When people argue about whether or not social media is a good thing, I think they’re missing the point. Social media is like a car. In the right hands a car is safe, useful, and even enjoyable to use, but put it in the wrong hands and it becomes dangerous and destructive. The car, in itself, is neither good nor bad. It just is. Like cars, social media isn’t going to drop out of our lives any time soon. Sure, the sites might change, but I think it’s safe to say that this whole online social connectivity thing is going to stick around for a while. In this post I’m not going to take a particular stance on social media, but I do just want to have a quick look at the issues around it.
The primary issue, for me, is identity. Let me make something clear at the start: I don’t think that identity is fixed, and I don’t think that we necessarily have one identity at a time. It seems to me that identity goes more like this:
I’ll illustrate this with an example. Let’s say you fancy yourself as the next Michael Bublé this Christmas, so you decide to film yourself singing a wonderful rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. You stick it up on Facebook with the line, ‘Just a little something I recorded! #Christmas’. And then the comments come in. Your aunt is being kind, so she says it’s ‘delightful’, but your friends are a bit blunter, and let’s face it, it’s pretty hilarious. Suddenly, you don’t perceive yourself as so similar to Michael Bublé after all!
That’s a bit of a silly example, but it shows what I’m talking about. Maybe for you it’s more like you like a movie, and you want to show people that, so you tweet about it. Others then see your tweet, realise that you like the movie, and reply, or retweet it, and that interaction tells you that it’s a positive thing. Or maybe people don’t do anything in response to that tweet, so you don’t tweet about it again.
Building and presenting an identity online is all about choice. There are few other areas in life where we have complete control over what kind of content we put out there and how much we share. It’s this choice that makes identity construction through social media such a powerful thing. On a more extreme level, through the ability to remain anonymous you can construct an identity for yourself through saying things that you would never put your name to.
I think it’s worth stopping and thinking about how we’re using this tool, because it has that potential, like a car, to be something that’s largely positive and something that’s largely negative. I, for example love Twitter. It’s an incredible platform for following the things that you care about and connecting with other people who care about those things. I’ve been privileged to get in contact with some fantastic people through Twitter that I would never have met face to face. This is largely down to the choices I’ve made. Who do I follow? Do I follow back someone that follows me? How often do I mention someone? What topics do I talk about? What does my bio say? All of those are conscious decisions that have contributed directly to the experience I have of Twitter and the way that people see and encounter me on Twitter.
This blog is another example of that. The content I put out on here tells you a lot about what I think and why I think it. I think something that’s important for me is that across all the platforms that I’m active on in a social capacity – this blog, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn – is that I am honest. I don’t mean something squishy like ‘I am my true self’ on all of them, because I’m not sure I know what a ‘true self’ is, and in any case, the requirements of the different media mean that I put different things on the different sites, but across them all I try to be honest in my opinions and only say things that I would be happy to say in real life.
I think the dangers of social media are reasonably well documented. We can easily start relying on it for affirmation – only feeling good about something when people have ‘liked’ it or posted nice comments. We can compare ourselves to other people in ways that aren’t healthy. We can share and retweet opinions and articles because it’s the fashionable thing to do, without knowing the ins and outs of all of those views.
We can’t ignore the dangers because, like a car, social media can be destructive if we don’t handle it carefully. But I don’t think we should throw the baby out with the bath water. Social media is not a bad thing. We can use it well – it can make our lives more enjoyable, and help us to form relationships that we would never have formed otherwise. But in all this it’s worth remembering that our identities are not static, and what we put out online affects all of those facets that I mentioned above. If we’re wise to it, I think we’ll find that social media can be a really positive thing in all of our lives.