(CONTENT NOTE: Discusses abuse and harassment)
It ranks above fandom gatekeeping. It ranks above people thinking the ECHR is the EU. Believe it or not, it even ranks above the weather. Seriously, nothing turns me into this bird faster than the constant bombardment of “Kids these days and their screens!” “Nobody talks anymore, they’re all just staring at their phones like zombies!” “Look up!” Stop it. Please. You’re being kind of awful. Here’s why.
Reason number one – It is massively, massively ableist. Not everyone can physically leave their home, or do so on any regular and reliable basis. Not everyone can physically access all social spaces with ease. Not everyone can speak verbally, or understand verbal speech, or do so at all times and in all circumstances. Not everyone can go to your loud, crowded big night out without suffering a massive sensory overload. (On a related note, not everyone drinks alcohol either, which is another huge barrier to IRL socialising when so much of IRL socialising revolves around alcohol.) In short – not everyone can socialise in the same way as you can. Where’s that famous neurotypical theory of mind?
At this point another pet hate of mine becomes relevant – the defensive abled response of “no, I don’t mean you, I mean those other people that don’t really need it”. NO. Remember – you cannot tell just by looking who is and is not disabled, and we are under no obligation to disclose to strangers. Even if you could magically know the disabilities (or lack thereof) of all individuals you meet, remember that many disabled people are constantly told we’re not disabled enough, our disabilities are not valid, and we’re just being lazy – when you say “Well those who REALLY can’t…”, we don’t think “That applies to me”, we think “Maybe I need to try harder”, and that doesn’t end well. In any case, why should the “normal” moral standard be a standard which some people cannot possibly achieve? That, right there, is the social model of disability. That, right there, is othering. Don’t do it.
Reason number two – Social media allows people to identify with each other, unite and speak out against oppression. If you are part of a minority of any kind, it may be difficult to meet others belonging to that minority because, by definition, you are outnumbered. If you are part of a marginalised group, it may be difficult to meet others in that group in some cases because the threat of oppression and abuse force many people to hide that part of themselves, at least in public spaces. Even media representation of marginalised groups is often abysmal if present at all, leaving many people without others like themselves to identify with. And even if you do manage to meet others, you may not be able to talk openly about that oppression in public spaces, where the oppressors are present, because at best we’re taught that doing so is impolite, and at worst you will be abused.
The internet and social media can be a hostile place for marginalised groups, but at the same time, it has helped to break down those barriers. Groups, forums and hashtags are established specifically for marginalised groups, and specifically to talk about oppression and social justice. If you’re the only one in your school, workplace or even town, that doesn’t have to exclude or silence you – there are others in the world at large, and many of them will have an internet connection. If you don’t have the money or the spoons to travel back and forth to protests and events which are often concentrated in the biggest cities, you can participate in that conversation by other means online. Social media brings with it the ability to remain anonymous, and this ability is unfortunately abused by many who wish to harass and abuse others without fear of consequences. On the other hand, it also allows survivors of abuse and harassment to speak out about their experiences without fear of retribution by their abuser, allows those with anxiety to write persuasively and change minds in a way their brains won’t let them do out loud, and simply allows people to be honest about things that have happened to them without the baggage and repercussions that come with accusing specific individuals. I choose to write this blog anonymously for all of the above reasons – a lot of what’s written here, or on my Twitter, would never have been expressed at all without the internet.
Indeed a lot of it would never have even entered my thoughts without the internet, because I got into feminism and learned about many social justice concepts through social media, which brings me to reason number three – The idea that online chat is “less real” is just… nope. You think thoughts, type corresponding words somewhere I can see them, I read them, understand their meaning, have thoughts about it and send you corresponding words in response. It’s conversation. It’s real. It creates discussions, teaches knowledge, changes opinions, sparks interests, sparks friendships and relationships. Why is it less valid than a verbal conversation? Why should the things I say matter less than the way I say them? Why is my terrified, immediate “sorry!” to a stranger who startles me on a bad sensory day deemed more real than a Facebook chat to a friend from uni about our new jobs and our favourite music?
Enter reason number four – It facilitates IRL relationships too. I went to university, away from home, and made lots of friends there. Many of my close friends live in different places. Lots of people from school also moved away, to their own universities and careers and families and lives. Some relatives live far away. And thanks to social media, we can all keep in touch. Isn’t that incredible? Like many autistic people, I find using the phone incredibly difficult; when I’m at uni, Skype and Messenger allows me to talk to my parents regularly and have a genuine conversation with them rather than having to focus on interpreting the phone noise as words, filling the silence, and calming my anxiety. And when I’m at home, social media allows me to have genuine conversations with my friends without the same obstacles.
What if that technology was not available to me? Cue reason number five – We wouldn’t all be happily chatting away to each other if smartphones, MP3 players and social media didn’t exist. Autistic people, and disabled people in general, also existed back in your cherished “good old days” when ~everyone played outside~ and ~everyone talked to each other instead of staring at their phones~. If those people do not feature in your nostalgic memories, it’s because they were discriminated against, denied access to the schools and workplaces and social spaces you accessed, and excluded by methods of socialising which were inaccessible to them. Even if we leave disability aside (as abled people love to do), people in public spaces did not spend all their time talking to strangers before they had earphones to listen to and screens to look at. Just as it is today, reading was a popular solitary hobby, and there are countless black and white photos of trains full of people reading newspapers to counter the “everyone talked to each other” myth. Alternatively… people just sat there. And didn’t talk. Try it. It’s entirely possible.
Unless, of course, somebody is trying to make you talk. Reason number six – Sometimes it’s about entitlement. Today, an article about how to make women wearing headphones talk to you is doing the rounds on Twitter. It features such gems as “if she ignores you, it’s a test” and “allowing her to ignore you or control the interaction is a common mistake”and is clearly about male entitlement and harassment. (Click here for why it’s not “just making conversation” and click here if you’re tempted to make it about autism and “not understanding signals”). This article is a very extreme example, but it did get me thinking about the links between entitlement to people’s time and attention (especially male entitlement towards women) and my number one pet hate, the “technology is ruining society” rhetoric. Smartphones in public apparently make people angry because “nobody’s talking to each other” but as we have established, people on social media are talking. They’re just not talking to the people who happen to be in that physical space. They’re just not talking to you. Why are you so angry about that?