Mention the words “social media” in any kind of mixed group setting and watch it fragment along lines of age, education, class, gender, and income levels. It’s like you’ve suddenly found the secret means by which you can dice and slice, divide, and conquer and with it come all the clichés you can imagine.
The older demographic calls social media a “colossal waste of time,” a substitute for real friendships and connections that truly matter, an escapist fantasy into non-real landscapes from which nothing constructive can ever arise. The ones at the youngest end of the spectrum will say it’s the ultimate way to find out new things, keep in touch with friends, catch up with gossip, and find potential mates. Everyone else will fall somewhere in between these two extremes.
Much of the language used to criticize social media and many of the arguments used against it have been appropriated from eras past where instead of the words “social media” we had words like “comics,” “television,” or “Rock & Roll.” These represented cultural subgroups united by a shared language that was used to create a cohesive social identity that served as a buffer against the outside world.
The truth is that “social media” has nothing at all to do with any of the subgroup classifications that are used to divide its proponents or unite its critics and everything to do with identity, empowerment, and the way we use technology to transform the substance of our lives.
It’s hard to understand the true scale of it or its implications. It was social media that made possible both the Arab Spring that sparked off regime changes across many Middle East countries and the London Riots of 2010 that threatened western civilization (for Londoners, that is) and, depending on your perspective as you viewed those two events, it could either be brilliant or, indeed, the end of mankind as we know it.
It’s neither, of course. And it’s both. Social media is the natural, digitally created extension of the strong, inherited evolutionary social instinct that succeeded in creating vibrant communities, cities, and nations out of disparate hunter-gatherer tribes, populated by self-serving individuals. That ancient instinct kept us “safe” and growing in largely homogenous social groups that shared a language, creed, and physical characteristics. Its digital counterpart has the ability to now transcend borders and time zones, language barriers and belief systems, connecting people with each other and creating fresh digital tribes, communities, and nations that are disruptive of the established old order of the physical world.
When traditional gatekeepers of information, whether they are the State, the Press, or Brands and Organizations, no longer control the flow of information, they also lose the ability to hold our attention and direct our thinking, which means that they lose control of us. If that kinda sounds like the end of mankind it’s because it is, or at least the end of the kind of world order we knew until the end of the 20th century.
Everything we see in the digital landscape now, from the seeming increase in trolling to the creation of virtual companies that have no physical headquarters and have teams that work across time zones and countries, and even the backlash against social media, is us feeling our way through a new medium that is using the social instincts that created the old world we know to disrupt it and remake it into something new and, as yet, barely understood.
Change is always scary.
What is clear, however, is that social media is not going away. Social media platforms may change or die but our desire to connect, learn, explore, and grow will be fed by new ones that will spring up to take their place. And as the digital landscape we partially live in embeds itself deeper and deeper into the physical world we inhabit, the catalytic pressures of the fusion will produce something entirely different to anything we have had before. Whether that is truly “better” or “worse” has nothing to do with social media or technology. It really depends on whether we’d be able to forge a 21st century identity, whether we want to work out out who we really are, and what we want to accomplish in our lifetime.
David Amerland is a contributor for Talent Zoo Media.
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