For my last birthday, I received a T-shirt that reads "Someone is wrong in the internet". It refers to the famous XKCD cartoon "Duty Calls", in which a man cannot answer his partner's call to come to bed because "Someone is wrong on the internet."
I am that man. I confess that the completion of this essay has been delayed more than once because someone is wrong on the internet and that needs my urgent attention.
Sometimes it's just about having the last word in an argument for which there is no true answer. But my job often involves looking up facts and I'm reasonably good at it. In the case of antivax factoids, that contemporary pandemic of the mind, it's generally not even hard: almost without exception, every wild thing your friend types into Facebook has been comprehensively debunked long before they heard about it.
This, it turns out, is of very little use in persuading people out of the rabbit hole they've dived down. The evidence is that it really just makes people defensive and they cling even harder to the original belief. I am terrible at this, apparently powerless in the face of the tide of conspiratorial bulls*** the social media sphere facilitates.
Every platform has a strain of the plague right now. Instagram influencers describe apparently made-up vaccine reactions to sell wellness products, and countless businesspeople are posting angry, career-limiting reckons on LinkedIn. So what's going on here and is my son right when he tells me "Social media was a mistake"?
Let's go back to the start. Internet social media is older than you think, much older than the Web. Usenet newsgroups first lit up in 1980 and as they grew, they looked a lot like your social media does now. There were communities of interest, threaded discussions, cultural codes and long arguments ("flame wars"). You probably still use TLAs (three-letter acronyms) that were first codified in the bare text of Usenet.
Usenet also established the basic archetypes of online behaviour – it's where the concept of trolling began – and, as someone who ran a busy web forum for the first decade of the 21st century, I can testify that they held for a long time.
But things changed. Facebook and Twitter launched in 2006 and Instagram followed in 2010. A broader and more diverse group of people embraced online community and at the same time online communities became more polarised. They also got much harder to sensibly moderate.
I like social media. I like bantering and debating and my brain really likes the little hit of dopamine in every like and retweet. The proprietors like that too. The huge change in internet community in the past decade and a half has been that social media proprietors – who are advertising companies – have engineered their services to provoke, encourage and reward certain human behaviours.
That trend has enabled a new class of users: highly organised bad actors whose interests may align with those of the platform owners. If its merchants can get you to watch all of a two-hour conspiracy video, that goes down as a win for them and YouTube.
We used to joke that if Russian disinfo teams wanted to destabilise New Zealand, the anti-1080 movement would be the perfect vector. I genuinely don't think that's a joke anymore.
The worst, least ethical, most reckless of all the companies is Facebook, which would facilitate someone turning your granny into a serial killer if there was a dollar in it. So, clearly, I should be appealing to you to heed your conscience and quit that hellscape.
Well, I didn't. Facebook is my connection to decades' worth of friendships, and home to the music history groups and videos of disco-dancing goats that have given me comfort through the lockdowns.
If the pandemic has exposed a striking lack of political literacy on Facebook – that's when you catch your formerly Green-voting friend in bed with neo-Nazis because there's a goblin in the Pfizer vaccine – it's there in excess on Twitter. It's where you can interact directly with politicians, journalists and medical experts and follow events in real-time.
It can be brutal with its 240-character word-bombs, but it also rewards a facility with writing that lends itself to humour, community and some exquisite wordplay. There are some excellent cat pictures, too.
And dear lord, we need the comfort. Because every one of us is processing pandemic anxiety, whether we're defending the Government or damning it; trying to perceive the light at the end of the tunnel or engaging in a kind of performative fatalism. In this light, the theory that people embrace bulls*** conspiracy theories because there is comfort in even baseless certainties, seems quite persuasive.
You may have successfully navigated the past 18 months without the need for any of this. Social media might look to you like a terrordome packed with psychological poker machines and you may be right.
But for both better and worse, it's where we are and where many of our ideas take shape. A town square run by absentee landlords where we might lose our senses, feed our heads or soothe our souls. Perhaps, in this very flawed part of a flawed world, the best we can do is to follow the lady's advice and be kind.