Throughout the aeons of human existence we have understood we are a flawed species – capable of good and bad whether we are acting individually or collectively. There is no field of human activity where this truth cannot be observed. It should surprise nobody, therefore, that social media is no different. As in ‘real’ life, we can see the best and worst of ourselves played out on what is surely one of the most disruptive technologies ever. Social media undoubtedly holds a mirror up to the human race like nothing has ever done before – and it reveals us as we are. No more and no less. So why do we hear so comparatively little about the enormous amount of good these platforms are facilitating for the vast majority of ordinary users, who avail of them constructively every single day?
This new technology has created an unexpected power-shift. Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook and blogging are now as much a part of our everyday existence as the telephone and the telegraph once were. Before their advent the public realm was mediated and interpreted for the global population by the relatively tiny number of editors and others who run the traditional media. The average person had no say in this, it was just the way things were. It is therefore only to be expected that the old paradigm is feeling justifiably threatened by the new. The advent of radio and television were equally regarded with suspicion in their day, with a commensurate fear of their impact on mass audiences – i.e. you and me.
Tabloid newspapers are still read by billions – by far more than their more upmarket cousins, the broadsheets. They have appalled and shocked in equal measure. There are trashy radio and television stations to compliment their more measured counterparts. For many of these media, there has been no level to which they have not been prepared to stoop in pursuit of some life-destroying ‘story’. Even the best of them will have their agenda or biases – intended or not – whether they be political, commercial or philosophical. There is no doubt, equally, that bad things can and do happen on social media. The question arises, therefore, why do traditional media, whose own track record is blighted by scandals of every conceivable kind, nevertheless put so much emphasis on giving social media such a relentlessly bad rap?
Here is a truth about social media that you could be forgiven for not realising: you are in control of the experience you have on these platforms. Not interested in hearing what someone has eaten for breakfast? It couldn’t be more simple: don’t follow that person – or any person who posts things that don’t interest you! You curate your own experience. You can mute and block people you find offensive.
Conversely, whatever passtime, occupation, profession, business, voluntary activity or field of study you may be interested in, there are literally millions of fellow travellers, experts and practitioners sharing a vast treasure trove of ideas and information. You can often make direct contact with people and groups you would likely never have met, or even have been aware of in a lifetime of research and reaching out before social media came along. Countless lives and organisations have been radically altered for the better by the explosion of valuable connection that social media has made possible.
Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or Instagram (to name just a few) 85% of us are spending at least an hour a day on social media. And with good reason. The opportunity for individuals, community groups, small businesses and organisations of every sort to communicate with audiences across previously insurmountable divides, to find support for their cause, to find customers or donors, to share fun, laughter and poetry, to advertise festivals, to tell their own unmediated stories as they experience them – all of this is as fantastic and beneficial as it is unsettling. “The Shock of The New”, as the Australian art critic, Robert Hughes, once summarised it for the BBC, has always been with us. Social media is still a young technology and we are undoubtedly finding our way with it – mistakes have and will continue to be made. With a little care and skill, it is however easy to make the best possible use of these platforms whatever your need for them may be. In short, there is an awful lot to celebrate about social media.