I’ve got a problem. A problem with you. And your friends. The whole lot of you, in fact, and the way in which you all spread your ideas using social media. Basically, over the past couple of years social media has quickly evolved from a novel way of keeping in touch into a way for people to share their passions, problems and grievances – and in doing so I’m of the firm belief that it’s become a useless, vapid place. People seem to think they are making a difference when they click the ‘Like’ button – but they are, unfortunately, kidding themselves.
You may remember that earlier this year Felix was accused of sexism – a claim that was correct, in many ways. Social media was partly responsible for the resulting scandal, but what you must really ask yourself is this: what’s really changed? Hangman got a revamp, but it’ll be back to its old tricks soon enough. That’s because the content in Hangman is basically decided by the person who writes for it. If Hangman is sexist or racist or whatever other “-ist” you’d like to pick, it’s probably because the person who wrote it was too. The author for that article may have got a wrap on the knuckles, but who’s to say that the writer who comes along next won’t be just the same? Maybe not this year, especially when the memory is still fresh, but next year or the year after when everyone’s moved on there’s not really anything that can change to stop it happening again. It’s a problem with society itself that people have these sorts of opinions, and it’s going to take a lot more than a few angry people on Twitter to change the opinions of a nation.
There’s another problem. Given that (following from last week’s sexism survey results) it was only a disgruntled minority that kicked up a fuss, and the majority of Imperialites don’t really feel affected by sexism, was it even correct to have paid attention to these opinions? At the time, I remember asking various people what they thought, and opinion was divided. Some thought that it was indeed trivializing rape, and others thought it was all a big fuss over nothing. I’m not going to be so dumb as to pass judgment on which camp I think was right, but I think it’s fair to say that what I saw was a lack of consensus. Why, then, was this event a big deal – big enough to make it into a national newspaper?
I believe that it’s basically because everyone is listening to social media too much. Governments and companies and even individuals seem to take Twitter very seriously – way too seriously given the percentage and particular demographic of the population it represents. Whenever someone reads some negative criticism on social media more often than not they seem to freak out a little bit, and normally end up making a far overblown response. The problem here is with the social medium itself – Twitter and Facebook are so quick and instant that a couple of hours without an official response is like a lifetime. Compare this with good old fashioned snail mail: the speed of reply gives a lot more time to actually think before blurting something out into the public domain.
Fundamentally, social media is faddy. People are always looking for what’s new and what’s original, and they want you to give it to them so that they don’t have to find it themselves. The problem with this is that it’s hard to keep people interested for longer then about five minutes – longer than that and they’ve moved on to the next big thing. You may remember the huge outpouring of emotion about the American bill SOPA, which would curtail Internet freedom. Wikipedia, Reddit, and perhaps even Google if I remember correctly, all got behind the ‘Stop SOPA’ campaign by making their webpages black or dark or whatever for just over a day. With that much exposure the message was got out to quite a number of people, and at the time there was a fair amount of public outcry about it – so much so that it’s discussion in Congress was postponed until ‘consensus’ could be reached. Do you remember how that story ended? Unless you’re well into your technology news, you probably don’t. It turns out that whilst SOPA may not be such an imminent threat, there are still plenty of other tabled bills that are just like SOPA under a different name, but worse (go look up CISPA if you’re interested).
So why aren’t we hearing about these on social media? Because it’s old news! Internet freedom is, like, so last month, guys. The thing is, social networks have gone from being a useful method of communication to being more like a game. No, game is too strong a word – popularity contest. People post links, statuses and tweets as a way of bulking up their own self-esteem and they use how many ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ they get as a measure of acceptance amongst peers. In many ways this is a perfectly natural thing to do – I don’t think that it’d be controversial to say that seeking acceptance is a big part of human nature – but what it means is that all people are interested in is scoring Internet points, not actually making a difference.
The common defense is that social media makes people aware of an issue - this argument was banded about quite a bit when the campaign against Kony hit the stage. But so what? More people are aware, great. Now they can make even more people aware! Wicked. But then all we end up with is a lot of people who are very aware. Awareness is only useful if it translates into meaningful action. Because social media is so casual and so quick, people don’t get involved and people don’t get active in whatever cause they’re promoting this week, they just get aware. Which, I might point out, is entirely useless. The example which I think is the climax of this was the fad of changing profile pictures to children’s TV and film characters in the name of ‘stopping child abuse’. For a while this was a huge thing and a lot of users got involved with it, but it had next to zero actual effect in the real world and the fallout from it was minimal.
So here’s a tip: next time you a find a cause that you care about, and you want to tell all your friends on Faceplace about it, don’t. Instead, consider actually doing something about it. Write to your MP, donate some money to a charity, you know, things that actually generate change in places other than cyberspace.