Wednesday, 14 March 2012

On Social Media

That forums such as Twitter and Facebook shepherd us towards brevity of language is undeniable. Twitter, famously, restricts each update to 140 characters or less, and Facebook insinuates the same with its minute text boxes and racing ‘newsfeed’. Of course, this restriction is no coincidence. It is, I claim, part of the magical formula of social media’s (henceforth SM) success; by the suggestion that what we’re saying is only a brief and glancing reflection we are encouraged to update again and again, keeping the flood of ‘news’ pouring in.

This is all well and good, and I love my one-liners as much as the next guy with a taste for facts and introspective lyrics – but the limitations of such ephemerality are painfully exposed whenever SM is high-jacked to really communicate ideas. Then, the instantaneity of it seems to simultaneously over-charge and make nonsense of any attempt at real discussion.

Take for example the recent Kony12 project. Here was a campaign which explicitly aimed to exploit the ‘easy-share’ nature of personal media – which was matched in its success only in the ferocity of the backlash to it. I will not here go into the ethics of the Kony12 campaign, that isn’t my aim – merely remark on what was revealed about Facebook (and its bedfellows) the day it really had something to talk about.

Firstly – that SM encourages the shallowest form of engagement with the issue at hand. The video was designed to be viral – so ‘sharing’ it was for most a natural reflex, and this I do not condemn (the theory being of course that I have friends you don’t have who might not have seen it yet). However, ‘liking’ other people’s postings of the video seems to fundamentally misunderstand the concept – if two people share the same thing, clearly you are both sympathetic, and patting each others’ backs for it advances nothing. It is my belief that such projects are intended as a social catalyst for further action, and not for congratulating each other on being such upstanding chaps on any one particular morning.

Secondly – backlash movements, in certain cases, are even more unthinking and shallow than the movement itself. Don’t mistake me, I am all for criticism and contrasting perspectives – they’re fundamental to ‘working out’ an idea. However, please let’s differentiate this from the mass posting of the most popular piece of criticism as seen on SM: Most that post such a response are then unwilling to engage in any further debate, as if their one article constitutes ‘an answer’ (in some cases perhaps not even having watched the original material).

Therefore, thanks to both the brevity and ‘share-happy’ nature of our chosen channels of conversation, both hastily formed ‘sides’ end up at best under-informed , and at worst misinformed. However, I believe the backlashers are doubly contemptible in this. The speed at which they are willing to speak out against a movement which appears to be attempting to improve the condition of human lives is deplorable, and their accusations of ‘slacktivism’ and ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ allow them to denounce any kind of social movement which might arise; perhaps one of the few merits we might wrangle out of such a limiting platform.

As a side-note, I propose an addition to our online vocabulary to better arm our poor keyboard warriors:

slack-lash: (n) the online backlash against a movement/campaign undertaken with the minimum effort / research.

Despite what I’ve said, I’m happy to use Facebook and Twitter, and even happy to use them in a throw-away manner most of the time. But please let’s not its restrictions restrict us. Perhaps Kony12 is an evil puppet organisation to gain the west access to more oil, perhaps it’s not, but next time let’s not waste our time supporting each other’s support, or creating acidic memes. Let’s instead get informed and angry, then post one last update arranging to get together, and meet somewhere where our arguments can transcend character limits, and our opinions exist beyond their likability.

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