Is the Virtual World Destroying the Real One around Us? Virtual Worlds Such as Facebook and Twitter Are Killing Our Communities and Creating a Voyeuristic Society, Warns Communications Expert Hywel Thomas. Today, He Urges Readers to Go Offline and Return to Reality

Article excerpt

Byline: Hywel Thomas

T HE post-mortem that followed the riots in England drew some predictable responses from the politicians - citing the breakdown of the family unit and absent fathers as factors contributing to undermine the stability of communities.

And certainly, I would not dismiss the validity of these thoughts but the causes of such social unrest go far deeper and deserve greater consideration and analysis.

Perhaps the clamour to provide an immediate prognosis for the shocking images we witnessed is a reflection of the "everything now" society - a society which demands an instantaneous response to its incessant communications.

We have created a climate which allows little time for personal reflection or to turn over in our minds the important issues of the day - issues which merit serious and careful thought.

"We" have embraced the tools which allow for these conditions - texting, twittering and tweeting, and even created virtual communities where people can share the minutiae details of their daily lives, but more on that later.

For some, the virtual worlds of Facebook and MySpace are more important than the communities they live in and therein lies the problem - a problem which the politicians would be foolish to ignore.

The way people communicate, individually or collectively, is of fundamental importance in creating the conditions for social harmony and a fair and just society.

It is also a vital tool in our own personal development and our ability to interact with others with consideration, sensitivity and confidence - and crucially face to face. There is a danger that these skills are being eroded by the virtual worlds of social network sites which are becoming more tangible to some than the world they inhabit.

Far from being "social" networks which should bind communities, they could be better described as anti-social networks. Paradoxically, in the context of the recent social unrest in England and the subsequent talk of "a broken society", the influence of social network sites was scarcely mentioned.

Those of us who have abstained from sites such as Facebook and MySpace are viewed with something akin to suspicion - Neanderthals, relics of a bygone era, refusing to move with the times. It is this fear of being seen to be left behind or out of touch with the electorate that has resulted in our politicians jumping on the cyber space bandwagon without so much as a second thought. And in their haste to twitter and tweet and increase their Facebook friends - a full-time job these days - they have perhaps lost their objectivity in relation to the way society communicates.

But this is part of a wider issue. In what has become an almost obsessive need to communicate 24/7, we have perhaps unwittingly sown the seeds for many of the problems that society is facing today. We have encouraged a culture where nothing is sacrosanct anymore, where we lay our lives bare on the internet. And the most disturbing thing of all is that people do so of their own volition.

We have created a voyeuristic society and one where the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is intrusive clearly and urgently need to be addressed. It could be argued that the News of the World phone hacking scandal in which that most basic of human rights - privacy - was so crudely violated was the most disturbing by-product of that culture.

The challenge that we face is how to rein in or bring some restraint to this "communications juggernaut" whose appetite seems insatiable - whose reach has extended into so many aspects of our daily lives. When we look at the way the news is reported, for example, there is almost a desperation amongst broadcasters to provide some morsel of news that will keep the rolling news reel from being repetitive. And in doing so quantity is replacing quality and substance.

It may seem at odds for someone with a career in public relations to be so damning in my criticism of the way we communicate today. …