It occured to me last night —  during a discussion on an infamous film related Facebook group, where users are regularly shut down or booted out for daring to have an opinion on anything the admins don’t agree with —  that the situation with some groups like these is not unlike the one portrayed in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. The play, which posited the concept that hell is literally other people, depicts purgatory as being stuck in a room for eternity with two other people. There can never be an escape from the sheer monotony. There is no exit. You are doomed to remain on an eternal loop in the company of people you cannot stand. Imagine that; and then imagine if the room was a Facebook group like the one mentioned above. You would be stuck there, forever and ever, forced to listen to the same five approved conversations over and over, until you tore off your own ears. Even then there would be no respite. It would continue on and on and on and you could never leave. All the while you would be made to pass around the same set of 90s convention photos, and a promo shot of Madeline Smith’s tits, until your hands bled. You would never be allowed to stop. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is the definition of true horror.

While people can obviously leave these groups, and often do, it fascinates me why so many others stay. Quite often, usually down to the fact that the admins become so high on this ridiculous notion they have some sort of power in the world, views become myopic. Any dissenters are usually dealt with swiftly and dramatically, with an accompaniment of cheers from the chattering chimp chorus in the background. It’s like dealing with a crowd of Smeagols, all screaming at you “myyyy precious” because you dared to touch one of the cruddy VHS tapes they are all assembled on top of with a tainted hand; or worse: a woman’s hand. How fucking dare you.

But there’s something else, something far more dangerous than showboating that occurs in these situations: these places are a breeding ground for bullying. They become little arenas of pure tribalism wrapped up in a “we don’t suffer fools” mission statement — fools (people that don’t agree with us). From a sociological point of view they make perfect case studies because the formula rarely ever deviates from something like Milgram’s studies on social influence. The long and short of it is, people need to be led, even if it means compromising on their internal beliefs to fit in. People will and do go along with group think even when it quickly becomes immoral.

I am not suggesting for a second that Facebook groups are comparable to something like Nazi Germany, but they do often run on the same mechanical lines. Cultural capital on social media purely comes down to social acceptance and validation. If you are placed in an environment where the only way to gather this capital — likes, loves, comments in agreement — is to agree with the herd, even if secretly it doesn’t sit with you, many will fall quickly into line regardless. Such is the allure of wanting to be accepted and heard. As time passes the group’s parameters shrink, finally becoming sole reflections of those who are perceived to be sitting at the top of the food chain. The admins, who have most likely reached the exalted heights of all seeing; all knowing, by other group members by this point, revel in their glory. It gets nastier, more people become targets, as the hounds are whipped up in a frenzy by someone daring to suggest Christopher Lee appearing in Jess Franco films was actually a good idea. Unleashed they come slathering, out for blood. The offender is kicked into oblivion but the thirst to rinse and repeat is never satiated. It only grows stronger.

Social media in general breeds division. It’s everywhere as people are micromanaged into little boxes based on age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, political views, and a myriad of other little subsets. We are quickly reaching a situation where anything other than an echo chamber is seen as intolerable. A name on a screen is no longer another human; it is someone to hurl abuse at, as long as we feel like we are winning. Groups only add to these divisions because they are usually concentrated around a niche topic or set of views. And this is where we see one of humanity’s darkest needs; the need to step on people’s necks just to feel validated or important. It saddens me greatly because in all of this we are losing the art of conversation, or truly listening to others, and opening our minds to other views, other experiences, from which we can learn and grow. I picked film groups to illustrate this point because it is a subject dear to my heart.  I thrive on talking about film. I want to hear all types of opinions as long as they are given respectfully and in the spirit of conversing. I want to know why people like the things I don’t; and vice versa. Who knows, maybe we will come to a different way of seeing things. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?

At the end of the day though the power in groups means nothing in the real world. Perhaps the biggest tragedy in all of this is some people have been led to believe that it does mean something. Social media is an illusion, it doesn’t exist. It is not a true reflection of anything. The greatest challenge we face now is working out how to stop real life people being hurt because of these illusionary systems. Because it does happen. I know this because I have been on the receiving end of it and no matter how much you tell yourself it isn’t true, it can become very stressful nevertheless. Social media has quickly become one of the most powerful pervasive sources of cultural capital we can acquire, and it can all too easily be collected by tearing chunks out of what we see as just names on a screen. I don’t know the answer. But I do think it lies somewhere in recognising that life becomes all the richer when we let different voices in, quieten down a little, and just listen. This is where we find the exit. Open the door and set yourself free.