Unsociable Truth Behind Social Networks
Smith, Joan, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
A psychological crutch and a repository for morons' anger. Two of our columnists despair at the nastier side of the internet
Could Neville Chamberlain have declared war on Germany using Twitter? I don't see why not. Seventy years later, Downing Street tweets. So does the Prime Minister's wife, Sarah, and Gordon Brown himself is on YouTube. Admitting that you don't tweet or endlessly update your social networking site is tantamount to declaring yourself a dinosaur. It got Matthew Parris invited on to the Today programme one morning last week after he mentioned in a column that he'd refused an invitation to contribute to a live Twitter feed (whatever that is) during a lunch to judge a student journalism award.
Parris's trenchant response - he wrote that pigs would fly before he did anything so inane while simultaneously trying to judge a writing competition - is rare in a world where people live in terror of criticising the internet, despite the fact that time-wasting, bullying and exhibitionism are rife online.
The internet is a fantastic tool for all sorts of activities from research and political campaigning to shopping. There are repressive countries, such as China and Vietnam, where it's regarded as such a powerful political tool that governments go to extraordinary lengths to close down opposition sites.
But the internet has changed the way we live in ways that aren't benign at all, as the entrepreneur Theo Paphitis pointed out last week. The chairman of the Ryman stationery company launched an outspoken attack on aspects of the internet, arguing - incontrovertibly, I'd have thought - that it "has polluted the air with meaningless babble and egomaniacal drivel".
A year ago, Paphitis became so concerned about the amount of time his employees were wasting on social networking sites that he restricted their internet access. Paphitis has applauded Portsmouth City Council for banning staff from using Facebook after it was discovered that town hall employees were spending an average of 413 hours a month on the site. The decision is controversial. But anyone who works in an office knows that some colleagues spend much longer than others on social networking sites.
The problem for employers is that normal considerations seem not to apply in much of the virtual world, leading to what Paphitis calls "an orgy of self-indulgence and exhibitionism". Here is an example: four months ago, a civil servant at the Department for Children, Schools and Families posted an angry anonymous message on the internet attacking the then communities secretary, Hazel Blears. Angered by revelations about Ms Blears's expenses, Lisa Greenwood used her work email account to post it on an internet forum. "You are only sorry that you have been caught," she railed. "You are a disgrace (including all the other honourable members). Why haven't you been sacked?"
Ms Greenwood complained bitterly when she was identified through her email address and sacked for gross misconduct. The irony of a public servant using her office email account to accuse a cabinet minister of misusing public funds was completely lost on her.
This highlights one of the chief problems with the internet, which is the way in which the practice of allowing anonymous or pseudonymous postings has encouraged a culture of arrogance and impunity. …