Social Media is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal in the technological age —but will it ultimately become our destiny or our demise?
I was quickly reduced to tears this week when, flicking through my Facebook feed, I stumbled across National Geographic’s heart wrenching video of a malnourished polar bear walloping across a sparse and grassy terrain in the arctic. The video portrayed the skeletal bear’s desperate plight, only a couple of hours away from death with no food to suffice its hunger. This video has went viral since first being posted, and, more to the point, has added a tremendous amount of charge to the increasing presence of climate change activism on social media. This is an instance of media being used as a force for good. The often alluded to yet rarely seen detrimental effects of climate change can quickly and poignantly be brought to our attention whilst we are absently scrolling away.
The prevalent perception of ‘millennials’ as the most opinionated and politically minded younger generation to date is entirely correct for one very plain reason. Each of us constantly has in our hands, our pockets, or maybe on charge but still definitely within reach, a device that streams reams upon reams of news articles, opinion pieces and cleverly devised informative videos. In fact, anyone reading this article right now has probably gotten here through clicking on a link via some form of social media. Media is the great monster that swallows millenials up, yet if harnessed correctly it can spit us back out as an interconnected generation dedicated towards making huge differences in the world and aiming for change.
However, there is a chink in the amour. Alongside channels that incite discussion and activism, social media churns out immense amounts of click bait: videos and pointless articles that effectively act as a sedative for the technological age. I’m talking about when you find yourself 15 photos deep in a collection of ‘25 photos of Britney Spears during her 2007 Meltdown’ or ‘10 most amazing hidden restaurants to visit in Lisbon’ (probably written by somebody who has never actually been to Lisbon and probably read by somebody who has no intention of visiting anytime soon). Some people’s entire jobs revolve around creating this pointless and trashy content which media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter plaster all over their sites. This is because social media functions upon an economy of attention and the commodity that is most valuable to them is your time. The longer they keep you scrolling, the more they can bombard you with advertisements. It is financially beneficial for these platforms to keep you hooked and what easier way to do this then with scandalous yet vacuous articles entitled ’12 Plastic surgery nightmares you wont believe!’.
The question we need to start asking ourselves is when does such immense amounts of trashy media output become a genuine moral concern? Tech companies like Facebook and Twitter are already some of the most powerful and prolific businesses in the world. Facebook currently caters to over 2 billion active monthly users and to keep their ‘users’ coming back, they allow free range to media that many will find instantaneously fascinating but few genuinely fulfilling. These websites are also engineered specifically to prevent you from breaking away from the tidal wave of pointless content–just think about Youtube’s feature that immediately plays the next video after you have finished watching the last. It is a waste of people’s lives to spend hours lost watching cat videos but with no clear ethic in regards to media this is exactly what a lot of platforms promote.
So social media is our generation’s double-edged sword. It is a great vehicle for interconnectivity and social reform, yet if we are not careful it can also run off the tracks into a generational car crash of wasted time and energy. Maybe we need to begin by admitting the addictive hold that social media has over us all, before then applying pressure to the companies that endorse our unfettered use of such a powerful medium.