Social Media

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:

social media 3


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.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Most computer games work the same way. You create a character or Avatar. You chose some traits about this character. You pick a name, perhaps an eye colour. Maybe you decide to be an archer or a swordsman. Maybe you’re a penguin and you decide what colour hat to wear. After finalising your character, you then move through the different levels of the game completing tasks and challenges. On the way you earn experience points or virtual currency to upgrade your character. Maybe you buy them a new sword to exploit an enemies weakness, or give them a super shiny hat. When you complete the game you get the message “Congratulations!” and the credits roll.

    None of this is revolutionary. But around 2004 game developers took this simple format and, just as with everything else in the early 2000’s, put it online. No longer was the world single player, but millions of people all walking around in the same virtual reality. Now not only were people solving puzzles for the intrinsic satisfaction of completing them, but also doing it because it gave them status to other players. The motivation of being a high level or owning a high value item, and walking around showing it off to other players gave people significantly more satisfaction than just the enjoyment of completing the tasks themselves. To summarise, people derived huge enjoyment displaying the achievements of their virtually created personality, even though when they left the computer screen the achievements meant nothing at all. In one line; they lived and gained satisfaction through a created persona online.

    Using social media, people can also create a “persona”. Perhaps not as different and unrepresentative as a penguin, but still displaying different characteristics. The scary thing, as we see from the video game example, is that they can still derive pleasure from this false alternate persona or “avatar” and the status it gives them. Social media allows us to pick and chose our personality very easily, just as you might pick the traits of a warrior in a video game. For example,when an unflattering photo is posted, hitting the delete button. But how bad can the occasional self-esteem boost or harmless escapism be?

    Just as millions of teenagers are becoming addicted to video games, seeking to improve their character’s status, millions of people are becoming addicted to social media tirelessly working to improve their “avatar” on Facebook.The danger is that people let the progress of their online avatar supersede the progress of their actual life. They become so concerned comparing the perception of themselves to others online they forget to produce things in actual reality. Think of Plato’s cave allegory – only this time you make the puppets to act out your life in an idealistic way to convince you that the world is perfect.

    Though it’s not all bad. The biggest argument in favour of social media is that it makes us more socially efficient. For example, I’m a massive fan of the TV program University Challenge but find it hard connecting with peers who share the same opinion. (probably a side affect of not attending a University) By using social media I am very quickly able to find and discuss the show with those who enjoy UC. This connection can be said of nearly all hobbies. No matter how obscure the interest, there are online communities willing to discuss and share ideas. Most importantly it enables us to gain access to the wonderful feeling that only the shared enjoyment of an experience can bring. No longer are we limited by the relatively small number of people we can physically come into contact with. This again demonstrates itself in a more romantic sphere. While there has been much criticism of dating apps, social media makes us more reproductively efficient. We are coming into contact with so many more people that finding an appropriate long term partner is easier. It’s far more likely you find a favourable partner sifting through 1,000,000 profiles than the limited number of people we come into contact with on a day to day basis. We can filter, based on preferences through 1,000,000 randomly selected people at the click of a mouse.

    However, this line of thought again falls into the trap of the previous argument. If people lie on social media, how can we make accurate decisions if we are being given false information?

    And this is ultimately the crux of the issue.It’s a matter of using the tool effectively. Just as the man who first discovered fire might have accidentally burned his house down, we need to train ourselves to use social media in the right way. More specifically the key areas are being sincere to ourselves, and improving at judging others sincerity to ensure we can make the right choices. If these two criteria are met there is no reason the social-media revolution can’t make us not only happier, but a more efficient species.

    That is until governments and corporations start using your online persona as a way of manipulating you, of course.

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