From the beginning, some relationships are wrought with contradictions and ambiguities. They never quite find a secure foothold in our lives, and yet they can linger in the background and exist in ways we may celebrate one moment and take for granted in the next. If they survive long enough, these relationships form an arc that evolves with us over time to reflect who we are as individuals and in the context of our communities.
So goes my relationship with social media.
To call it a love/hate kind of relationship would be inaccurate. Rather, I’d say the nuances are a bit more complicated, and certainly resembling characteristics of what it means to experience a kind of adolescence in a digital platform.
On one hand, I very much rely on social media to stay connected to my friends and family both locally and overseas. Even if I’m not in regular contact with many of them, it’s good to know that I can reach out to these people if I need to. I’ve let a lot of email contacts wither into old tombstones in my contact list, while something like Facebook keeps not just a steady vigil, but a media rich shrine. I know that I’m not entirely comfortable with this, and yet I’m not sure what the best alternative is either. That’s the ‘other hand’, and one that I’m definitely uneasy with: social media can also be a playground for a strange new kind of voyeurism and exhibitionism.
There’s the allure to the relatively new phenomenon of what writer Clive Thompson describes as ‘ambient awareness’ – knowing what’s going in someone else’s life without actually engaging directly with them. So, you might have missed the weekend community BBQ, but don’t worry, thanks to a plethora of social media channels, you can experience it all with vast quantities of evidence strewn in great detail. The trouble is, the ‘detail’ often covers vast surface levels, rather than anything very thoughtful or deeply engaging. How many of us are increasingly living our lives this way? We’ve made room for these little portals in small increments, gradually engaging more and more with a variety of media and through social connections that would otherwise not have been possible. If we stand back and look at our digital behaviours from afar and compare them to what they were even five years ago, we can get a better sense of their impact.
Depending on the type and number of social media channels, there’s a full spectrum of media ready to pounce on our attention. These range from the sublime — the video post of the elated first steps of a friend’s toddler son (450 Facebook likes), to the ridiculous — GIF of the dog chasing his tail a dozen times before he runs into the cat, setting off a chain reaction of epic proportions (4 million Facebook likes). But they also include the likes of this disturbing image of a supposed sign outside a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S.A., depicting inflammatory words intended to enrage some, whilst bolstering the feelings of others. This sign does not exist, nor does the group ‘Advancement of Islamic Agenda for America’, who allegedly created it.
Created at: http://www.says-it.com/churchsigns/
But of course, once this fake sign began to circulate on social media, it became fuel for an already raging fire. That’s the thing about the Internet and social media in particular: there’s always someone waiting to start, stoke, or turn the embers, regardless of whether or not truth is able to shed any real light.
In this case, the image played on two factors: ignorance and fear; the latter of which is understandably running high with many around the world in light of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. While some had questioned the sign’s authenticity, there were many more who believed it to be true, added their own incendiary comments and redistributed the image even further. The spread of such media demonstrates the effect of fast-tracking information to our reptilian brain, the oldest and most powerful of our neural coping functions. If we believe we are under threat, we have to react quickly. It’s part of our DNA that has enabled us to survive and indeed thrive as a species. Our brains have since evolved with our limbic and neocortex regions, both of which are responsible for a variety of functions including emotions as well as our abilities to develop language, culture, and identity. These other two regions should keep the reptilian brain in check, or at least inform it more readily.
So with all the advancements and gifts of the information age, shouldn’t we have the tools to improve this interrelationship? Shouldn’t we have more of an ability to understand issues deeply, learn more about different viewpoints, and not simply react to sensation?
‘Stimulation has replaced connection, and I think that’s what you need to watch out for.’
Dr. Ned Hallowell, Psychiatrist and author of Driven to Distraction
We should all strive to understand the root causes of some of our most long-standing and troubling issues and yet, we might be sabotaging that process by increased exposure to the sheer volume of digital content. With new content ready to take the place of the last batch, it’s quite likely that we will take shortcuts in how we critically reflect on what really matters. In 2015, with many of us living with rich networks of information at our fingertips, defaulting to a knee-jerk response and spreading misinformation, is not only lazy and irresponsible, but dangerous. And yet, this happens exponentially every second of the day.
It’s true that wherever we gather people together, digitally or otherwise, there will inevitably be the mundane, the fantastic, the absurd and even the hateful. But in a digital world, we have the ability to amplify these perspectives in powerful ways. This carries huge implications in everything we do whether that be as teachers, writers, politicians, or young people emerging in these spaces. We’re just beginning to see the long-term effects of social media, as well as the swath of the good and bad that comes with it.
Even though many of us personalise our digital spaces to the point where we can supplant the nasty and sugary media tidbits with something of value, many of us are still casually feeding at the same trough. On some levels, social media is also nostalgia on steroids. In this way, we’re not really facing forward when it comes to pushing the boundaries of human interaction, but rehashing it. In human years, social media is barely a teenager and yet one that so many of us spend our time with. So, it’s fair to say that we are still learning about ourselves through our response to its very fickle and unpredictable nature.
The potential of how information is shared can enable and expand to become meaningful knowledge, but it must be deliberate, purposeful and co-constructed with a discerning eye. We're changing, so let's measure that scope and impact with eyes wide open. Our relationships depend on it.
- The Evolutionary Layers of the Brain — McGill University
- The Truine Brain Theory — Paul McLean
- Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better — Clive Thompson
- Driven to Distraction — Dr. Edward Hallowell