Social media is an area of our culture that at times seems about to sink under its own weight, even as it continues to grow in wealth and influence. With the news that Facebook is paying a ridiculous sum of $1 billion for internet photo site Instagram, and the well-deserved, accompanying backlash of ridicule that followed, it was inevitable that someone had to ask: when did Facebook lose its cachet? John Sutter over at CNN attempts to address this question, in a piece published this morning looking at various factors including growth, size, and corporate policies, that have changed public perceptions of the company.
Yet as well-thought-out as this piece is, no one seems to be looking at the underlying problem: the proverbial iceberg, if you will. I refer to the point of social media in the first place, and the bad messages arising from childhood and from pure hedonism which social media oftentimes seems to reinforce. I hope the reader will bear with me as I take him on what may be, at times, a rather choppy voyage.
Sites like Facebook often reinforce the kind of flawed logic which many users of my generation and younger had drilled into their brains by those in authority over us during our childhood. We were all assured by our elders that everyone is somehow “special”. The truth is that this type of placating platitude – telling little Jimmy that he is not an uncoordinated couch potato, even though no one wants him on their baseball team, or comforting little Suzy over the fact that she is not pretty enough to get on prom court – does not really do anyone any good. It creates a culture in which everyone considers themselves to be somehow uniquely gifted and entitled to succeed in the material world, when this cannot possibly be achieved in all cases.
Teaching one’s children or students that they can achieve literally any goal they set for themselves, if only they want it hard enough, is tantamount to psychological child abuse. Encouragement needs to be tempered both by realism, and by an honest assessment of the goal itself. Having the most lavish sweet sixteen party *EVER*, or getting 1,000 “likes” on Facebook, is hardly an achievement for the ages. This sort of achievement is predominantly an exercise in the kind of nonsense which has brought us into the cultural mudpit in which we now shamelessly wallow in porcine glee, with young people unable to read, write, or perform basic arithmetic. And social media is unquestionably a major supplier of this sort of muck: visit a site like Facebook or Twitter any day of the week, and you will not only witness spelling mistakes that would make Sister Mary Margaret roll over in her grave, but also profoundly disturbing displays of ignorance, such as whether the sinking of the Titanic was an actual event.
Now, before I am accused of unrestrained misanthropy in my views, allow me to make a couple of points. I have no issue with encouraging young people to do well, even if the odds are against them, or pointing out that they must focus on doing their best. We see amazing achievements all the time from people born into the most difficult circumstances, whether they suffer from poverty, a physical malady, a broken home, etc., that might otherwise hold them back. However, what we need to question is what the end goal of such encouragement ought to be, and what exactly we are motivating our children to strive for. We do this by questioning ourselves, in the process.
What social media sites like Facebook do, at least in part, is distract us from the fact that we are all headed to the coffin, and that the vast majority of us will be forgotten within a generation or two – perhaps sooner – even within our own families. Ask yourself when was the last time you thought about that uncle who died twenty years ago, or try to recall when and where your late grandmother was born, and you will see what I mean. Then imagine what will happen with your friends, who have no blood ties to you at all. Are you still friends with all of the people you played with when you were small? Do you think the grandchildren of your current group of friends will know or care about you, when you are gone?
Not to put a damper on things, but social media lends itself to frivolity a great deal of the time, in encouraging a kind of disposable culture where everyone is allowed to be famous, but no one actually achieves anything worthy of fame or emulation. As an entertainment it is fine, as far as it goes, but for many it seems to be the exclusive reason why they make use of such technology. It is as if the only time one stopped in at a library or museum was because it was a place to relieve oneself while on the way to somewhere else.
This is not to ask what good come out of Menlo Park, of course, for good certainly can and does. Via social media you can learn more about the world, and meet people with whom you may act to make the world better, even if only in a small way. While it is not some sort of charitable association, a site like Facebook does allow us the opportunity to be of service to others, in ways which might not be possible in real life. This is something all of us no doubt have experienced, whether in reaching out to someone we do not actually know in person to offer assistance, or connecting people who are trying to work toward a laudable, common goal.
The reason to be a part of a social media site like Facebook has to be something more than the assumption that since virtually everyone else I know is on Facebook, therefore I must be on Facebook as well. That kind of reasoning, after all, is the same used to justify the formation of a suicide pact. Being a part of a group or a community can be a good thing, if the goal of that group or community is positive. It seems to me very unlikely that those who approach a social media site with the goal of becoming popular merely for the sake of accumulation, rather than contribution, are going to find their experience to be of any lasting benefit – and indeed, the experience could actually do them more harm than good.
The humility to accept the fact that few of us are so very special, at least in the eyes of the world, and that our goals while in this world ought to be to try to do good for others employing the abilities we have each been given, rather than in simply promoting ourselves, is after all what helped build Western civilization. Our loss of focus on that fact is one of the primary reasons why we see our culture sinking back into a kind of pedestrian narcissism, where the goal is to have others look at us for the sake of it, rather than trying to attract attention in order to encourage aid to the needy, the fostering of knowledge, and so on, thereby to build up our culture again from its present decayed and crumbling state. Whether or not you choose to stay on Facebook, or move to another social media site, try to ask yourself exactly what you are hoping to achieve by being involved with such media: if there is nothing for you to be gained other than the attention of others, to no real purpose, then perhaps you are wasting your time, as well as everyone else’s, or simply helping to steer our culture toward a more disastrous breakdown.
Advert for Vinolia Otto Soap on R.M.S. Titanic by Unknown Illustrator (1912)