‘What the great ones do, the less will prattle of,’ says the sea captain at the start of Twelfth Night. Written four hundred years before celebrity mags and reality TV came to fill us with jollity and with us still waiting for Twitter to improve the quality of our lives, it’s some foresight on the part of the boy from small-time Strafford.
It has always been the inalienable right of onlookers to pass judgement on those who are in the public eye. Or to chatter aimlessly with their acquaintances about the conduct of the great and the good. When the opportunity arises, we can shout opinions into the wind at public events, sporting occasions or when chance meetings occur. Social media, however, takes this one -way conversation to an entirely different level.
As diverting as it could be, I have no genuine Twitter presence. For one thing, life has taught me that my immediate reaction to events, particularly those that alarm or disturb, is not always as reliable and coherent as it might be. What’s more, like many people, I’ve become acutely aware that I’d like to spend less time perusing vacuous trash on my phone. It’s true that the quick-witted and the pithy can use it to entertain and provoke and that it is a form of swift riposte that can spark a superficial sort of shadow debate. But it also offers short-lived empowerment and, for a tiny number of those who so avidly pursue it, a few moments during which they have been noticed – however anonymously.
The last couple of weeks have revealed tales of breath-taking, sickening bile directed at footballers and athletes or, to be exact, black footballers and athletes. Women in any sort of public sphere have long needed to steel themselves as open targets and, scarcely believably, the victims of crime and tragedy are often singled out by the deranged, vile or dangerously bored. Politicians of any stripe are fair game, it seems, and obviously deserve anything that’s spewed at them.
There’s an obvious solution, isn’t there? The social media giants must act, mustn’t they? Users must be registered and, if found culpable, banned. Because it’s a universal truth that the peddlers of such vitriol are incapable of establishing a variety of online identities. We’re told that the companies themselves must create and deploy protocols which enable them to both censure and censor. Because multi-national corporations are precisely who we need to be the guardians of public morality requiring precise and delicate judgements. And, of course, they operate so independently of any vested interests.
Banning, blanking and cancelling are simply not the way to go. Never mind crude algorithms that quash saucy place names or even left-wing groups, once we start leaving social media firms to self-police, we’re asking for trouble. Fortunately, alternative methods are possible – and there’s never been a better time to instigate them while we reassess what schools need to do as, chastened, we start to think about what’s worth knowing in the world. How about making social media literacy as important a part of a child’s education as being able to pluck Shakespearean quotations just in order to show off?
To be literate is to equip ourselves – and, crucially, our children – to be able to navigate the world in which we live. An overwhelmingly prominent feature of that world is social media – and it’s toothpaste that is never going back into the tube. If we leave our young people (or anyone else, come to that) ignorant about how it works, who controls it, how its content is generated and how it can be manipulated by the unscrupulous to degrade, delude and diminish, then we’re selling them dangerously short.
And who would be against the development of such knowledge? Well, Nick Gibb, that’s who. No? You can be forgiven because, by and large, he keeps a low profile. He’s the minister charged with school standards and he’s seen off Michael Gove and all his successors at the Department for Education, which is where he’s been since 2010. He’s a bit of a traditionalist is Nick and he’s not a fan of any fancy modern ideas. ‘The romantic notion that teachers need not focus on knowledge and instead turn their attention to developing creativity or communication skills has gripped many countries around the world,’ he griped in a speech in 2017. That’s right, Nick. While our children are bombarded with image after meme after insult after disturbing video, why on earth would we want to teach them about communication skills?
When, at last, we get our children back into schools and when we’ve given them the chance to talk, play and make sense of what has happened to them, maybe we’ll turn our minds to a new subject on the curriculum. One that could shape their lives and, if left unmediated, distort it and cause destructive confusion. Maybe if Nick Gibb and government ministers can’t grasp this, we’ll need to call on a young, black footballer who’s been on the receiving end of those hilariously named anonymous posters. That often seems to do the trick………over to you, Marcus. Get tweeting!