm of the search engines, where you could run a query for a topic of interest and leave out the rest. News Web sites became clever quickly though, and started posting links to other stories on their pages, so you could very well get caught in an infinite loop of link clicking.
Then social media came along – a medium where you were completely free to choose whose posts you saw. Don’t believe in homosexuality? Un-follow all the homosexuals! Don’t believe in abortion? Un-follow all who do! What about the death penalty? Refuse to hear anyone who believes it’s wrong. If TV news is a soap opera, social media news is a toddler with its hands over its ears, singing: “I CAN’T HEAR YOU, LA, LA, LA.”
There is a very real danger that through following only those people who we like, whose opinions we agree with, we’ll develop a warped idea of the world.
In this age of far too much information, yes, of course we need to apply filters. However, we have to be careful not to let those filters isolate us. In a group where everyone agrees on the same things, those things – no matter what they are – will always seem right. Being open-minded used to be far easier than it is now. Now it requires effort, a commitment to expose oneself to diverse views (no matter how distasteful they might seem), not to mention no small amount of patience (and chocolate supplies), but as Frank Zappa once said: “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open.”
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