Is Social Media Becoming an Agent for Social Change?

Published in Hilal English

Written By: Schezré Syed

All is not bleak on the digital front, though. The use of social media as a source of information has been on the rise, especially since it acts as a perfect host to third-party content, making these networking forums the brokers between material generated by different creators, and their own clientele. With over 70% of all internet users being active on over one social networking site, the convenience in circulation of articles, videos, images and audio pieces has made social media arguably the primary source of consuming and experiencing information for a majority of the worldwide web users.

 

Instead of building meaningful relationships and working on self, we get busy trying to keep up with the people we don’t meet, watch the fun we are not having, and mourn unachieved milestones that we aren’t even meant for. The more lives we hear of, the more lives we fear we are not living.

 

Facebook pages and tweets became movements to rise against violations of women’s rights, child abuse, and corruption, globally becoming advocates of human rights. Individuals empowered one another by opening up about the injustices they had previously stayed quiet on, letting each other know that from apparently casual to seriously sinister offences had happened to them too (#metoo) and that now #TimesUp.

 

According to statistics, the average internet user has 7.6 social network accounts, and with an increased online presence comes the increased risk of a privacy breach. Not too long ago Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook) was photographed with the camera of his laptop taped, reminding users that it is easy for virtually anyone to be hacked in more ways than deemed possible. It is important to remember how easily these forums can invade privacy and become the real-world version of George Orwell’s Big Brother who is always watching.

Since the 20th century, the virtual landscape has altered so dramatically that it has become foreign to most turn-of-the-century adults. Tales from lands far, far away, and gems from the depths of the brightest minds, remain glued in the palms of our hands with the slabs of engineering such as laptops, tablets and cellphones. Along with the advancement in these technologies, there has been a boom in social networking forums such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat (to name a few) in which we have found an immediate global voice. Resultantly, today, billions of people around the world log in to social networking sites to seize the opportunity to create and share information, interests, and ideas for a plethora of purposes, all the while connecting with others on a personal and professional level.


But what impact has this instant virtual networking had on an individual, and on the collective scale? Has it been a portal of meaningful and much-needed connection? Is it actually a boombox of social change or is it a soapbox on which we stand and report on ourselves, and in the process, repeat affirmations to ourselves, solely for ourselves?


Individual or Alone
In the days when the internet was but a rising star, the father of Pop Art Andy Warhol dubbed the not-so-distant future as a realm where ‘everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes’. Perhaps this astute proclamation alone ought to have won him the title of the modern Nostradamus, just for having his finger on the pulse of the 21st century zeitgeist which advocates individuality, and the social media champions it.


The primary pull of this magic media is that we can decide who we are and which part of that identity we want to present. We can indulge in a range of quirks and interests online, and share them on our personal profiles, putting our best face forward. People exhibit the different colours of their persona through various media that the forum allows them to link and share. In fact, this trend is seen as an extension of a person to the point that nowadays, a number of university admission panels and employers are known to search an individual’s social media profiles before finally deciding if the candidate makes the cut.


Unfortunately, in this want to express ourselves we often get entangled in a paradoxical situation. Rather than being ourselves we begin representing ourselves. Every response can be edited, any picture cropped, a messy desk can be turned in to art and every post can be ‘engineered’ till it looks just right. As our own publicists we have an image of ourselves to promote. The cellphone here becomes a magic lamp with which we can summon the genie to do our bidding day-long and deep into the night. Among the most fervent orders: connect me to others; show me what I am missing out on; make me picture-perfect, or in other words: ‘Mirror, mirror, in the hand, who is the fairest in the land?’

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The encouragement to be original is an important and an intoxicating one. With the ability to be anyone we want, we often start vying for approval ratings that come in the form of numbers: of friends, likes, retweets, shares, or streaks. Social media becomes a convenient place where social connections can seemingly be maintained by ‘adding’ more and more friends; ‘following’ people online; ‘sharing’ statuses; and by doing so, ‘feeling blessed’, without having added much value in to any of these activities. Instead of building meaningful relationships and working on self, we get busy trying to keep up with the people we don’t meet, watch the fun we are not having, and mourn unachieved milestones that we aren’t even meant for. The more lives we hear of, the more lives we fear we are not living.


It is becoming easier to compose a rant than to talk things out and emojis and memes seem so much better at the game of one-upmanship, as in neither of the options do we ever get cut off by the other person. Conflict resolution seems overrated in front of conflict deflection while a real conversation is easily buried under the illusion of communication. With real-life slip-ups, gestures, and quality of relationship diminished, for wildly popular product (social network) that primarily markets connection, it is ironic that loneliness is the most common condition of the modern world.


Time and Attention
Surely, in a world pressed for time, we can remain connected with our loved ones on a daily basis even if groups of hours cannot be bought to spend with them regularly. But the number of our loved ones can hardly be more than a few tens (at the most). Outside of that circle, we are too busy to invest time into something that demands our complete attention, and even social gatherings turn into chores. In such time-pressed conditions, social media provides an impressive platform where our attention can be rationed out in bite-sized doses.


Tipping over to the dark side of this technology is alarmingly easy, as its allure as a knight-in-shining-armour is a delicious one. The forums become our saviors–safe places where we can put up whatever we want and whenever we want. We can stay for as long or as little time as we want, and yet always find an audience without ever needing to put in any effort to establish a personal connection with them.


This is where a vicious cycle spirals from. In order to feel less alone, or more simulated, these apps are used even more frequently, almost reflexively. It is staggering to note how many terabytes of material is posted or shared on these forums by individuals. However the more content is viewed, the more forgettable it becomes. Hence, boredom in itself becomes a by-product of this supply of information where the consumers find themselves spoiled for choice. The innumerable options makes most of them so unremarkable that within a scroll the content slips through our fingers, and is forgotten before even being adequately registered. Besides, why be available for just one activity when one slot of time can be sliced into multiple pieces open for multi-tasking?


While there is no real harm in occasionally indulging in these apps when in transit from one thing or place to another, the waters begin to get murky when such on-the-go breaks turn into an impulse to always have something else open to attract (read: divert) our attention. There simply cannot be a screen with just one thing on it. It needs to have related suggestion, or update tickers, or at least have an endless scroll to keep up with our swiping speed. Giving a hundred percent to most tasks becomes impossible and some pop-up needs to be competing for our attention simultaneously. Therefore, it seems that for as many doors we want to enter from, we want double the exit strategies.


Bank of Information

All is not bleak on the digital front, though. The use of social media as a source of information has been on the rise, especially since it acts as a perfect host to third-party content, making these networking forums the brokers between material generated by different creators, and their own clientele. With over 70% of all internet users being active on over one social networking site, the convenience in circulation of articles, videos, images and audio pieces has made social media arguably the primary source of consuming and experiencing information for a majority of the worldwide web users.


Along with interests, academic material, and infotainment, news is widely disseminated via this media-centric model. On a regularly basis millions of historical content is archived and accessed digitally; independent news groups and pages broadcast their views, while over a million tweets go out daily. Not only do a considerable number of luminaries take to platforms such as Twitter to communicate their points of view, scores of scholars and researchers deem forums such as Twitter among the most illuminating insight into local, national and global voices. The easy (or even free) access to this wealth of information definitely makes social media a powerhouse.


The standard print journalism created by recognizing the importance of hooking the reader’s attention with attractive and informative headlines, remains strong within social media outlets, too. However the race here is not always to report the news–it is primarily to create a buzz and gather traffic to the pages. This means that vital journalism is often replaced with sensationalism and an act is played where headlines are nothing more than clickbait–a means of generating revenue through the number of clicks per page, at the expense of accurate or quality information.


Since the bulk of content produced comes from anyone and everyone, most published material undergoes no checks by a regulating authority. Though this means that the freedom of speech remains intact and opinions unfiltered, the problem is just that the opinions remain unfiltered through any funnel of authenticity or neutrality. And with a lack of accountability comes the absence of credibility. While community guidelines exist, the collaborative nature of the network applications mostly rely on users reporting malpractice and misinformation, however, a large number of those people accept most of the information as complete and accurate. For multitudes, the undisputed belief seems to be the adage by Abraham Lincoln (according to online sources): If it is on the internet, it must be true.


Hence, to fact-check material, more than what is posted, it is more important to see from whom and where is it coming from.


Business
The sheer number of profiles (and hence market) on social media has attracted both, lucrative and small businesses to use social networks to advertise their brand. Not only is such advertising a billion-dollar industry, but especially with forums such as Instagram (among others), entrepreneurs and startups (secondary and tertiary sector) have received a massive boost. While traditional business models may not be changing, new links have shot out and made room for the sales and marketing trends made possible by the networking sites. Aspiring business owners no longer need to invest capital into renting stores to sustain their ventures.


Though countless companies simply post their products or services online, stocking at geographical outlets after the business is already established, others never meet the need for such a move as their work demands solely a strong online presence. This includes bloggers and influencers who have stepped in as publicists for a range of products and services ranging from tourism, food, fashion, and beauty to lifestyle.


Privacy
A few years ago the largest scandals would relate to the top 0.1% of the world’s population. As controversies like the Panamagate unfolded, the world watched; less than two years after the online leak, another controversy has struck and this time it is the average consumer who is affected.


Social networks and media sites receive personal information from their users. What may be common knowledge but not that obvious is that third-party sites also harvest personal profiles for information, patterns and interests that can be used for purposes the users do not sign up for. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has highlighted the most recent example of corporations mining information without permission, though it is not the only one.


While corporations and governments may steal information to sell their agendas or influence outcomes in their favour, lone individuals commonly and swiftly take advantage of their social connections, and hack or abuse other people’s private information. For revenge, financial gain or to extort something out of another person, misuse and circulation of private data is an issue.


According to statistics, the average internet user has 7.6 social network accounts, and with an increased online presence comes the increased risk of a privacy breach. Not too long ago Mark Zuckerberg (creator of Facebook) was photographed with the camera of his laptop taped, reminding users that it is easy for virtually anyone to be hacked in more ways than deemed possible. It is important to remember how easily these forums can invade privacy and become the real-world version of George Orwell’s Big Brother who is always watching.


Social Justice
Despite the risks, we are not living in an Orwellian state. In the last ten years social media rose as the rallying point for social change. Hashtags, which are mainly used so individuals can classify similar ideas/activities under easy-to-access keywords, became the fist of awareness, pounding at doors to let people know no longer will an issue be swept under the rug. Facebook pages and tweets became movements to rise against violations of women’s rights, child abuse, and corruption, globally becoming advocates of human rights. Individuals empowered one another by opening up about the injustices they had previously stayed quiet on, letting each other know that from apparently casual to seriously sinister offences had happened to them too (#metoo) and that now #TimesUp.


Blessing or Curse
The social media is undoubtedly one of the mightiest forces of our times. But like most forces, it can be used to benefit and it can cause destruction.
While recording precious memories digitally, or even cataloguing thought in a journal-like quality can be beneficial on these forums, at times it is easy to forget that not all thoughts are pearls, not all memories are to be shared with the world. What sometimes is forgotten is that self-worth must never be conflated with the number of interactions online nor should a sense of superiority be acquired by bashing others’ lifestyle, choices or fundamental differences.


The risks to one’s emotional, physical or spiritual being can be plenty. Though the medium by default can be divisive and aid polarity, the scale at which it has proven to bring people together to influence change is noteworthy; it has helped topple some of the most powerful people in the world, made governments accountable, exposed biases, and moved authorities to take immediate action against heinous crimes.


The range of roles social media serves goes on to prove that it is hardly a product on its own. With its ability to provide a customized experience to each user, we, the users become the actual product itself. It is up to us to decide how to harness the potential, and it is vital to remember that in order to make the best use of this power we do not fundamentally need 280 or even 140 characters... we need just one-human character.

 

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