The Meaning of Social Media

I chose the title for this one quite deliberately, as it is meant to reflect two things: 1) what the existence of the social media has come to mean in our lives and 2) how it seems social media seems to be taking on an ever-increasingly mean tone.

I’m one of those dinosaurs who has been around since the very early days of social media. I was there when forums and chat rooms were all the rage, seen it evolve into Facebook and Twitter and then revolutionize once more with smart phone cameras and the rise of Instagram and Snapchat. It has been intriguing to witness, as just one generation removed from me, my parents would have been baffled by much of this as the technology just didn’t really exist when they were at an age when it would have interested them; and just one generation down, my daughter is a digital native, growing up in a world immersed in social media. And what I have noted over time is while the medium of delivery changes from chat rooms to Facebook, from forums to Instagram, what also seems to be happening is a progressive increase in truly nasty behaviour.

Don’t get me wrong – the internet “troll” has always been there, and these individuals continue to plague every social media site; but what is more concerning is that social media seems to have enabled other people, who are quite likely fairly normal individuals in other aspects of their lives, to behave in an aggressive manner online simply because social media has removed the face to face nature personal communication once required.

It seems a sad indictment that threats of violence or death are common place on social media now, enough so that seeing them is no longer shocking. The level of anger and hatred would be stunning if it wasn’t so routine. Demeaning and disturbing language and commentary are ubiquitous, enough so that some individuals are giving up on social media entirely and deleting their accounts; and spaces that once seemed “safe”, like Instagram, have begun to see a rise in this behaviour as users take their anger there.

It isn’t that this is entirely new, as there were always “mean people” on the internet, just as there have always been these individuals in every facet of life. It just seems that many people, including the ones who one would not traditionally consider “mean”, are dropping their inhibitions as soon as their fingers hit the keyboard.

It is, undoubtedly, a change in our social interactions. Few of us would have stood in front of our neighbour and said the aggressive and charged things we will say to others on social media. I suspect few of us would have argued for hours with him on his political or social views, and once things got intensely heated most of us would have backed off to preserve inter-neighbour relations. And very, very few of us would have issued threats of violence or death, or encouraged him to commit suicide; and yet these interactions are taking place on social media on a daily basis – often between complete strangers.

Why? Perhaps this is where the meaning of social media comes into play, as what it has come to mean is that we have created a world where anyone can speak to anyone, no matter the actual physical distance between them, leading to a world where interactions have few, if any, real-world consequences. No wonder our inhibitions have dropped; there is no reward or punishment for having them, because the truth is that to some degree we are untouchable online. Real life behaviour of this sort in our workplace, our homes and our communities would have dire consequences, but online? There are few repercussions.

I have begun to suspect that there will be a time when the pendulum will swing, and our interest in social media will wane. The digital natives will see the times before the existence of social media as nostalgic and perhaps long for the days when communicating with someone meant visiting their homes, meeting for coffee or even picking up the phone. Or perhaps the digital natives will pull their circle of interactions tighter, closing their own social media down and limiting their interactions to those they know, which may well defeat the positive aspect of social media that allowed you to interact with people from around the world. Or maybe it will continue just as it is, with social media continuing along this very same path.

There was a time when I extolled the virtues of social media: the ability to connect, the ease of use, the breaking down of barriers. I find myself now increasingly concerned about the dark side of social media, and how it has not only begun to change but form how we behave.

Recently I watched a tv series from the UK called “Black Mirror”. While not perfectly executed in terms of acting and direction, the series is an exploration along the trajectory of trends we see in our world as related to technology, and particularly social media. It is both intriguing and worrisome, as some of the stories developed are far closer to fact than fiction as our technology-train rushes ahead while our social norms and behaviour run beside it on the train platform, trying to catch up and hop on board.

In the end for me the meaning has been to become ever more cognizant of my own behaviour online. There is room for debate and discussion, but when the pot begins to boil I’ve learned to step away. I no longer invest time or energy in discussions where others behave badly, as it just feeds into their behaviour and encourages it; and I don’t allow some behaviour on the social media I control, as limited as those powers might be. I can’t change or control the behaviour of millions, but I can change and control my own, and not contribute to the meaning – or demeaning – of social media.

I suspect in the future we will see more studies correlating a rise in anxiety and depression linked to social media use, as these have already begun to surface. The technology we hoped might create a global community may well instead contribute to global misery as we struggle to develop new social behaviour to adapt to a new setting; or, perhaps, the digital natives like my daughter and generations after may have already developed the adaptations necessary to navigate this brave new world.

It is one of those things that only time will tell; and some day, far from now, we may only begin to understand what the meaning of social media truly holds for us.

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