Facebook and Social Media: Social Energizers or Neutralizers?

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Metamodern Culture: Facebook and Social Media

“There’s a danger in the internet and social media. The notion that information is enough, that more and more information is enough, that you don’t have to think, you just have to get more information – gets very dangerous.” – Edward de Bono

By Damien Rush
Image (above), “Addicted to Facebook”, by Christopher Wright

Social media sources like Facebook have the potential to be mind expanding social energizers. But they’re not. At least not in these United States. Since childhood, I’ve wondered how a species emerging into the 21st Century can still behave as it does. When I was a kid I was excited about the future. At age seven or eight, the New York World’s Fair (1964-1965) had made a huge impression. For some reason I remember having the compulsion to calculate how old I would be in the “Future”; the year 2000.

The fair brought me new perspectives on the world, the arts and international culture. All the major industries were there. Technology, the future of education; houses under the sea and monorails! The official theme of the New York World’s Fair was “Peace through Understanding”.

I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta, which means even more to me today because I saw the piece before it got vandalized. Seeing that historic work of art done by Michelangelo was an educational and inspiring experience. All cultures were represented. All languages, foods, shapes, colors and regalia. It was like Babylon 5. It was a vast space station where cultures met and exchanged ideas and since then, my expectations for our species has been pretty high.

Since the advent of social media, society has implemented it as a vehicle for immediate communication. Facebook and Twitter have become powerful tools, used to expand social consciousness and to mobilize individuals for action. In some countries Twitter has been used to convey artillery coordinates in battle when conventional forms of communication have been knocked out. The less than successful Arab Spring was literally born of social media. In Ukraine, the same.

I’m a grown man who has experienced the crossover from analogue to digital technology and braved into the tangled web of IT and social media. Networks like Facebook serve as digital extensions, sending ideas over vast distances much faster than the organic presentations from that original world’s fair. The fair taught me that as a civilization we could achieve so much more than conventional wisdom might allow. One might expect social media to act as our digital path toward “Peace through Understanding”. But instead, the road is paved and potholed with banal edicts and superfluous quotes from great people in history, that everyone shares but never heeds.

THE 140 CHARACTER OR LESS LIFESTYLE

Metamodern Culture: Facebook and Social MediaI was always under the impression that modernization was to bring efficiency and economy of motion. The industrial age of mechanization and automation was intended to free us, not imprison us, leaving us more time for observation and reflection, as in serenity now! And yet we find ourselves constantly “multitasking” and habitually thumbing our phones throughout the day. With the plethora of social networks added to the equation, we multi-task and skim through our businesses and social lives as well. A wise man once said, “It is better to do one or two things brilliantly than six things half-assed”, as this leads to breakdowns in critical communication and reduces proficiency in all that we do, including our political engagement.

Illustrations by Luis Quiles

So many of our symbiotic interactions are blotted out by integrated systems designed to cultivate shorter attention spans. Microsoft says a goldfish has a longer attention span (9 seconds) than a human (8 seconds). Thankfully, Twitter is expanding their character limit. And then there’s Star Trek. Who invented SMS and how did this happen? Videotelephony was conceptualized in the late 1800’s, but the technology to make it happen came much later. They finally got the flip part down by 1989 years after the Brick was invented by Martin Cooper in 1973. Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu and Jaan Tallinn brought us Skype in 2003 and Apple introduced FaceTime in 2010. Video calling apps weren’t even around during the clamshell years.

We Americans love our memes. Political and societal memes tend to have the most impact. Quick and easily digested bursts of sometimes very inaccurate or insensitive axioms that become etched in cyber-stone for all eternity. Limited attention is given to organic communication, impeded by social memes, soundbites and texts; all tailored for easy distribution and consumption for our “fast-paced” lifestyles. Mob mentality is easily sparked. The autonomous individual rages against it, often to his or her detriment, or they become assimilated by it; to his or her detriment.

”Being effective at social media, whether for business or personal use, means capturing people who have short attention spans. They’re only a click away from a picture of a funny cat, so you have to make your thing more compelling than that cat. And that can be a high bar.” – Alexis Ohanian

There are many falsehoods, and questionable ideologies that circulate. These have a dumbing or neutralizing effect on society as well. It would be disingenuous for me not to admit that I’ve fallen victim to hearsay and propaganda myself. Memes can be more powerful or socially destructive than a derailed locomotive. In Africa, the Middle East and China, activists risk their lives on Facebook every day. In the United States it’s just one more shiny app for our phones; a new toy for a dystopian culture, caught between sustainability and self destruction.

A civil discussion can turn sour through insult and innuendo. Some of the Facebook streams I’ve been involved with have lead to arguments within arguments that lead far off topic. Facebook occasionally becomes the arena for our digital temper tantrums. More than hosting discussions about current events, for some it can be a form of digital group therapy. The cause and effects of digital anxiety, I’m sure are being studied in depth.

For example; most of us can agree that slavery was and is an inhumane practice. Whether or not slavery was the driving cause of the Civil War or an inconvenient economic externality used as a bargaining chip, will always be a discussion for another day. What we can all agree upon is that, yes, slavery is an abomination to Mankind. The microcosms of racism, economic externalities or historical innuendos become less important to the primary theme or dynamic of the initial post.

Of course facts are important. To insult someone for using Google as an information source in itself is ludicrous. To assume that someone has no understanding, or has not made a legitimate attempt to understand an issue is to disregard any actual life experiences, beyond academics, that’s brought into the discussion.

Via Google, I’ve been able to read peer-reviewed papers from Princeton, Stanford and Harvard. I read “so-called” liberal and conservative blogs and news sources. I triangulate information from as many sources as I can.

We live in a world with extreme social, economic and political dysfunction, fueled by extreme technology and consumerism. What effect has our digital access to convenience and instant gratification had on our development as a species? We live a less physical lifestyle. Not to say that individuals don’t exercise. But the question now becomes, what are they exercise–ING?

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