As social media continues to take over the world, some are studying its impact on our social lives.

The open-access science journal PLOS ONE recently published an article on the impact of Facebook on the spread of “rainy-day blues”. Analysts used meteorological records to locate Facebook posts generated in cities experiencing poor weather. It was found that rain encouraged a 1.16 percent increase in negative posts and a 1.19 percent decrease in positive posts. In addition, it was found that a negative post will prompt a user’s friends to produce an average of 1.29 negative posts, while a positive one will lead to 1.75 positive posts.

One good sign is that positive emotions appear more influential than negative ones. However, according to the paper’s authors, the findings “imply that emotions themselves might ripple through social networks to generate….clusters of happy and unhappy individuals.” This has the potential, they argue, to create a new kind of “emotional social division”.

The conclusion is no real surprise to me. I was recently compelled to “block” two people on Facebook for the first time. Both were acquaintances that I had met in person and regarded as entirely pleasant people. But after I expressed a contrary opinion on Facebook, things immediately became incendiary. I thought my opinion had been offered in a respectful manner, yet the response I received was emotional and inflammatory. As my own patience deteriorated, others weighed in on the issue until finally my attempt at an apology was summarily dismissed. By this stage, blocking these people from my Facebook profile seemed the only gesture that was both sensible and dignified.

There is something about this incident, and similar encounters I have witnessed, that leads me to suspect Facebook itself of affecting a person’s ability to trust the reasonable intentions of others. In certain situations I believe that the interface itself encourages otherwise reasonable users to abandon empathy and manners.

Aspects of Facebook itself play into this idea. While it is thought of as a social experience, Facebook also encourages users to treat it as a means of self-promotion, which is anything but social. Facebook’s appetite for our personal details – from our relationship status to our favourite brands – helps to turn it into an easy way of expressing ourselves so that others appear as little more than our personal audience.

This could combine with other aspects to turn Facebook into a potentially harmful phenomenon. In the age of the iPhone, it is also more common for people to engage with social media while doing something else. Conceivably this leads to an increase in the overall number of short and ambiguous online comments they make. Consequently, those who invest too much in their Facebook image may come to believe that the people they engage with online are dismissive or rude. It may even appear sensible to treat Facebook as if it were some kind of virtual gladiatorial arena.

There are other places in which such attitudes can develop. The road system is not principally an interactive environment; it is designed simply to get vehicles safely from one location to another. But regardless of this, we all interpret the actions of other drivers according to hidden standards of courtesy. Other drivers will generally be tolerated while everyone is following the rules and minding their own business. But for an impatient or over-invested driver, judging others will rely less on their observance of the rules than on whether or not they are “in the way”. For example, a driver running late may come to regard fellow drivers as stupid, selfish, or discourteous. And, as with social media, the appearance of a barrier between us and the outside world can provoke a sense of brazenness – in other words, it may appear safe to let others know in no uncertain terms what we think of their driving, and consequently, what we think of them personally.

Like the roads, Facebook can be negotiated without incident. But it is easy to see how even a polite and intelligent user might become embittered after a few misunderstandings. Attacking another person for a perceived injustice may appear safe and even permissible when the whole internet sits between “us and them”. In reality, we might have overreacted to a statement that was not intended to cause offence.

There is evidence that many Facebook users have come to regard the rude dismissal of others as entirely permissible. The entry of abbreviations like “TLDR” (“too long, didn’t read) is one example. All it takes is a little reflection to realise that no-one wants their carefully written comments to be dismissed simply because they have taken the time to write something substantial. One may as well reply with, “I couldn’t be bothered reading your heartfelt post, however, it does suit me right now to dismiss you outright.”

Negative conventions aside, it is possible for anybody to find themselves the victim of someone’s wrath on Facebook simply because its textual interface prevents us from giving others a full sense of our intentions. In comparison, face-to-face interaction will always offer us more ways of reading these intentions.

This is one reason why the idea that social media has begun to replace real interaction is so disturbing.

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