Are social media a poisonous influence on society or a reflection of our culture?

The saying ‘If you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product’ sums up a reality of our times which is either unknown or ignored by social media users. As a trade off for accessing Facebook, Twitter or Google ‘free’ of charge is the implicit acceptance of handing over personal information. The gutting of traditional revenue streams for newspapers, magazines and music has been largely a result of more advanced, intrusive and powerful algorithmic devices used by companies such as Facebook for the purposes of advertising. The argument put forward by Marcus Gilroy-Ware in his book Filling the void runs counter to the deterministic view of our lives being dictated to us by the powers of social media. Instead, Gilroy-Ware argues that social media, as with technological advancements throughout history, becomes tailored and adapted by its users over time to act as more of a mirror to Western cultural trends.

The internet was imagined as a limitless hub of information which possesses instant answers to our everyday questions as a kind of vector from problem to solution. The reality however proved to be somewhat different. What is more evident now than ever before is the internet’s more common role as a means for distraction or emotional stimulation rather than the pursuit of information. As Gilroy-Ware alludes to, filling the ‘void’ refers to a deficiency or gap in our lives, be it anxiety, boredom, loneliness or a merely a desire to be entertained, which social media has filled in order to our grab and secure our attention. The causes of this need for distraction are complex but stem from a wider societal crisis of mental health and as Gilroy-Ware refers to, ‘late capitalist culture’ which emphasises the importance of measuring ourselves against others – in the case of Facebook through perceived popularity and self-worth.

The problem with this is the amount of time and information handed over to large corporations which pursue a business plan with the principle goal of monetising your likes and dislikes, your political views, your personal information and buying patterns into saleable advertising space.

This vast mountain of data which has accumulated has only recently (since about 2012) been harvested in order to be sold on to potential customers in advertising. This is known to have serious intrusive consequences on our privacy which have never before been so detailed. However the most sinister of the human adaptation of data has been its political consequences and what it means for democracy. Dominic Cummings wrote at length describing the capacity (for perhaps the first time in history) of Vote Leave to pinpoint marginal voters based on their age, location, posts, likes/dislikes in order to specifically direct articles and political messages arguing for the UK to leave the European Union. Cambridge Analytica are the data firm hired in the Trump campaign (and according to the Observer also employed by Leave.EU) in order to deliver specifically targeted political messages. CEO Alexander Nix explains the business here:

What Gilroy-Ware’s book does successfully is to avoid narrowing the debate to purely the political implications of social media but to examine the reasons behind our reliance on social media and what this tells us about our culture. The ’empty fridge’ metaphor is used in the book to describe our irrational human tendencies, quoted from a Facebook meme ‘Facebook is like a fridge. You know there is nothing new inside but you check it every ten minutes.’ There are serious underlying psychological reasons why we might seek comfort with social media, even in the knowledge it might not be doing us much good. Numerous studies, including this one published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicate that increased social media usage increases feelings of social isolation.

‘As we scroll through the timeline, desperate to be distracted and emotionally stimulated, we are almost trapped in a virtual hamster wheel of media consumption and data generation.’

In our digital self we tend to present ourselves in an idealised form of our present selves, free of physical blemishes and most importantly with a focus on reminding ourselves that we are individuals liberated by the complete freedom of self-expression. A comprehensive article in the LRB by John Lancaster on this subject however quotes René Girard, a French philosopher who believed that human nature is more determined by ‘mimetic desire’ and a need to continually copy others.

Overall, I consider myself fearful of the capacity for large corporations to be responsible for the distribution of our news sources and the major implications thus brings on the decisions we make, either as part of the electorate or as consumers. We might consider ourself a responsible user of social media, someone who would never engage in disclosing compromising material. But the reality is that every use of social media, just as every innocuous contactless payment, is a donation of personal information to a powerful group of corporations who we accept do not have our best interests at heart. However Gilroy-Ware reminds us that Facebook and other forms of social media are, in the end, human creations which were often devised for wildly different purposes than those they now provide. The development of the interface and design of social media is largely a result of continual review by its users. Furthermore it is a wider societal shift towards a longing for novelty, experience and feeling which is driving the changes to our political landscape rather than a particular app on our phones. It is too easy to blame technology for the troubling news which circles us. As Gilroy-Ware notes ‘rather than determining culture, technology is culture, and it is essential to start seeing it as such.’


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