Staring into the Abyss of Social Media

Flickr Contacts (image by striatic, Flickr, CC)Football; vuvuzelas; LOL cats (yes, still!); E3; garden parties and iPhone 4 – these are the things that have captured my peer group’s attention at the moment.  If we widen the net a bit further and look at what’s trending on Twitter we have: #worldcup; Ronaldo; Nintendo 3DS; Kinect and a whole bunch of footballer’s names that I’ve never known before (but at least they got rid of Justin Bieber!).

So it seems that the collective consciousness of the Twittersphere is remarkably similar to the microcosm of my Facebook peer group, minus possibly the sharing of wonderfully ‘funny’ photos, catchphrases and status updates (actually no, it’s exactly the same).  We’re all having a great time, it seems – the world is a happy place, rejoicing in the mutual celebration of competitive sport, technological progress, and a Northern Hemisphere summer (and LOL cats…always with the bloody LOL cats).

But hold on one moment.  What about the fact that while a billion people watch North Korea battle with Brazil on the football pitch (and tens of millions commenting on it in real-time), we’re ignoring the far more impacting and worrying assertion from the North Korean government that war might soon break out.

Whilst everybody is complaining about the fact that they are distracted from watching football because of some plastic horns, millions upon millions of litres of oil continue to pour into the Gulf of Mexico in what might easily become the largest ecological disaster ever recorded.

Ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan; continued European economic crisis; WikiLeaks under attack from the US government and countless other astonishingly pivotal and world-changing events are taking place right now. Yet, we’re all very successfully and almost unknowingly keeping our heads buried deep in the sand of entertainment, house parties and football mania.  Stories about the possible banning of vuvuzelas are being shared more than the fact that we might be facing another World War…is there something not quite right with this situation, or is it just me?

I’ve believed for quite some time now that social media channels will replace traditional media sources for many people.  Of course, for the most part social media still relies heavily on traditional media to provide it with content (we have to get our links from somewhere); but at the moment we can already see that there is a massive filter being placed over our interest in news.

If it isn’t interesting to others in our peer group, chances are we won’t even hear about it.  Think of it this way – if it weren’t for the free newspapers handed out on the tube, how many of you would still be buying them?  How often would you be watching 24hr news coverage as opposed to logging into Facebook for the nth time that day?

There is a certain benefit to be gained from this new way of collecting information, and there are many instances where it can actually widen one’s horizons rather than simply diminish them. However, I’m becoming increasingly concerned that the push for funny snippets; entertainment news and trivial anecdotes about our lives will overcome the very real and important need to keep abreast of what is going on in the world around us and maintaining an educated and insightful view on the direction of global society.

Social media, unfortunately, just makes it far too easy for us to be content happily staring away at the shadows on the cave wall – not realising that they are actually being caused by a raging fire that is rapidly approaching from behind.

We are all guilty, myself included, of promoting the trivial over the truly meaningful – of caring more about vuvuzelas than war between North and South Korea, or Iran and Israel.  This isn’t anything new, but our love for social media is merely allowing us to promote such things to the point of blinding us to many pivotal events occurring in the world around us.  I promise you, those who are reading this article rather than another rehash of how Lost ended or which celebrity died this week, that the world is going through some serious events right now that if they escalate could truly prove to be history forming…and not in the sense of who gets to try and uphold their World Cup title in four years time.

Narcissus by CaravaggioOf course, the problem is not with social media itself.  The wide range of things that the term encompasses are merely tools – and wonderfully useful and life-enhancing ones at that.  The problem is that we are allowing our fascination with these tools to be used primarily for gossip and ego-validation rather than the truly liberating forms of global communication that they could be.

We spend too much time sculpting our digital identity and too little time providing others with truly valuable information.  We are like Narcissus, stuck staring into our own reflection until it eventually entices us so much that we whither away to nothingness.

If we are to continue down this path of social media ubiquity – and I cannot foresee anything else, to be honest – then we must do so whilst consciously ensuring that we, as individuals, will take on some responsibility for using these tools to better the situation for not only our own peer group, but the rest of those we share this planet with.

Like everything else in life we have a choice: do you want to use social media merely to increase your own ego and sense of self-satisfaction?  Or do you want to be able to use it to uplift the lives of those around you, collectively raising our level of knowledge and engagement with the world?

I’m not saying don’t enjoy the World Cup, or don’t talk about it with your friends.  I’m not saying that vuvuzelas aren’t annoying at times, or that LOL cats never make me laugh out loud.  I do get excited about the latest horror movies coming out, or that new piece of gaming kit that I can get my hands on.  I’m certainly not advocating that you can’t enjoy the little pleasures in life.  Nor am I saying that you should never mention these things on your social media outlet/s of choice.

All I’m saying is, make sure that’s not all that you are doing with your time spent using social media.  Because to do so is to trivialise the power of the tools given to us – and we have been given far too great a gift for us to merely stare blindly into this social media abyss until it consumes us entirely.

What about you?  Are you content to just sit staring into the Abyss…or are you ready to cross it?

3 Responses to Staring into the Abyss of Social Media

  1. Stuart Lamb says:

    Great post thanks Rob. I am left pondering if this is a lead indicator in a step change in human life and how we relate in the new world ecosystem of today. If collective mankind is happier by engaging in football and celebrity gossip and not really interested in the 'bad news' is it really a bad thing? Over time if people do not make these wars 'important', then perhaps their significance and likelihood will diminish. Wars are usually about greed and power corrupt individuals, if we dilute this power drawing on the greater human psyche which prefers football, social media & gossip we reduce if not remove their power.

    However, those in the power now also realise this and seek to control social media; indeed some might say that is why they have given us these tools anyway? Perhaps happier people are easier for governments to control?

    • RAGordon says:

      Thanks Stuart for the comment – it's an interesting issue that you bring up and definitely one worth considering.

      Initially, the obvious problem is that regardless of whether or not we are aware of these things (or maintain concern for them) they are happening. The impact of war, conflict, ecological disaster, heavy-handed government etc. is still felt…it's just that us lucky few in our comfortable little abodes don't pay attention to them.

      Over the longer term, the issue becomes much more complicated – and I think you've brought up a very interesting point about the possible cultural evolution of a globally connected, digitised society. Having said that, you've also raised the counter-argument…which is that keeping the masses happy and placated is always going to be appealing to governments of all kinds.

      For now, I wanted to bring out a call to action. Try and influence those who read this article and get them to more closely consider just how they use social media. It's one of those things; almost all of us are using these tools, but very few are conciously examining how they use them. At the moment, I just think we all need to be much more aware of our actions, even though they appear insignificant on an individual level, and the greater impact they may be having when multiplied by hundreds of millions.

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