When it comes to the idea of social media, I’m pretty torn. On one hand, it’s fantastic to see widespread activism carried out by regular people, especially recently with the George Floyd protests. However, I don’t think it’s hard to see why someone would be uncomfortable with a platform that encourages a needless, constant consumption of entertainment.
Before I continue, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m not one of those ‘book good, phone bad’ people that constantly rear their heads whenever the issue of social media is brought to the table. I think that modern technology and connectivity have brought many benefits to society as a whole. But, like anything that’s too good to be true, it comes with a cost.
Normally, this is where a writer would go on to talk about how children are spending too much time on their devices, and about how we’re ‘not talking to each other in a meaningful way anymore’. Whilst these might be valid points, that’s an area of the debate that I think has been done to death already. What I’m interested in is social media’s deeper psychological effect on young people, and how we can expect this to play out as we venture further into the twenty-first century.
At the end of his special ‘Make Happy’ (which you can watch in full on Netflix), comedian Bo Burnham takes a moment to talk to his audience about his roots as a performer. Being one of the first people to go ‘viral’ on YouTube at the age of 16 and making a career of it has clearly taken its toll on his mental health. And, since he’s someone who actually made it through the social media machine and came out of the other side still intelligent enough to make sense of his journey, I feel that his warnings should be taken very seriously:
‘Social media, it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, “Here, perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason”. It’s prison. It’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together’.
(To those who have time, I certainly recommend watching the rest of his special which, if you can believe me after reading that quote, is actually really fun.)
Bo Burnham’s message is clear; social media is inherently a performer’s game.
The big issue is that most people aren’t performers. Most people aren’t charismatic or interesting. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But social media is a place where there is something wrong with that. It creates a constant need to justify the space you’re filling with your looks, your wit, or your talent. This is the kind of pressure that only celebrities were faced with in the past, but that was entirely in their job description — to keep dancing, no matter what.
The very idea of having a ‘story’ that can be filled with the events of your life before it’s erased 24 hours later is blatantly and morbidly ironic. Here we have the platforms that we use to share our lives with the world openly admitting that they don’t care about our stories as individuals; they just need us to produce more content to pump out into a never-ending stream so that they can keep people satiated and distracted.
As I mentioned earlier, activism is one of the few bright spots in the online world, but even this has started to grow dark. People have started to use real-world issues to justify their morality through online personas, seeing themselves as saviours for making an unresearched post about, say, Black Lives in America. This becomes irritatingly hypocritical when these people don’t hold themselves to the same standards in real-life situations — after all, they made a post about it, so they can’t be racist. Plus, we’re all aware of the amount of misinformation that can be spread online, actively hindering the work of good people by painting them as villains, or vice versa.
I’m sure that many people would simply suggest that if I have these problems with social media, I shouldn’t use it. And, in an ideal world, I probably wouldn’t. But, in the real world, where the majority of people do use social media, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid it. Group events are now organised over messaging apps. Inside jokes are shared between friends online. Even schools are expecting children to have some understanding of social media, taking it for granted that every student uses it willingly and with ease of access. Some people would suggest that even this, an online article, is a form of social media. And I’d be hard pressed to disagree with them.
I’d like to end this piece with something optimistic, so I’ll remind the reader that I think social media can be a tool for positive change. It helped to bring abusers to justice in the #MeToo movement. It helps to raise money for those in need. It can offer us a laugh as the world around us grows colder. But it can’t be allowed to do so at the expense of our morals and mental health. A good place to start would probably be with campaigning for stricter laws about what can be shared online, and about how much power social media corporations have over their users.
But that’s a big change. One that isn’t likely to happen very soon. So, it’s imperative that we all hold ourselves to a higher standard when interacting anonymously with others and, either think carefully about what we post, or don’t post at all.