Is social media controlling our lives?

This was the title of the excellent public talk I attended yesterday delivered by Bryan Alexander and Alex Grech  in Malta. My take home with me from this talk can be followed from my tweets from the 19th November but there are a couple of principles which I would like to discuss further.

  1. Social Media as bringing out the best and the worst in humanity. Both speakers made reference to the recent Paris terror attacks, and how social media was primary in not only keeping contact with the survivors, but in also offering support (“#PorteOuverte (open door) to offer shelter in their homes to those stranded in the French capital as well as emotional support). Facebook’s safety check app (and its controversial use (or lack of) for the parallel attacks in Beirut) was also part of the discussion. But we also need to view how social media is in fact helping display the lack of empathy, the hatred and the vilification of humanity, because people take to the screen as though there isn’t another human being at the end.
  2. Alex Grech joked about the matter of our presence as social media. He asked… do people actually use social media to be more visible? For instance, in an event such as yesterday’s talk, so many people registered their “interest” in that event by clicking a button on the Facebook event page. How many of those were truly interested – asked Alex. This is quite true and also quite sad really. Maybe this is also a brief glimpse into what drives humans… people want to be seen and heard, and the consequences of what they say (or type) become quite irrelevant. This is social media’s double edged sword… let’s give a voice to everyone – but really and truly what that voice carries is irrelevant to the drivers or the founders of the social media platforms. And this causes sadness, and pain in many instances.
  3. Bryan Alexander told us – let us stop romanticising the media of the past. People everywhere can frequently be heard saying – we were so much better when we were young… back in the good old days, we had no smart phones to distract us, no games to become addicted to, no Internet that is the cause of family dysfunction… I don’t know about you but I hear this all the time. People resist media change because change is not favoured by all humans and because the majority like to grip to what he or she is used to. Socrates himself resisted the advent of writing. We had people resisting the introduction of books, radio, tv… resistance is what we seem to do best when something ‘innovative’ appears. Social media is just another case in history. We will soon stop criticising it when something new comes along… robotics? Advanced AI systems?
  4. And then Alex mentioned this ongoing tension between society and technology – as this medium, the social media is disrupting the power structures that are at work within our society. We have been used to having this power in its hierarchical form… in the style of a Gramscian hegemony. We have been brought up in a pre-social media system which doesn’t question the powers that be… what we are seeing now, is the continuous criticism that comes from the empowerment that such a medium gives people. And yet again we have a double edged sword, as social media becomes the people’s microphone, a voice amplifier and a multiplier that can contribute to news going viral.

Is all this good? Is this bad? Is this controlling our lives? Probably… but then again as humans we really never have total control of our lives or our actions. We live in a society, we are a product of the society we live in. We are controlled all the time by the society we inhabit, by the cultures that form – whether these are physical, digital and virtual. Social media is just a tool – which we can choose to either exploit for the betterment of humanity, or like everything else exploit it to propagate hate, envy, criminal activity and any other action that goes against humanity.

Thanks for a great talk Bryan and Alex! Was quite thought provoking…