social media

Social Media: The Double-edged Sword

The internet is the epitome of a double-edged sword. A social phenomenon like never before, it defines our modern lives. In daily conversations, the ‘internet’ is often just used as code for ‘social media’. That’s what really dominates, or rather overwhelms, our internet usage. Think about how many talking points or full-blown conversations revolve around social media, whether it be related to news or activism, memes or petty gossip.

Social media tells us an astonishing amount of futile information. What club some person I barely remember from school was at last night, that a friend of a friend has dyed their hair blue, that some distant relative has a new cat… etc., etc. I shouldn’t know any of these things. But I do. More importantly, I don’t care about any of these things and will probably forget them by tomorrow or even within the next minute. The information goes in, and immediately goes out. Otherwise known as information overload. We’re fed bitesize, easily-digested pieces of information that fly over our heads.

Making a facebook status is roughly equivalent to speaking in front of a room full of people. Some people find this easy and natural, others daunting and nerve-wracking. Though generally speaking people feel safer when they’re behind a screen away from direct persecution. Much of our mostly imagined scrutiny of our internet behaviour is very much a symptom of being a teenager. Most people my age got their Facebook accounts aged 13-15, with the occasional person joining later than that (to those people, this was a good decision: your profile is probably better and less embarrassing). During our time developing as teenagers, most of which is spent in the hellhole that is school, we are made to feel like we’re constantly being watched, analysed and judged. This is perhaps especially true for girls and young women. So it’s not exactly a surprise that this manifests itself on the world wide web.

The thing about social media is that there are no hiding places. You exist constantly. It’s like you can never really be alone. In your mere physical existence, if you don’t feel like being a part of the world, you can hide away in your room or just go to sleep – in a state of unconsciousness, you of course have no concept of existing which is just wonderful. But your internet profiles are up 24/7. You might not feel like being around people in the physical world, but anyone can peer at your internet presence any time they like. I know plenty of people who like to temporarily delete their various social media accounts, myself included, just to have a break from it all. But then of course I’ll shortly find myself traipsing back to it and face the necessary evil of organizing my life through a screen.

But the reality is that next to no one is actually staring at your account. And if they are, the depth of their thoughts about it is probably at around 1 millimetre. No one truly cares. They’re just getting on with their own lives. People love to make any situation about themselves, and social media totally encourages and amplifies that. On one hand, this can be great, it makes those who feel like a nobody in the real world become somebody in the online world, but on the other hand it often blows things out of proportion and distorts our realities.

It dictates our priorities. It tells us what we should consider ‘life events’. Take the infamous relationship status for example. Why is this a ‘life event’? Why is it on the side of your Facebook profile as if it defines who you are? Think about all the friendships you have that are far more meaningful and mutually beneficial than certain relationships you may have. Yet there’s no option for that. It’s an extremely shallow and misleading feature, not to mention usually heteronormative and allosexual (assuming sexual attraction). All it essentially says is ‘look at me, I must be valid because I attracted a potential mating partner’. Congrats. Facebook was of course initially created with this in mind as a key feature – Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard mates famously set it up with the intention of rating women at their university.

If something doesn’t exist on the internet, does it really exist? If you didn’t exist on the internet, would you really exist? This is a pretty dumb question; of course you’d still exist (well at the very least your consciousness confirms your existence but that’s another conversation). But considering how central it is to our lives, you may as well not exist outside the internet. Being on social media is essentially being part of a database that anyone has access to. Needless to say, privacy becomes more and more of a distant ideal. Facebook again is the worst culprit. Why the hell should anyone have the right to know when anyone else was ‘last active’ for example? We don’t even bat an eyelid at this stuff. It’s become the norm. Despite facebook’s well-documented invasion of privacy, we still use it. My account is still there floating as a piece of their data.

Some people find the whole thing personally empowering. Selfies, controlling your image and perception, showing your achievements. In a world that likes to beat us down, social media can be used as a tool of self-empowerment. But ultimately it leads to people becoming more concerned with how something looks rather than how something feels. Social media makes us think we should always have a reaction to everything. If you’re not liking or sharing or uploading or tweeting something or other, then you must have a boring life, right? There are studies popping up all over the place on how social media takes a toll on our mental health, especially for teenagers and children and cultivates ‘FOMO’ (the fear of missing out).

On the flip side of all of this, social media enables all kinds of political and social activism like never before. The Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement, Occupy Wall Street, tuition fees protests, Yarl’s Wood, Israel-Palestine conflicts… the list goes on. It has popularized and mobilized various causes in an unprecedented way. No one needs ‘the man’ to spread awareness anymore. We’ll do it ourselves. Ultimate people power. Sure, it’s probably not reaching every corner of every struggle but nothing’s perfect. The internet has proved to be fantastic for uncovering information a lot of people, especially less privileged groups, would never get their hands on.

In a way, the internet has become our safety net. It’s where we gain our necessary information, build relations, show the world who we are and what we strive to do. But there’s a potentially toxic side of everything. The trick is to not let it over-consume you and stay in reality, yet the problem seems to be that it’s becoming our reality.

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