Over the past year bulling induced suicides, public figure trolling, amateur sleuthing for the perpetrators of the Boston Bombings and subsequent mainstream media coverage of these events has ignited a debate about the value and utility of social media.
Often demeaned as either a vapid form of narcissistic navel gazing or a means for social aggrandizement, media pundits and concerned parents have taken to the airwaves and newspapers to decry this new technology and the danger that it poses to the youth and to society as a whole.
Not to be left behind, special interest groups representing various minority populations, who are often legitimately the victims of real world persecution, have jumped on the bandwagon decrying social media as nothing more than a cesspool of vitriolic anonymous trolling.
Yes, bad things happen on the internet, misinformation gets spread, prejudicial statements get made, and people say generally hateful and mean things. But this has always been true, and does not represent the bulk of activity done on social networking sites.
Did not the KKK publish thousands of pages of hate filled propaganda, should printing presses have been abandoned? Doesn’t Focus on the Family air hundreds of hours of sexist and homophobic video footage, should video recording technology be curtailed? Is Rush Limbaugh not spewing ideological diatribes and racial epitaphs on a daily basis over the airwaves, should government censor shock-jocks?
The fact of the matter is that hate speech, prejudice, and trolling have been a part of the human experience since the dawn of civilization. The only difference is that it can been seen by all now, and in a way that was simply impossible in bygone eras. Social media does what none of the other communication methods do, it allows for real-time and asynchronous feedback.
Sure letters can be written to editors, shows can be called into, and networks can be sued, but all of these require relying on the very people who offended you being willing to publish your reply.
On social media sites like Reddit and Twitter, this isn’t the case. Hate-speech can be checked in a way that was never possible before, bullies, celebrities, talk show hosts, presidents, even the Pope, can all be called out publicly for their misinformed, wrongheaded, bigoted, or hate-filled remarks.
If an interviewer says something inaccurate or bigoted you can bet that their followers and criticisers will be letting them, and others viewers, know just how wrong they are on their social media platforms.
Even bullying, something that does need to be addressed in the social media landscape, is a problem that originates in the meatspace, not the virtual space.
Bullying has always occurred, and it has always occurred for one reason and one reason alone. The great silent majority is just that, silent.
The bullying that occurs online, and cannot easily be blocked, is in the public view. Instead of confronting the bully, or at minimum offering sympathy to the victim, the silent majority of viewers either pretend that it isn’t there, or worse join in the furor.
Social media gives users and citizens the tools and the power to confront these oppressive bullies, but when individuals and societies choose not to use these tools, it seems a bit odd to blame the tool instead of the user.
Social media isn’t the source of casual agent for bullying. The problem is the same online as it is offline, individuals don’t step up and defend their digital brothers and sisters.
Beyond the power given to the viewer/reader/listener by social media, groups that focus on the tragic suffering of a few, ignore the hundreds of millions of young and old people who have found social acceptance, recognition, and validation through social media.
By finding like minded peers on social networking sites these individuals live a happier and more fulfilling life. Social media provides a foundation for niche cultures to flourish despite being geographically spread out.
Demeaning social media also requires ignoring the billions of dollars made by individuals leveraging these very social platforms to create new businesses and to generate new content. Youtube, yes its a social network too, alone has allowed individuals like Psy to go from local comedy gold to international star complete with millions of dollars in ad revenue from people watching his free videos.
While social media is still maturing as a medium for cultural exchange, it cannot be denied that it empowers citizens to challenge authority. It also provides a platform upon which individuals can congregate to share what gives their lives meaning.
Whether it be a person’s philosophy on life, what they had for breakfast,their feelings about Justin Bieber, or just a funny cat picture, the activities of persons on social media sites are more than just words and pixels on a screen, they are fundamental expressions of identity. These expressions, even if they appear from your perspective to be vapid and narcissistic, still have value and articulate meaning.
Instead of wasting your energy complaining about how social media sucks or worrying about how Twitter will lead to Idiocracy, why not try making the conversations on social networks better by adding your voice. The more people who participate, the more representative the conversation is.