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Social Media Occupy a Great, Great Deal of Our Attention

Social media are changing us, our children and practically every conceivable aspect of society just as profoundly as the steam engine did in the 18th century.

A number of Unidentified Flying Objects have landed around the world. What are their intentions? To destroy us? To bring peace on earth? Or just observe us earthlings and our perplexing little maneuvers? Do they come in peace or war? It’s impossible to know at the moment because they just sit there, day after day, week after week, without indicating whether they are just tourists or permanent residents.

North Korea, we understand, has already decided and issued a stark warning; it is priming its nuclear reactors. The UFOs communicate something to us, but it’s incoherent. The grammar is unintelligible, so we’re not sure what to do. We could take our time in trying to translate the message and figure out what the UFOs’ inhabitants want (if indeed they want anything) and what they have to offer. After all, they could bring unimaginable benefits. But we’ll need time to try to arrange meetings and ponder the possibilities. Or we could simply open fire and try to bomb them out of existence.

As with this outlandish imaginary presence, there really isn’t a way we know for sure whether social media are a good or a bad thing. All we know for certain is that it’s arrived and shows no signs of disappearing. Like the make-believe UFOs, social media occupy a great, great deal of our attention, and after an initial period of doubt in the early 2000s (Facebook was launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006), they have become permanent fixtures.

Doom and Foreboding

And yet, we still haven’t made up our minds about whether they are dangerous (like the invaders in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds), or beneficial (like the benevolent Vulcans from Star Trek), or whether they’ll deliver on a utopian promise but take in return our identities and culture (as did the Overlords in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End).

Traditional media are full of doom, foreboding and warnings of the baneful effects of using social media. If scholars, researchers, politicians and sundry self-appointed experts are to be believed, we have a perfect nightmare of mental-health problems, addictions as debilitating as many drug dependencies and “separation anxieties” if we are parted from a screen device for just an hour.

The media, for the most part, accept these warnings uncritically. Consider the following selection of headlines: “The under-5s glued to screens for four hours each day” (The Daily Mail); “Electroshock Therapy for Internet Users?” (The New York Times); “How to stop checking your smartphone in the middle of the night” (The Telegraph); “We now spend 1.3 years of our lives choosing what to watch” (ShortList); “Fraudster addicted to TV SHOPPING stole £370,000 from her employer” (Coventry Telegraph); “Video game addiction ‘contributes to depression and anxiety’” (i); and “Facebook, Twitter and Google have become a ‘recruiting platform for terrorism'” (The Telegraph).

Collectively, they provide a prodigious inventory of conditions, some mental, others physical, all undesirable. Much of the research on which these warnings is conducted by psychologists, neuroscientists and health researchers. Few seem interested in the social, cultural or historical contexts in which social media use takes place, or the perspectives of the people who engage in the activity. As such, they present the view of experts, not users; and usually the human costs, rather than the cultural benefits, such as the #MeToo and #enough movements.

The perplexing paradox of social media is that it appears to turn its enthusiastic devotees into alien abductees who are wholeheartedly complicit in their own abduction. So, when an august body such as the United Nations pronounces that that social media has had a “determining role” in anti-Rohingya Muslim violence in Myanmar, and “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict,” it prompts a questions about the influence of social media — in particular Facebook — on its users.

Facebook itself is presumably convinced enough to remove the pages of the anti-Islamic group Britain First and its leaders from its platform, explaining that the decision to remove the pages was made after Britain First had ignored a final warning about the posting of material that broke its community standards.

Cyber Consciousness

While this chimes with common-sense ideas of decency and moral rectitude, it’s uncomfortably out of sync with the freedom of information ethos that characterized not just Facebook but all social media in their growth. The spirit of social media, as manifested in its users’ aspirations and attitudes, was to share information openly and with impunity and without any attempt to prevent certain ideas, memories, thoughts or any other element of culture that could be passed on, copied and spread — memes — emerging into the cyber consciousness.

No wonder users laugh at scaremongering media that routinely issue caveats about the proliferation of fake news. They mistrust all news equally, whatever its provenance. Far from being the credulous, wide-eyed ingénues they are often mistaken to be, Screenagers are savvy, discerning and cute enough to know the difference between hokum and actuality. They don’t need a working knowledge of Foucault (though many have that too) to realize that what passes as truth is made possible by the discourse that commissions it rather than its relationship to fact.

What we’re witnessing, though probably without knowing it, is a slow dismantling of one generation’s confidence in established sources of information and its replacement with a kind of all-purpose skepticism. No wonder people despair. “You have to believe something, or someone!” they’d insist. But Screenagers have been reared in a wonder world of seemingly unlimited information; theirs is a holistic approach to knowledge — they believe that all things, like all people, are interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.

“How do you define objective truth?” is not a question to ask a Screenager. “Says who?” or “What’s the source?” or “Who stands to gain if we believe it?” are nearer the mark. I write as a co-researcher on an international online project in which the responses of 2,000 Screenagers (you’ll have gathered this is the term we use to describe the current generation of smartphone-tablet-computer-users) were solicited on a range of subjects, from politics to personal health, and how these are being reshaped by screen devices. The results will be published later this year as Screen Society, the title reflecting the cultural transformation that’s taken place over the past decade.

At the moment, we humans are still apprehensive, as we would be if those UFOs had taken up residence and not revealed their intentions. We went through all this in the 1950s and early 1960s when televisions multiplied like those Tribbles in the Star Trek universe. Shortened attention spans, telly-addiction and family breakups were some of the predicted maladies; these have all resurfaced, of course. Neither we nor the society we make up will unspool as a result of social media. Like every other piece of technology it has no immanent qualities. So, it is pointless trying to determine whether it’s good or evil. Social media are best judged on their potential, which is, as everyone now realizes, colossal.

No wonder people are concerned: These media are changing us, our children and practically every conceivable aspect of society just as profoundly as the steam engine did in the 18th century.

*[Ellis Cashmore is a co-author of Screen Society, which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in summer 2018.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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