Another year is ending, and in some respects we are more divided as Londoners than ever – not a popular sentiment, I know, but one with which we must come to terms. Somewhere in the last few years, the possibilities we once envisioned for social media to help guide us into a more collaborative future have floundered. Friendships have been lost, enemies gained, and a brighter future dimmed. It has exacerbated an already difficult generational divide in London and threatens to derail our potential.

We’re not alone in this challenge, as communities around the world wrestle with a remarkable resource that has somehow turned citizens against one another.

News was made recently when former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke out concerning the harm the social network was doing globally to civil society. In a moment of contrition he confessed to feeling “tremendous guilt” about creating tools that, “are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He concluded with a terse observation: “No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, untruth.”

Sir Tim Burners-Lee, inventor of the world-wide web, concurred with Palihapitiya’s insight. He reserved his major criticism for the way social media companies raise insane revenues by getting users to focus on themselves to the exclusion of the great challenges and potential that confront them. “This is not democracy,” he said in exasperation.

As the Washington Post noted, we are becoming “addicted to outrage,” and often the weapon of choice for that anger has been Twitter. The social media giant frequently resembles more a venue for playground squabbles than an online sharing and collaboration tool. A generation of trolls and haters has been so tolerated on the digital frontier by Twitter that sincere efforts to use the platform for effective civil discourse are frequently undone. Unsure how to contend with such all-consuming competitors, traditional media is sometimes lulled into this more sinister aspect of the “Twitterverse” in a fashion that divides communities even further.

This is how democracies perish – not by outside forces, but by the tearing apart of citizens and ideas as people and organizations turn incessantly inward and, all too often, on themselves. Possible solutions for what ails us are frequently shot down before they can catch on with a wider audience. The danger housed within social media prompts an increasing number of the citizenry to “block” or “unfriend” when the goal of such tools was supposed to be the exact opposite.

The year 2017 will be remembered by many Londoners as the year they were harassed, belittled and even stalked online – a stark reality that has forced them to disengage altogether. They have grown tired of hyper-partisan politics, fake news, the drip, drip, drip of constantly negative posts. And they have pulled away, bruised, battered, and perhaps worst of all, deeply disillusioned about democracy itself.

And yet there is a growing awareness that local citizens are becoming tired of the self-serving nature of social media platforms and are seeking to find productive means of collaboration, friendliness and cause-oriented pursuits. But to be successful they must revisit the potential of social media and reclaim it from those who only seek to destroy community through its tools. Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms will remain as some of the best ways we can reach out to each other, plan, seek to understand, and envision a new future together.

Key to all of it will be the recapture of that one great asset of community function: dialogue. Not the kind that yells at one another, has its mind fully made up before even engaging, or uses social media to undermine political opponents in ways that break apart our comity (an inviting temptation as election season nears).

Let’s not fool ourselves: much of the crosstalk going on in London at present doesn’t constitute dialogue, nor does it create common ground. As power has more and more been entrusted to the citizenry, we haven’t yet learned the skills of listening closely and respecting one another. In so many instances we have lacked the ability to stay in the room long enough to forge a way forward.

What if we used 2018 to work towards getting this aspect of our shared life right? Much of our angst would dissolve, our distrust overcome, and we could be engaged in a new sense of purpose. We could focus on our best course of collective action.

It’s time we used the coming twelve months to reclaim social media for its intended purpose of bringing us together and to openly defend one another against the disquieting work of the trolls. What a year that would be, and it’s within our reach should we act responsibly for the sake of our future.


Read this post in its original London Free Press format here.