Anti-social networking

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It's February 14 and love is all around. What better way to let loose your negative feelings on the city? Time Out surfs the sites that put the 'anti-' into social networking

  • 56 Social hate_crop.jpgLondon is in the grip of an addiction. More widespread than drugs, more insidious than alcohol and more popular than porn, it has spread like wildfire and is corroding the human relationships that are the glue holding our shaky society together. Social networking was the biggest virtual craze of 2007, with every Tom, Dick and Harriet signing themselves, and occasionally their pets, up to Facebook, MySpace, Bebo et al. With London currently Facebook’s biggest geographical network (more than 2 million users) and the site’s total population rivalling that of the UK, it is apparent that social networking is a serious epidemic.

    Common symptoms of this virtual affliction include: a sudden desire to publicise intimate details of one’s daily life; looking up, and then stalking, ex-partners and their new squeezes; logging on obsessively at work, at home and, most dangerously, when drunk. The potential for public humiliation is huge, as anyone who’s woken up to see embarrassing photos of the night before pasted all over the net will testify.

    It’s not that there aren’t positives to the whole experience, but what was wrong with the old days, when you caught up with your mates over a few beers in the local boozer? Back when people didn’t have their digital cameras on red alert and actually dared to flirt with each other in person. These days, shy smiles have been replaced by anonymous ‘pokes’; virtually groping, licking and spanking people you barely know is de rigueur and if you’re too scared to ask someone out for a drink, you can just buy them some booze via Booze Mail, instead.

    The worry, expressed by users and industry experts, is that the more virtual friendships people forge, the weaker their ‘real-life’ relationships become.

    56 Social hate 3.jpg‘The disinhibition effect of on-screen communication is well documented,’ says Beth Salmon, couple counsellor and psychosexual therapist. ‘Also, social networking can make people very distracted: constantly checking for emails and not paying enough attention to the real person they are with.’ That kind of laziness about face-to-face communication, says Salmon, is disastrous for the level of steadiness and reliability required to maintain a long-term relationship.

    Internet traffic statistics show that Christmas Day, traditionally devoted to face-to-face communication, was the busiest day of the year for these sites. Festive TV might well be rubbish but at least watching it is a shared activity; the image of family members isolating themselves in their own pockets of cyberspace is far from heart-warming.

    As the boundaries between offline and online friendships blur and the friend-count competition heats up (one overly social soul was suspended from Facebook after spamming 900 people with friend requests), a spate of spoof sites are starting to spring up. Their mission? To satirise what they see as a potential social menace and massive waste of time. These sites, created by campaigning über-geeks, are protest platforms for those aware that this online addiction is wrecking relationships, ruining our productivity at work, increasing the risk of identity fraud, invading our privacy and even – according to recent reports – driving teens to suicide.

    One of the biggest backlash sites is Hatebook (www.hatebook.org), with a growing community of almost 53,000 ‘haters’ worldwide, including 4,000 Londoners. It’s the brainchild of ‘Dr Evil’ (aka Nils Andres), a German computer programmer with an acerbic sense of humour. The impetus, he says, was ‘getting endless invitations to useless communities that suggest you constantly need to make new friends. So we decided to parody it and have a little fun into the bargain. I’m surprised by how fast it’s grown. Hate really seems to bring people together.’

    Visually, his site pays homage to Facebook’s layout, but adds an angry red colour scheme to get those hate fires burning. Familiar features have been given a malevolent twist. Users can upload ‘hate photos’, check out who’s stalking whom through the ‘gossip’ feed, send each other ‘junkmail’, and join ‘hate clans’ (anything from the mundane ‘I hate traffic jams’ to the unacceptable ‘I hate gay people’ to the downright bizarre ‘I hate Bambi for being an orphan’). Swearing is rife but away from the homophobia there’s often a sense of comic-book humour that usually stops things turning too nasty.

    Another key player in the world of satirical social networking is Enemy Book (www.enemybook.info), a Facebook application described by its creator as ‘an anti-social utility that disconnects you from the so-called friends around you.’ The scope for ‘enemying’ evil exes, despised bosses, bullies and the odd London hate figure is endless. American MIT-educated computer science whizz-kid Kevin Matulef (aka ‘Chief Hater’) set it up after hearing students describing the differences between ‘real’ and ‘Facebook’ friends.

    ‘I was worried by the fact that the friend relationships mean so little online,’ he says. ‘People seem to add everybody they’ve ever met. But you might not want to share everything with everybody. In real life, you have close friends, acquaintances and all manner of relationships in between.’

    Valentine’s Day is likely to see a surge in traffic to these, and more mainstream, networking sites as embittered lovers hurry to denounce their exes or stalk new would-be partners. But are these seemingly jokey sites part of a more sinister online bullying trend? Another spleen-filled site, www.IFuckingHateYou.com, is less a direct parody and more a network of shared hate that encourages members to ‘hate people for whatever reason you would talk shit about them in real life: stupid haircut; baggy pants; slutty behaviour. People who hate the same people as you automatically become your friends.’ But is a community of negativity, complete with the odd semi-fetishist picture, any less a pointless exercise in ego than Facebook and co?

    Bullying is a serious social issue and the internet emboldens users to attack each other without fear of detection. Hiding behind a fake username or profile helps people avoid the usual consequences of such antisocial behaviour. And it’s not confined to the marginal spin-offs, either. Facebook has more than 500 hate groups and ‘Top Friends’ is the site’s most popular add-on, allowing users to rank their ‘friends’ against each other in a Top Eight list. MySpace has a similar feature. Missing out or removing someone from your friends list can be considered a serious, and very public, snub especially among vulnerable teenagers. Squabbles that might take a long time to blow up in person can explode into full-blown wars in seconds thanks to the wonders of the web.

    Take the tragic case known as the ‘MySpace suicide’. In November 2006 in a sleepy American suburb, 13-year-old Megan Meier killed herself after a series of rows on MySpace. The social network’s direct culpability is debatable (Megan was on anti-depressants and had previously displayed suicidal tendencies) but her tumble over the edge was linked to a hoax profile set up by her teenage neighbour and a few other bullies. The idea was to trick Megan into thinking she had an admirer, ‘Josh Evans’, and use the false intimacy to torment her. It was a sick joke that went terribly wrong.

    Much less serious, but also worrying, is the growing trend of ‘Facebook suicide’. This is when a personal disaster results from too much information being available online, and the victim therefore deletes his or her profile. The disaster could be anything from being caught cheating to being busted by your boss who’s seen photos of you out raving when you were supposedly sick.

    Joseph Stevens, 30, a magazine publisher from central London, recalls the events that drove him to commit virtual suicide. ‘I was a Facebook refusenik for ages. A mate finally cajoled me into joining because I was complaining of feeling lonely after breaking up with my long-term partner. I didn’t realise that unless you opt out it sends “friend requests” to everyone in your email address book. I was a bit thrown when I saw [my ex] had accepted my unwitting invitation. At first it was fine; I had more “friends” than she did. Then it happened. She met someone else. Not only did I know about it, but I was treated to a daily stream of information about how happy she was, including snaps of them canoodling in exotic locations. And worst of all, I couldn’t immediately delete her as a friend because she’d have known and it would have looked as if I cared. I was trapped! There was only one way out. I committed “suicide”.’

    The lack of privacy is a huge concern. Facebook is currently under government investigation on these shores over worries that, even when a user deactivates their account, their private data is stored indefinitely on a database and can be sold on to advertisers. The need for a code of conduct is paramount. Advice on how to handle this increased visibility is available, if you know where to look. Dennis Publishing has reacted to the trend by producing a glossy Facebook ‘bookazine’ that’s intended as the essential ‘how to’ guide, complete with etiquette tips. While it’s packed with seemingly harmless advice such as ‘poke with moderation and caution’, editor David McComb, 35, does admit that there is ‘a sinister side’ to Facebook but feels the responsibility lies with the user to ‘keep their secrets secret’.

    So, what’s the future for social networking? Will better regulation and awareness of the potential for disaster ensure its longevity? Will everyone leave Facebook and decide to vent their spleen on Hatebook? Or will we eventually tire of the banality of other people’s existence and refocus on our offline lives? The New Yorker recently reported on a seminar held at NYU during Freshers’ Week. Entitled ‘Facebook in the Flesh’, it was designed to help cement virtual friendships by bringing together people who’d met online but never actually spoken.

    David Smith, technology editor of The Observer, believes the answer lies in diversification and the rise of sites that serve a specific social purpose. ‘I can see people getting fed up with having so much of their personal information in one place, and instead using different social networks for different means: one for romance, one for families, one for work, one for politics and so on. Whether or not this obsession with posting everything online will decline is debatable but one thing is certain: we’ve dived in very fast and, unsurprisingly, are paying the penalty.’

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