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When did social media go wrong?

Social media: initial novelty then perceived powerful tool for positive social change. Why did it go wrong?

One of the earliest adopters of UK social media was Stephen Fry, an incredibly kind, intelligent chap who saw social media as a massive positive opportunity for change. At that time, YouTube was only just a source of silly videos and TikTok hadn’t even been conceived.

Perhaps social media’s descend into toxicity began when people began to crave increased numbers of friends and ‘likes. Perhaps underneath this justifiable acknowledgment of perceived value there was a demon gestating. A demon I suspect, many people, including Stephen Fry missed.

Before I explain what it is, here’s another story. I recently attended a fantastic theatre performance called “The Great Estate” about the history of Norwich’s Mile Cross Estate. As some of you might be aware, Mile Cross doesn’t have the greatest of reputations. It wasn’t always that way. In fact, up until the 1980s it was full of people with a strong sense of community and pride. What went wrong?

During the 1980s the government created the right to buy a council home. In doing so, it also created a division between those who believed in shared ownership and those who thought private ownership was a priority. What went wrong was the government underestimated human greed. It failed to see that cheap houses would be snapped up by wealthier people and then let out to others at ‘market rates’ therefore replacing council landlords with private ones. Of course, for the wealthiest this made financial sense and offered a sound investment. Landlords could charge what they liked if the housing market favoured that.

I work with and for people who own hundreds of houses and let them out at market rates. The agencies which manage their portfolio of rental properties do not care whatsoever about people who live in them, they only care about the secure flow of finance into their bank accounts and protecting the revenue. There aren’t many landlords who do care. Imagine if you were a landlord, how much would care. Would you be any different? I have dwelled on this many times. If I had made sound investments in property and had say, 5 houses, how concerned would I be for the welfare of the tenants and their role in the communities around their properties?

So rental prices are horrendously high because that is what the market determines, and any affordable homes to purchase are snapped up by investors to rent out at market rates. Is it surprising is it that there is a housing crisis? Is surprising that developers are reluctant to provide affordable homes in a housing development? What after all, is their incentive for doing so?

So back to social media. What went wrong that is in common with the housing crisis? There is one word which is sadly only used in Christian circles that should be used more widely: sin. It covers a multitude of things but broadly covers all those dark, selfish behaviours we all have which show themselves in all sorts of every-day ways. The word actual comes from archery meaning ‘missing the mark’. If you looked up the word online, it would be things like pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.  

Stephen Fry missed this human trait. It now manifests itself on social media in the forms of judgement, putting other’s down (whilst elevating themselves), to criticise unhelpfully (suggesting they know better) etc. Couple this with social media’s lack of accountability and there is a toxic environment for the things we are now all familiar with.

Whenever I see a social media rant about anything from dog poo to the frequency of ‘where’s my cat’ appeals I consider what positive contribution could I really make? Rather than join the chorus of moaners, how could I positively contribute?  Despite trying, often even positive contributions end up in a trail of criticisms and trolling.

Social media allows people to hide behind meaningless pseudonyms like “The Real Voice of Reason” preventing those people from having any real accountability. So, they say things they couldn’t say to someone face to face as there might be a direct, and potentially painful consequence if you said it to someone in the pub.

I’ve often pondered what I could do or suggest that could have a wider, positive societal change that wouldn’t be that difficult to achieve. Here’s one. Insist anyone posting anything anywhere in any public place whether in the real world or online they must use their own name and first part of the postcode for where they live. So, if I post something people can see it is from Martin Kentish, NR13. It would begin to introduce an aspect of accountability to their postings which would possibly reduce the awful toxicity of social media.


Have you noticed the increased levels of anger on the roads? I’ve seen it growing for years and as a motorcyclist it’s very clear that anger seems to be a default response to other road users. Try driving through Norwich and you’ll get a sense of why people are so frustrated. Like with social media, whoever designs the road network doesn’t take into account that drivers are generally human beings. The more dehumanised they feel, the more likely they are to express some negative trait. Sadly, on the roads, most accidents are caused by human error (not speed or road conditions), notably anger. So, when people get angry, they respond in angry ways. Serious crashes, including those that lead to deaths are often a consequence of this anger.

Safety and Social Media

It’s clear that the toxicity of social media has, like car crashes, serious consequences. Keeping people safe seems to be an obsession in the UK. Unless you also introduce accountability, it never ever works and only further dehumanises those people who it aims to protect.

So, a government could insist that social media companies do more to protect people from the content that other people post, but it will never ever work unless those people posting the toxic content are accountable for doing so. Any government official seems to be, but why not the wider population? If a member of the public knows they are accountable, they might think twice about posting some of the things they do?

Maybe part of the reason this has not happened is because there is a safety risk of repercussions, which following the UK’s safety mantra, isn’t acceptable. On and on it goes with social media becoming increasingly toxic without any accountability to the nature of the content. The social media companies are after all, just conduits for people to post stuff rather than creators. Its algorithms amplify the sensational so radical comments get amplified without any accountability to the consequences.

Some final points, linked to the above but food for thought.

  • Safety is a priority according to UK public bodies. So why are people becoming so incapable of handling risk? Why are people crashing more? Why is the obsession with safety leading to the opposite outcome?
  • Tolerance is a daily preach when it relates to specific groups of people. So why is everyone becoming so intolerant of so many more things? In fact, why are people so much angrier than they used to be?
  • Parenting used to be a joy (albeit a demanding one) but why does parenting when you see it in the public domain seem more about the concern of what other people think than the wellbeing of the child? When did parenting become just so impossibly difficult? Since when did the evening dinner become a negotiation with the child rather than telling them what it was going to be?
  • When did we think that a 10-year-old wearing a cat tail self-identifying as a cat is seen as acceptable, yet another child in the same class expressing they found it a little odd is being chastised for that view?

The UK society may be on a downward spiral, public services may be falling apart along with the roads, but I am convinced more than ever that unless we look at values our culture is based on then our attempts to fix things will largely be a waste of time. Social media reflects the prevailing culture and until we accept the propensity of humans to sin then we stand little chance of making things better.