The ironic thing about social media, is that really, its not very social at all.
But its anti-social capabilities stretch much further than just letting us escape the mundane interactions involved in going to the supermarket or selecting potential partners from headshots rather than over an espresso shot; its most attractive feature may be its ability to satisfy our innate narcissism.
This week, Barack Obama commented on technology’s inevitable popularity and how the expansionism of social media has increased people’s awareness of trauma in the world. He states that despite increased discussions about the state of society, “things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago”: “The truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.”
But is that truly the case, or did we actually still have quite a good idea about how “messy” the world was before Twitter entered our lives? That before social media, old-school media like newspapers and television provided us with more than enough images of suffering and destruction for it to occasionally touch a raw nerve. Twitter didn’t suddenly reveal poverty, war and discrimination to us, we had already heard about that from our parents when they told us off for not appreciating what we had, or from our co-workers as we made polite conversation at the coffee machine, sometimes we even read it ourselves in the paper, on tv, on the radio.
Although Twitter informs us almost immediately about crisis’ across the globe - whether its an ‘Act of Terror’ plane crash or Russia invading Ukraine - the same plane will still have crashed and Russia will still be invading Ukraine, whether there’s social media or no social media. And its because of this truism that contrary to Obama’s comments, our levels of concern and care haven’t fluctuated over time. People are just as affected by these incidents no matter when or what platform they read them on.
Scrolling through your Twitter feed you will be faced with a whole fruit bowl of content. While some posts will comment on current issues, others will tell you what they ate for breakfast; a few may bring a mix of both. Social media’s exposure hasn’t provided us with a heightened sense of concern for the world: no matter how many tweets you see about ISIS while brushing your teeth, you’ll still be just as annoyed when you get toothpaste on your shirt as you were ten years ago - maybe even more, because now you’re supposed to be older and wiser.
Yes, occasionally we will see an especially hard-hitting image which will add to our outrage or worry, but that is usually dependent on the disaster or material itself, not the amount of times it appears on our newsfeed. We are still just as saddened, concerned or angry as ever, and just as aware of the mess of the world. Mess that needs to be fixed, not denied.
Because Obama’s comments touch upon a different aspect of social change. We realise that not only are our feelings about the world’s traumas still the same, so are the stories in the news, and the social disparities that create most of this mess.
The sheer abundance of ill-informed comments about the troubled world plastered over your Twitter feed is example enough: the same views that existed twenty years ago and are still just as prevalent today. Whether its boorish misogyny or ironic condemnations of terrorist acts wanting to fight warfare with even more warfare, social media has merely reminded us that people are just as ignorant and arrogant as they were a few decades ago. Social media hasn't transformed people's views, just like the hardships it details haven't changed either - and people still believe that they are smarter, more attractive, or more important than others. The narcissistic allure of social media continues to cause the same seemingly-endless conflict that disrupts the world.
Twitter doesn’t use diplomacy when a mess breaks out, it bans and deletes; so trying to find diplomatic solutions to conflicts that are usually dealt with by using military force (or the online equivalent) is even harder when all we want and know is to assert our power. Obama himself alludes to how the narcissistic component of it potentially hinders social transformation in the same way as Washington itself. “Washington doesn’t work … The truth of the matter is, there’s one reason why Congress is as broken as it is, and that is that the other party has become captive to the most ideologically rigid, most unproductive, most cynical group that I have ever seen” ... and we all know a few people like that on our Twitter feed.
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