Monday, March 03, 2014

Social Flux

Social Media: Boon or Bane?

I remember being in Grade 10 when I heard about Facebook; all my friends were making accounts and told me I should too. Why? No one could really express what it was or why it was cool, other than that you could write on people's walls, whatever that meant. What's an awkward 15 year old to do? I hopped on the bandwagon.

Today, Facebook is better understood as a part of the ever amassing social media; in a nutshell, it’s electronic interaction and sharing of information over the internet. It's a way to interact in new and exciting ways, both speeding and increasing the volume of interaction.

Similarly to the creation of my Facebook, my friends had previously influenced me to create an MSN messenger account, something I used pretty much everyday once I got it. Online chat was an easy, intimate way to quickly talk to people, especially for kids like me that didn't get a cell phone until near the end – or even after – high school. Sites like Pinterest and Tumblr provide different services, but all of them create new and varied ways to interact with others.

Despite the extra contact social media creates, it seems to be a bottomless addiction. I remember a friend of mine once told me how good she felt posting a picture of herself (partially nude) and the instant self-esteem boost she got from 194 strangers double-tapping it on Instagram. Besides creating new experiences like these, the electronic social experience has begun to take over more organic ones as well; I've found myself in odd situations where friends feel it's very necessary to take time away from what they're doing to document it on social media for strangers and acquaintances, while I sit in hope that the food will still be warm after the photoshoot is over.

Besides my dinner, there are plenty of other instances where social media has had a negative effect, like instances we've all heard about where a kid gets bullied at school then later at home via text message and social media, effectively trapping them in an inescapable net of oppression in what used to be a safe space. Or what about those career-destroying, life-wrecking, nude pics that always end up online? More on that later.

Most of what I'm saying may seem fairly obvious to users, hence my bigger question: where does social media fit into the big picture? It helps us connect, feel special, and feel that we belong, though at times it can clearly do the opposite. Where does the future lie? What are the larger social implications? And how do the negatives ethically weigh up with the positives?

In an interview with Jeff Bercovici for Playboy, Nick Denton – owner of Gawker Media – said he believes that social media has made the world more transparent, forcing people to out their secrets, which is better in the end, for everyone. He makes the example of posting pictures of drunk and promiscuous nights online and how most people thought our generation would destroy their job prospects.

"What actually happened was that institutions and organizations changed, and frankly any organization that didn’t change was going to handicap itself because everyone, every normal person, gets drunk in college. There are stupid pictures or sex pictures of pretty much everybody. "

Due to social media, issues such as calling out the talking heads on FOX when they make a mistake to shattering exposés like the Snowden leak are happening faster and more effectively than ever. Maybe it's not such a big deal that your ex posted that picture she was supposed to delete on that porn site. Nick Denton would approve, let's just hope your family doesn't see it.

In 2006, Google bought out Youtube for an easy billion dollars, a third of their net value at the time, something economists laughed at because who buys something for that much money when it has no revenue? Today, Google is the one laughing as the economy moves and thrives with social media and their company is worth over $280 billion. Similarly, Facebook acquired Whatsapp a few months ago for about $19 billion and many people are seeing this the way they saw the Youtube acquisition: naive and stupid.

Marc Zuckerberg's ideas for the future are perhaps less noble and grandiose than Nick Denton's, though: he said at the Mobile World Congress in February that he wants to take Facebook to the third world, via cheap cell phones and data plans. That's right. If you don't have access to clean water you'll at least be able to make a witty complaint about it in a Facebook status and maybe get a few likes from the cool kids in your village.

The internet and globalization have made this planet feel a lot smaller and important issues hit millions of eyes every day, via social media. However, there's definitely a growing feeling of complacency, where issues are being shoved in our faces so much they become so much white noise and less shocking. We’re creating a lot of armchair activists, people who feel like they're part of something greater because they shared a video of pink goop that (allegedly) shows where McNuggets come from, or sent excessive texts when a phone carrier had a special charity day. I don't want to downplay the importance of such initiatives, but they do make the idea of social reform seem as easy as a click and people forget that it takes more than a Facebook like to fix the world.

Selena Larson, a journalist for, wrote an article outlining why she thinks Facebook may be the last great social network. Maybe she's right. Like the internet that is it's domain, social media is fluid and diverging along different paths. Maybe the next big thing won't look anything like the social networks of the past. Social media has definitely made a great change on society and I'm excited to see where it takes us in the future, in the meantime, I’ll be trolling kids on Buzzfeed.

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