Why Social Media is Ultimately Bad for Gender Politics

I understand that many people are passionate about social media as a tool for political change. But let me tell you why it is ultimately bad for gender politics (and probably all politics).

Largely, this is a problem of form. When people started blogging back in the day, there was something of a renaissance in long-form writing. People would write an opinion of, say, a thousand words, and other people would visit the blog and leave often well-crafted and lengthy comments. There was good dialogue here. Something similar happened on bulletin board systems which allowed well-organised and distinct threads of conversation that would take place over an extended period of time. Facebook, and especially Twitter, changed all that. Nuanced long-form writing was abandoned in favour of increasingly short soundbites.

The net effect of this change is a loss of nuance. In the context of gender, this means people are forced to become increasingly one-dimensional versions of Stage 2 and 3: Stage 2 becomes the caricature painted for it by Stage 3 and vice versa. Neither is representative of the truth.

It gets worse, because there has also been a shift away from idea quality to idea validation. By this, I mean gaining likes and upvotes has become an end in itself, and typically the more banal a post, the more likes. I used to experiment with this and found that pictures of my lunchtime coffee with some trite comment always received more likes than links to a substantial piece of new work.

It gets worse, because the media know this and have responded with increasingly click-baity journalism that feeds on banality and validation. This can have quite incendiary effects in the context of gender: I have documented numerous examples of articles with “masculinity” in the title (Vice is good at this) that have little relation to the article content: this appeal to masculinity enrages both Stage 2 and 3 in different ways, thus generating more shares (and validation).

It gets worse, because all this validation is clearly a total illusion because we know that 59% of links shared on social media are not even read by the person sharing the link, let alone the person who sees it passing through their feed.

In sum, social media works against useful discussions about gender politics. Indeed, more generally it leaves people feeling worn out and hopeless, as demonstrated by this recent study by Pew Research Centre, The Political Environment on Social Media.

We are pretty much at the point where the only way you can be successful on social media is to sacrifice nuanced and critical thinking, which is something to keep in mind every time you see someone with an extraordinary amount of social media celebrity.