I recently heard a commentator describe Social Media as a mirror of society. I don’t think any comment could be further from the truth. Rather than reflecting society, social media is a glass that magnifies the very worst of society and human nature, and worryingly, the kind of behaviours and attitudes that now are commonplace on social media platforms, are slowly seeping into the real world and changing society for the worse.
The fact that most social media platforms allow members to remain anonymous by using fictitious screen names means that many will say things and behave in ways that they would never have the courage to in a real world situation. Aggression, hate, bigotry, misogyny and more is all delivered on a regular basis. Even if not using a veil of anonymity to spew their vitriol, the perceived distance that cyberspace provides, often emboldens some to behave in ways they would not in any other setting. Sitting, typing at a keyboard, words to an unknown, unseen person who they may never encounter in any other environment provokes behaviour they would not have the courage to display anywhere else. Often when these people’s actions are exposed and called into question in the offline world, they respond by saying their behaviour was out of character. That’s not strictly true, it was just a small aspect of their character never normally seen, made large by the social media bubble.
Bullying has run rampant since the rise of social media. No longer is it confined to school yards and workplaces, now you can bully and harass twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and once more that distance, that perceived disconnect that cyberspace allows, means that it is more prevalent and severe than it would be in other situations. It is also made public, given an audience and often that audience is encouraged to join in without the real effects of their actions being seen. To see someone harassed in the real world, one may have sympathy for the victim. In cyberspace it’s easy to perceive it as a victimless act. It’s just words on a computer screen after all.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion – a right in any society that values free speech – but again, the rise of social media has led to a lot of people believing they are entitled to impose that opinion at every opportunity and often in the worst possible terms. It’s also easier to find like-minded people meaning that hateful, intolerant and bigoted opinions often garner more weight and validity, and groups and organisations have a means of growing, publicising and politicising their views. It’s also easier for those with evil intentions to find their victims, all without leaving the comfort of their own home. Social media can be a hunting ground for many – from scammers and criminals using information gleaned from profiles, to paedophiles using it to groom their prey.
Social media is responsible for the rise of the selfie. In the past, people mostly took photos of other people and places as a memento, a reminder of a certain time, but now we photograph ourselves to share online. Activities, holidays and outings are no longer to be simply experienced or enjoyed, now they must be photographed and shared online. Concerts and performances must be filmed and uploaded. We no longer just enjoy the moment or savour the now, it seems everything is about the photo opportunity.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that there is a rise in vanity and narcissism. The perfect selfie now seems to be a life goal for some, posing and pouting their way through their days in pursuit of the perfect photograph. Many use filters and editing programs to airbrush their perceived flaws before posting their photos. Rather than just posting as a means of sharing who they really are with friends and family, many seem to use social media as a way to project a perfect image of themselves, a perfect life. Photos and activities are posted as means of almost skiting or bragging, of exaggerating their contentment and happiness. This of course has flow on effects with rates of depression increasing with social media use for some. Low self-esteem and body image issues are also increasing. It’s hard to live up to a perfect profile in real life.
Most people know that if they use the internet they are sacrificing some of their privacy, but by using social media, we are sacrificing almost all of it. Even if keeping profile settings on private and providing very little in the way of information about yourself – even if using a fictitious screen name – vast quantities of information is tracked and collated and often shared with other sites. Information enough to be able to paint a clear picture of who and where you are, personal relationships, likes and dislikes and almost everything else. Information is power and is highly sought after. Advertising can now be targeted to each user increasing its effectiveness. This is why social media is incredibly profitable for some and social media companies are now some of the heavy-weights of the corporate world.
Social media, of course, is not all bad. There are many useful and positive aspects, but like the internet itself it is a double edged sword and the negative edge often appears to be the sharpest on the blade. Far from merely reflecting society, social media is playing an active hand in shaping it, having created, distorted or exaggerated many behaviours which are now starting to become prevalent in real world interactions. Many people appear to be more aggressive, intolerant, rude, less caring, more superficial and vain. So, perhaps we should think twice before we share every thought in 140 characters, should focus on being a better person rather than having the perfect profile pic and eat our food rather than photograph it. And don’t get me started on the cats.