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…

Help! My parents are millennials (A title borrowed from the Time magazine cover story!)

So I just came across this cover story as I was morning browsing through my Facebook newsfeed… and it sort of got me thinking. How different are the new millennials to people of my generation or that of my parents? How differently will they raise their kids?

The cover story describes the lives of two parents, one of whom is the stay at home one (he happens to be the dad) whilst the other works (that’s the mum), and their two children. The parents had earlier on (since the pregnancy) decided to document day by day, their children’s lives as vegans using social media (Instagram and blogs). Now some might object – saying ‘oh come on – they’re only kids, they don’t seem to have a say about being in the public eye’, but then I dare anyone who’s holier than thou, to prove that they have never ever shared anything about themselves on social media.

This is not about the sharing per se. It’s about the how and the why of sharing. Sharing is about passing on a message but what some people fail to understand, is that it is ok to share snippets of lives if this can be of benefit to someone else. In this case these parents seem to be passing the message about sustainable living through continuously documenting the growth of their children.

In these past couple of years, we have seen a huge increase in Facebook use amongst the Maltese population. According to the site We are Social “Malta puts in an impressive showing at 58% (social media) penetration, with Scandinavian countries rounding out the rest of the top 5”. Social media places Facebook as the most popular platform chosen in Western European states. What we have also seen is the massive growth of people putting on all sorts of useless banter (for want of a better word), that can incite or provoke all sorts of reactions. We have also seen people committing gaffes responsible for either losing jobs, or getting to be in the eye of the proverbial storm. The reason has nothing to do with digital natives, millennials, boomers or whatever definition we might give. This all has to do with the good old-fashioned common sense and with a level of education that goes beyond the mere acquisition of grades and degrees and more into the ability to think about the consequences of one’s actions and words in a critical manner. I can also see that what our young people are getting from the messages of some of the elders who are also present on Facebook (not generalising here – but trying to give an overall image of the feelings I get when browsing the web) is that 1. every little thing that you do (whether or not it might make sense to have it) has to be documented on FB, and 2. Gather your pack of wolves (try having as many likes as you can to your posts) so that you can collectively attack anyone who either takes your fancy or else does not agree with what you say.

My 2cents thoughts about this is that social media can be made to work differently – it can be used (as it can sometimes be seen) to pass on messages to help improve people’s quality of life. We have to understand that it is not the social media that are causing the problems. It is the people who are using the social media, that are causing all kinds of mess and confusion. How we use social media is pretty much determined by our good sense, but also by our level of humanity and education. If schools had worked more with millennials to help them understand this, then maybe we might have a more civilised democratic and useful presence on social media. However there is still hope. Will schools rise up to the challenge and help young people understand digital citizenship or will we still persist in teaching ECDL skills and thinking that we are doing our part?