I mean, okay, you’ve got a Facebook/twitter/wordpress/blog/tumblr/other things, but what do you do with all that? Peek at Alison Pill’s Twitter mishap? Attempt to destroy the business of a man who gives bear hugs? Joke about killing classmates when you were in middle school on Facebook?
Let’s scale this back down a little. I would be the last to say that discussions are useless –YouTube comment flamewars are an exception–, but some people see sites like Facebook and Twitter as more than just stalking grounds or galleries of heavily filtered pictures of food. Yes, I know, shocker. I picked up this article from the ‘NYU Local’ of Towson University, The Towerlight.
The article mainly focuses on digital activism and reflects back on the role that social media sites played in the events of the Arab Spring. The author, Jonathan Munshaw, interviewed one of the university’s professor’s of political science, Professor Joseph Rudolph: “I would say the biggest example of using technology for political activism has to be Egypt, […] [t]here was use of technology to get hundreds of people to gather at Tahrir Square night after night to protest”. Now here’s something slightly more interesting than starring at Alison Pill’s picture or writing an inflamed yelp review for bear hug man: revolution.
Let’s go back in time for a bit. What writing brought to the table was the ability to share a message through time. Print allowed that message to be distributed massively as fast as the physical medium could travel. The internet is numberless and timeless. Putting something out to the world now costs next to nothing. Those very words can reach out to anyone with an internet connection, even the disenchanted people of Egypt. What they have shown the world during the Arab Spring is that Twitter is not just about blurting out random thoughts. Occupy protesters also use the medium to communicate and organize. Three hundred years ago most of us would be burned at the stake: accused of witchcraft for telepathic skills.
The Towson professor then adds “Technology ultimately changes the nature of society, and we are only just getting into the potential of this age of technology”. Doesn’t that sound a little technologically deterministic to you? And bam, technical term drop. Technological determinism is the theory that technology and use thereof will shape human society, culture, and interpersonal interactions. I was walking back home one night and heard a rather inebriated woman scream “hashtag YOLO!” — not the best example, or maybe the best ever. Technological determinism would support claims like: “the printing press inevitably lead to more and more people learning how to read”, or “the Egyptian revolution could not have happened without Twitter and other social media.” The debate about whether the course of the human race is technologically determined or not is not something I hope to end with a blog post– but I am ambitious.
Illiteracy is now thought of as ‘strange’ or ‘a problem’ in civilized societies. Books, newspapers, and magazines are all forms of domesticated products of various technologies. Not having a book in an entire house just feels wrong; if you wake up illiterate tomorrow , you will feel impaired and embarrassed. Our values and norms have changed due to advances in technology. The digital divide is becoming the new illiteracy.
Professor Rudolph then expands on his previous point by making a very pragmatic statement: ““We become more fascinated with technology itself than the potential of the technology. People want to posses it more than use it, and go out and get the next best thing, and at some point you reach a technology saturation point.” You have a Facebook, Twitter, or whatever else: what do you do with it? Be a little of a voyeur? Spam a business with petty political discourse? Make jokes about who to slay in recess? Social media, compared to other forms of media is still in its early stages and a medium’s beginnings have some common elements that popularize it. Ah basal human instincts, here is a claim that pornography drives technology (It is an academic paper, SFW). Sex, politics, violence.
The difference now is all in the time and availability: to obtain a physical copy of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel would take you quite some time even if the book was readily available at your local library (if it is, I suggest you need to move). But finding that picture of Alison Pill (which is sweetly innocent compared to the summary of the book) would just take a few seconds. Judith Donath, in a paper titled “Sociable Media”, discusses the different traits of social media including rhythm, format, bandwidth, and permanence among others. On the topic of permanence: before digitization, it was possible to destroy every instance of a book, picture, or video. Things have changed. Alison Pill’s picture will linger around the internet for as long as people will be willing to upload it or link to it. Anonymity on the other hand will allow people to voice out their political/social opinions not only to a keyboard or webcam but to anyone who comes across it. There is no risk voicing out a hateful or ignorant statement; YouTube comments ethical guidelines are pretty much: ‘fire-and-forget’ and ‘don’t even bother aiming’. Accountability is gone, responsibility too. For those that want it that way.
The world we live in is not just rife with pornography, petty politics, and ever escalating violence. By comparing social media to print, we can see that a medium can go through an unflattering stage before earning some nobility. What social media has managed to accomplish in its short lifespan is already amazing. The difference between social media and literally any other form of mass media is that at its core are people, real people. Professor Rudolph’s technologically deterministic view may be flawed in the minds of some but it has value: “This technology comes with a responsibility and it’s not just about having it for fun. Over time, you’ll see more people becoming informed, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Overnight is something he may have to reconsider. Social media will advance faster than any other medium before it because of how thin the crust is compared to the core. Technological determinism views media and technology too much as a rigid tunnel into which people funnel into. Pursuing the analogy, I believe that technology, and social media even more, is more of a glove that will stretch and adapt to what the flesh and bones beneath will it to do. This pits little old me and my belief in social shaping against the technological determinism of professor Rudolph. Social media allows people to retain their identity, to claim their identity and thus give them the ability to function as they will and need, not as others need them to. What this means is that social media will not change deep-seated attitudes about politics, or cause people to become more involved or cultivated. The freedom provided by social media is both a beautiful thing, and a dangerous thing.
However, I do believe enough people care to make a difference.