Did you retweet the ‘Slap Her!’ video?
As a vehicle of hope, social media virality brings with it much the same emotional traction of a national lottery – the allure of riches garnered without the usual effort has spawned an paradigm in which the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of traditional industry are oddly applicable. There are the content manufacturers, the social media distributors of said content, and then the grubby tertiary industry of comment and censure. Each, in an attention economy (which occasionally bleeds into a monetary economy, for those with the rare ability to monetise their online presence) competes for the same resource – the momentary gaze of the unsatisfied masses.
You knew all this already. Where mass consensus exists, accountability is rendered irrelevant. If it’s on the internet, it must be true. Social media is an inversion of the advertising principle in which the product is irrelevant as long as the benefits it confers are seen to be desirable. In our ‘likes’ and retweets we are connected more intimately with a manufactured superego of self-curated consensus than the pre-www world could ever have provided.
Every comment and endorsement is made knowing that there is a gallery of observers ready to judge, record, rebut. Mostly, we hope to be validated. We advertise ourselves – a pimped version thereof, and flounder in the insecurity of exposing some opinion or preference that may mark us out as undesirable.
Such playground politics comes with collateral damage. Critical analysis of content takes second place to a cocktail of factors: the desire to populate a personal news feed with content; the desire to do so with current material; the desire to maintain an on-brand presence within the social group. In sociological terms, conventional norms (behaviour which is undertaken because convention states it to be acceptable – saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezes, for example) demand certain responses from stimuli.
Moral norms, however, are based upon different principles. Empathy, faith, dogma and law all contribute to the development of a moral framework.
The intersection of moral and conventional norms in social media is not always seamless. Nor is it easy to tell which is the dominant influence on a retweeted link to a Daily Mail linkbait article or a thumbs-up on a YouTube viral.
What we do know, is that we develop these norms early in life. As Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello’s 2009 research paper ‘Varieties of altruism in children and chimpanzees’ makes clear:
Moral norms, such as not hitting others… are…directly related to altruism, and children clearly distinguish these from conventional norms from early in preschool
Which brings us to the conundrum. Are the boys in Fanpage.it’s ‘Slap Her’ video (currently the viral video du jour at more than 20 million views) demonstrating an adherence to empathetic moral norms, or reacting to the camera? Moral or conventional?
Because, heartwarming though it may be to watch, a cynic might argue that the abiding message of the experiment is that girls who want to avoid being clobbered should aim to be tall, blonde and pretty, then allow themselves to be caressed by boys they meet on the street.
And that’s a bit more difficult to ‘like’.
Image: Vicktor Hanasek