Not all bad…
Social media has played a major role in delivering second by second news updates and providing an unprecedented platform of communication for those once in isolation. The best example of this is the part Twitter and Facebook played in the Arab Spring. A September 2011 study conducted by the University of Washington found evidence that “social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising” and goes on to state that “people who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom”.
Throughout history, in similar authoritarian regimes, total government control over access to information assisted in keeping said regimes together. Although some contemporary regimes have attempted to sensor the internet, the ruling parties in the Middle East and North Africa at the time of the Arab Spring were unable to dam the waters of truth. Below shows the volume of tweets with the given hashtags in both Egypt and Tunisia following significant revolutionary events.
I fully back the use of social media as a platform for the once silent, repressed masses to vocalize their opinions and work together to bring about positive change. However, as I look around O’Neill while writing this, I’m not too sure if I’d define the dog ear filter as a positive change.
Ah, There’s the Rub
My beef with social media is twofold. Many, and not to say I’m excluded from this, demonstrate both improper and excessive use of the plethora of existing platforms. I’m sure that there are numerous documented instances in history where new inventions significantly impacted the folk of the time, some of whom certainly got too caught up. What I would like to argue is that, due to the globalized world of interconnected and advanced technologies, there has never been a product (the smartphone) that has brought so many together while simultaneously disconnecting them from the world around them.
Sure, people have always found ways to pass the time. Unfortunately, the ways of accomplishing this have become mindless since the rise of TV. Thankfully, there were no such thing as handheld TV’s. Thus, when you went to a bar or a football game, you actually had to socialize with those around you and watch the live event in front of your eyes (sounds horrible, right?).
Enter the smartphone. (Pretty much) Unlimited, nonstop access to any and every thing anywhere you are, except some planes and tunnels (for now). At first glance, this seems awesome. It takes milliseconds to look up a formula for a math problem you’re working on or see how many times the Yankees have won the World Series (that’s 27, Sox fans).
While we know that the Internet and constant access to it is helping spread knowledge in a way not seen since the invention of the printing press, we have yet to see just how large of an impact it is having on the minds of those who are always connected. My eyes were opened to this during one of my shifts at a restaurant in high school. Two parents were out to eat with their young child. On the table in front of the boy was an iPad, and he had large headphones covering his ears. In my opinion, we’re approaching a critical tipping point where large swaths of the next generation are at a significant risk of lacking communication skills.
Nothing like catching up with friends at dinner!
In addition to removing us from our current moment, there is another major way social media is interfering with our brains: validation. Social media provides a quantifiable number of friends, and the likes received on a post have become the determining factor of what classifies “success” on social media. Likes have become a breeding ground for insecurities. If my friend’s post receives 10 times as many likes as mine, is he or she liked 10 times more than me? Additionally, there are so many instances of posts being deleted because they didn’t receive X amount of likes in Y minutes.
As a result, many have begun tailoring posts towards giving the people what they want rather than what they truly wish to express. Thus, the separation between real content and what will get the most likes is destroyed. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger writes in his Being and Time, ““we take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as THEY take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as THEY see and judge.” Somewhere along the way, our authentic self is altered due to social media as we search for validation from our peers.
The insecurity is further fueled while watching our friends’ posts, which are, in essence, highlight reels of their lives. The vast majority of social media posts depict people having a good time. Obviously, most of their day-to-day lives are no different than yours or mine. But when all you see is others enjoying themselves, your idea of others’ lives becomes skewed. This leads to further comparisons as to what you’re doing against what your friends are up to.
I’d like to close with one thought. The world hasn’t completely changed in the last 25 or so years. I’m sure that back then, commuter trains and buses were still silent. No one cares to speak with the strangers sitting next to them, and no one particularly cares to be in that moment rather than sleeping. As a result, today you’ll find the vast majority of those commuters either on their phones or laptops. Back then, I’m sure that most would be reading a newspaper or a book. This is because both the phone and the newspaper offer an escape from the reality of the current moment. But if you were to walk in to a restaurant on a Friday night in the 1990’s (or any decade for that matter), how many of those people would you expect to be reading a book or a newspaper?