How to address the impact of social media on the first 20 years of the 21st century?
The issues strike me as very global on one hand and terribly personal on the other. My personal takeaway is that the world might have been a slightly more innocent place without it, but that it’s overall impact has been negative and our lives would be happier and less stressful without it.
Permit me to examine this phenomenon outward from the personal to the global to make my point.
The Facebook/Instagram Combo
Facebook and Instagram seem to have ascended to pre-eminent positions in the personal social media sphere, and these are often used for a variety of purposes, but many of us have employed them to reconnect with high school friends or long-lost professional associates and resuscitated long-dormant relationships that have created a sense of “closing the circle..
Those younger than I tend, while also using Facebook and Instagram, to use Snapchat, which has a more immediate and intimate feel. Snapchat seems to be targeted to your closest friends, the “stories” you tell are current and not intended to be retained, and are almost exclusively social in nature.
People are likely to lump Twitter into this broad grouping of “social media” platforms, but that strikes me as something different altogether. More on this shortly.
Facebook and Instagram are easy to lump together because both are controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, who has become much more vocal over the last several years about his personal political positions. And invariably those positions have quietly crept into the fabric of Facebook.
Facebook Gets Political
I freely admit that my timing may not be accurate here, but the first global application of this that I can recall is the promotion (some might call it the “availability”) of the Rainbow Filter in June 2015 to show one’s support for marriage equality. Whether you were in favor of marriage equality or not became secondary to whether or not you were employing the Rainbow Filter on your personal profile. And, I’m sorry, but you stood out if you chose not to use it and there was an implicit questioning of why your profile was not rainbow-covered.
This was followed in November 2015 with the tragic terrorist assault in Paris on the Bataclan Theater and users were given the option of placing a French Flag Filter on their personal profile. Less controversial from a domestic political perspective, it still contributed to the notion that Facebook was no longer a passive host creating an environment within which its users could connect with one another under their own terms, but it was beginning to develop a personality of its own.
And the personality took a decidedly different tone when, by mid-2015, the presidential primary campaign was in full swing. People began to openly identify with specific candidates, ridicule the positions of those of disagreed with them and the floodgates of memes opened, where users simply reposted provocative images or lists of dubious “statistics” compiled by advocacy groups that supported their points of view. Original thinking and commentary became less and less frequent, and Facebook began to take on this very edgy feel. It became an oddity to see a familiar family in a bucolic setting or a bunch of old colleagues having one too many margaritas at a Manhattan reunion.
Twitter: Unsocial Media
Twitter, on the other hand, is not a social media platform. There’s nothing social about it. It’s a self-aggrandizing forum, currently epitomized by the often incoherent 140-character rambling of our president. The people with the largest Twitter followers are Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Barack Obama, Taylor Swift and Rihanna. What is it that those people could possibly say that would drive over 90 million people each (in the case of the top two) to await the profundities that spill from the brains of those two daily? If you are not someone squarely in the public’s eye and your exposure and “relationship” with your fans are not in direct proportion to your ability to generate vast amounts of income, who really wants to follow your tweets? If writing emails and texts were once blasted as destroying the discipline of writing, Twitter doesn’t require any writing at all: find a word or two, throw in an emoji, use a couple of other Twitter handles, some hashtags and voila — you’ve got yourself a genuine tweet!
Besides the truly odd way that Donald Trump makes pronouncements in 140 character bursts, he feels he has to use the platform to circumvent the press who don’t report on him honestly. True or not, the press also employs Twitter somewhat controversially. Opinion writers or television commentators can say whatever they choose; presumably, that’s what their employers want. But what about “straight news” journalists whose responsibilities require them to bring an objectivity to the stories they write? Unfortunately, it now appears that objectivity ends as the posting of a tweet begins.
This seems to now be construed as an expression of a more personal, rather than professional, nature, and the reporters are not being instructed by their employers to restrain themselves. After the shocking result of the election, a New York Times reporter re-tweeted the title of an article that had been featured in The Atlantic magazine: “The Electoral College was meant to stop men like Trump from taking office”. This was not reportage, it was an expression of personal opinion (which is also a nonsensical statement constitutionally, highlighting the ignorance of both The Atlantic and the New York Times reporter in one brief tweet!).
The Facebook Hiatus
So, I took an extended break from Facebook for the remainder of the campaign. I had no interest in being goaded into volcanic exchanges with old friends or family members. Everybody’s point of view had hardened beyond any point where a reasonable exchange of ideas could persuade anyone to a differing point of view. I chose, instead, to turn to blogging which offered me the opportunity to express myself more thoughtfully, quietly, without the emotional provocation that invariably accompanies reposted graphics from the likes of MoveOn or Media Matters or Occupy Democrats. Those organizations are provocateurs who provide that material for the sole purpose of generating outrage from opponents and donations from supporters.
I wanted authenticity. If you’re interested enough to read what I have written, whether you agree or not, I hope, at least, that you would describe me as authentic, willing to try to find some originality in how I express myself and open-minded enough to see the perspective of those who might oppose my view without dismissing you in a barrage of canned generalities.
I timidly logged into my Facebook account a few days ago. It had become even worse than I could have imagined. Most of the posts bordered on being completely unhinged. The vitriol that people are willing to air and connect to themselves permanently boggles the mind. Facebook, which is one of the largest companies in America by market cap, is valued at $380 billion and as long as the advertising cash keeps rolling in, all will be well. But this is becoming a real negative for the Facebook brand. It used to be perceived as a welcoming, user-friendly platform for personal networking, for sharing touchstone moments with our families and friends, exchanging opinions about the topics of the day.
Today Facebook is perceived as being influenced by the politics of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, who has an openly progressive agenda and favors less restrictive immigration policies. The friendlier, more inviting characteristics of Facebook are giving way to incredibly vulgar anti-Trump postings, advocacy postings for legislation to authorize transgender bathrooms, marketing blitzes to promote the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel — the list goes on and over the longer term it will not burnish the Facebook brand with consumers or advertisers.
It is sad, really, that Facebook, once a welcome refuge from the daily pettiness of struggling with Barack Obama and now Donald Trump, has become a propaganda tool for people who want to build him up or tear him down. I’m a proponent of free speech with minimal, responsible limitations. But I do not want to see images of Trump in Nazi regalia, I do not want to read endless postings that Steve Bannon is an anti-Semite and closet White Supremacist, I do not want to see images from Roger Waters concerts where Trump transmogrifies into a hooded Ku Klux Klan member or his floating pig is smeared with anti-Israeli filth.
I’ll be leaving Facebook until I get a higher proportion of photos showing slices of my four sons’ lives or my little nieces in Los Angeles or my old MTV buds toasting me at a reunion I couldn’t attend or my brother shredding the gnar on some beautiful roller in Kaua’i. Life is way too short.