Recently I wrote a blog on the potential damaging effects of social media on society (Please read my previous blog for more context to this post). Many of you know that for years I have been an advocate and proponent of social media and technology, and have written several journal articles on the topic. I recently saw a promotional video on end-of-life decision making that was developed by a for-profit company to provide doctors with something to to show patients, because they seldom have the time themselves to have end of life conversations with patients. Pilot results are promising and show that these videos are helping to improve hospice referrals, while reducing insurance dollars spent in the last month of a patient facing end of life care. My reaction is not meant to say this isn’t needed or maybe it could be another tool in end of life care and practices, but where does it all end?
Think about how many trainings, conversations, meetings, communications, etc. that you now have virtually through technology rather than in person. Now, instead of training doctors and families for how to have those tough end of life conversations with patients, we are resorting to somewhat graphic videos to do the job. Online education for all of its positive empirical data also has serious challenges to it, especially in helping professions where relational work is at the foundation and core of our careers. I mean people don’t even call each other anymore or drop by without an e-mail or Doodle poll. If it’s not on our Google Calendars, it simply doesn’t exist in our day. Why do we e-mail each other simple questions that could be addressed by walking down the hallway and popping into someone’s office? Why do we try to condense deep level thinking questions into bullet points for an e-mail? When I was a kid, my family and friends would regularly call the house to chat with my mom, and if she was busy, she would tell them that she would call them back or let it go to an answering machine, but usually she picked up the phone one way or another, because even if she said, “can I call you back”, this helped facilitate the matainence of relationships. Now, I would feel uncomfortable calling the majority of my friends without doing a meeting Doodle to set up a time, simply because of the cultural norms of today. Have our lives gotten so inundated and busy that we no longer have time for cultivating relationships in more vulnerable and personal ways?
These questions got me to thinking more about how we interact with one another via social media and technology with regard to highly sensitive topics and issues. Maybe, this is why difference is dividing us as much or more today than at any point in time in our history. Consider how much information we post and share by way of social media with people that we have limited face to face relationships and/or history with, and about highly sensitive nature of those interactions. So you want to have a conversation about racism, police violence, sexism, homophobia, gun rights, etc., and you wonder why your message, however enlightening you intend it to be, is not well received? This is not just a critique of dogmatic right wing conservatives or those with different views than I, but is also directed at allies, activists, and those harmed by what is happening in our society and how it is communicated via social media. I appreciate those who seem to get this aspect of it and are working to create a more intentional personal community with friends and colleagues by talking on the phone and offering kind words of support online and offline. I think this is a great use of technology and social media as they become tools for maintaining personal connections and relationships as opposed to being used for building relationships or as the sole mechanism for maintaining relationships. I think the later is becoming more and more of an issue.
Many people who want to be allies are still uncertain how to do so, and with all due respect, a meme, blog, etc. oversimplifies so very much of the conversation regardless of whom writes or posts it. What often happens as a result is that allies invade the social media spaces of their family members, friends, and colleagues in order to intervene in conversations and posts that they feel like are unjust, ignorant, false, and/or oppressive, while even going as far as jumping into social media conversations in the spaces of friends of friends or friends..(Yes, this happens, so watch your privacy settings). Their intentions are generally good, but intervening in a digital space is not the same as intervening in the workplace or at a family gathering or when your out with a group of friends, and one of them makes an AllLivesMatter reference. We need to consider a these differences before we act.
In physical spaces, you are able to read the situation, understand context, interpret non-verbals, and create opportunities to engage in some deeper level conversations that might have some learning outcomes associated with them; however, you are not going to educate others without having relationships first, and likely not via social media where you can’t understand context, non-verbals, intent, etc. All you are going to do with your comments and calling out of friends and family is piss people off, which often leads them to hold on even more tightly to their ideologies. You are not engaging in dialogues online as a common rule, you are engaging in surface level conversations or heated debates, and the later one’s goal is to one up the person, not build a deeper understanding of their perspective. Consider the intentionality, purpose, and potential outcomes of your interactions. Are you debating others online in order to show friends of color or those marginalized that you are a good ally? Do you feel as though they are so traumatized that they need to be rescued ? Are you trying to provide support? Are you doing it because you really don’t know what else you can do? or are you doing it because you really think you are going to change or impact someone else’s ideology via social media?
The communication breakdown of social media is partially a result of a larger shift in how we form and maintain relationships via technology that has caused us to forget things like manners, framing, and interpersonal communication skills. For example, I grew up with some pretty racist family members, and while I chose to spend less and less time with those people as I grew older, I would not come into their homes and feel comfortable calling them out while sitting on their couch sipping a glass of sweet tea. At least not without a whole lot of careful thought and consideration for how best to frame and communicate my concerns. I would probably not scream and yell at a friend or colleague in person about how their perspective is ignorant, homophobic, racist, etc. in a way that intimidates the other person or angers them to the point of making the conversation void of any real potential for consciousness raising or perspective taking. Why then do people think its ok to come into virtual spaces and run off at the mouth without regard for the fact that you are in someone else’s home and would likely not interact in the same way if you were in a classroom, office space, or community setting? When you post to someone else’s page, respond to a thread, Tweet @ someone, etc., you are coming into their house, which means that some degree of manners and intentional thinking should be undertaken before you enlighten them with with your wisdom, no matter how on point you may be with it. Even if you are trying to be supportive, you can always message the person or even give them a phone call to provide support. Consider that the person that you are trying to support is engaged in a heated debate with a family member via social media, without knowing the dynamics and relations between the two of them, you have no clue if your intervention on behalf of your friend is going to be considered helpful or an annoyance. In other words, I may disagree with my brother all day every day, but let someone else, especially from my virtual communities, decide to go at him, I am not going to interpret it as supportive. Now, as the master of your house, you can also control the flow of traffic into your home by deciding whom to be friends with or to follow, whether you want their posts to be shown or not, etc. And even, whether to be home at all. I mention all of this to also say to people that if social media is depressing or traumatizing you, consider tightening the security in your home and better monitoring whom you allow into your home, and sometimes we all need vacations away from home, both physical and virtual ones.
There once was a time not long ago when people had to read in order to gain knowledge about current events and happenings. People even went to libraries to do research that often took countless hours and days to do as compared to the relative ease that people can access articles, books, and other sources of data in today’s digital age. While it is hard to argue with the benefits of internet resources and digital tools, it is also hard not to contemplate how they have harmed our society and thinking. On a side note, I am as guilty of allowing myself to be overcome by some of the items I discuss below, and am working to stop the trend.
Social media is contributing to the proliferation of ignorance. Consider the influence of the internet on how we access information. Gone are the days of newspapers, books, trips to the library, and print resources. Now, when we want to know any tidbit of information, we simply input it into a search engine and hit the return key. Some may say that technology has helped close the gap between haves and have nots, scholars and the average person, and the oppressed and oppressors by providing an abundance of information, data, and knowledge that can be used to help people be more informed about the world around them, make better decisions, reconsider values, ideologies, and world views, and act with a purpose. The problem with this perspective is that in very few cases are young people or adults taught how to critically think, evaluate, scrutinize, or critique the information that they find online. Now, everyone is an expert on everything because after all, they read about it or saw it on the internet. What is just as frightening is that they take this reduced down knowledge and spread their gospel on social media and even in classrooms and places of work in order to educate and enlighten others. Now, people with no college education are FB preachers and those with a minimal amount of education are suddenly experts on every topic. I am all about many “truths”, but this path is quite dangerous given the impact of these many truths on peoples’ decision making. While everyone has the right to their opinion or perspective, trusting in blogs (even written by educated people), memes, posts, tweets, and videos to be the basis of your knowledge base and decision making is quite concerning, because in the words of of a wise philosopher, “opinions are like assholes, everyone has one”, and many of them stink something awful. The challenge is that all opinions are not really equal, but in the day and age of social media, we are quickly moving in the direction of epistemological nihilism.
Social media has led to lazy thinkers.
For every thoughtful blog written by a person of color on police shooting or white privilege, there is a blog written by a neo-nazi, evangelical extremist, or political nut job, and in reality, how does one place any of these pieces higher than the others? We simply click like and share in relation to those digital messages that support our own opinions and values. Both the “right side” and “wrong side”, no matter which side you view under each label, often without even reading or researching the points made, author, etc. We already have our minds made up. This is well documented in the #blacklivesmatter vs. #alllivesmatter debate taking place in virtual spaces near you. While some champion the voices and alternative perspectives coming out of the virtual jousting match, few people on either side can see the flaws within their own values and perspectives. You posting a meme putting down #alllivesmatter or writing an “intellectual post calling out white people” is likely going to have the same impact on others as the #AllLivesmatter meme that your conservative older aunt posted on FB had on you. Additionally, most of us are preaching to the choir in many of our social media spaces. You’re not enlightening people with your digital messaging, anymore than those you despise. Unfortunately, in the digital age, people are not only dumber, they have become disillusioned about their expertise and intelligence. Finally, because of the rapid fire motion of the digital world, we have all become lazier as a result. Instead of going through a process of conducting research, seeking out and critiquing multiple sources of knowledge, and seeking help from those with expertise on the topic, we simply rather write a quick post, tweet 144 characters, or write an emotional discombobulated blog than to take a deep breath, put the time into legitimate inquiry, and disseminate something with more substance.
Social media has led to a brave calloused society.
People have not only grown stupid, they have also become more callused. I remember watching the Challenger fall out of the sky in class and it deeply impacted me as a kid, but now a days, we see terrible events, deaths, oppression, etc. on social media in constant shuffle each and every day. How do we expect people to develop empathy or compassion when the digital age has all but made entire generations and possibly the entire human race desensitized and numb of emotions? People attack one another online every day for their perspectives, and very brave people who feel as though they can say things online that they would never voice to a person’s face, at least not where I grew up. This behavior happens on all sides of the the ideological continuum as well. “Allies” regularly engage in rescuing behavior and attack people with the same violence and dogma that they are supposedly trying to fight to eliminate, yet they do not see any of it, because at least if they are being good allies in virtual spaces, they can sleep better at night.
Social media has traumatized the world.
Students now regularly use words like, “traumatized”, “unsafe”, and “triggered” every day in classrooms. I saw a man shot down in front of me when I was 8, I watched my step father beat my mom almost to death on more than one occasion, and have had a gun pointed at my head on two different occasions. Want to talk about traumatizing and triggering? If social media is leading younger generations to being so fragile, because let’s be real, society has not suddenly become more racist, more violent, or more oppressive in the past 5-10 years. We have always lived under these conditions, but because of the digital age, younger generations are witness to much more injustice than previous generations did growing up. One of the scary things is that many academics and scholars are some of the worst offenders of jumping on bandwagons, buying into social media and digital messaging without researching more deeply about issues, events, etc. The worst part of it is that we as educators and educated individuals have some degree of credibility to the masses, so people might actually believe that a blog written by Dr. Shane Brady is somehow empirical fact or evidence. We chastise our students for falling into this trap, yet many of us do it regularly; we have all become traumatized, stupid, and lazy.
Social media has led to a fickle society.
In the digital age, it is easy to gain and lose friends over night. As long as you agree with friends’ perspectives, and digital knowledge building, you have tons of support, but the minute you decide to disagree, you instantly can lose an entire community of support. I find this especially frustrating when as an educated person, people do not see your education, experience, or research base in a post or a critique you make, but only your real or perceived social identities. Yes social identities matter, privilege matters, and injustices are real, but your entire world view should not be shaped by a social media and Wikipedia knowledge base. It’s ok for white people to critique #BlackLivesMatters and it’s ok for LGBTQ identifying persons to critique the protests of gay pride parades as much as it is for persons of color to critique white privilege and the exclusion of persons of color from the mainstream LGBTQ movement. We put ourselves in a digital world and use it haphazardly in our advocacy and lives, yet we are quickly offended when others do the same think, and we disagree with their positions.
Social media has promoted a narcissistic society.
How many profile pics does one person need to take? How many times do we need to post about accomplishments to fish for compliments and kudos from others? How many times do we keep posting on someone else’s page until we feel like we have “won” the debate? On top of these common social media occurrences, we also have a whole slew of political correctness experts as a result of the digital world. Ever have that one friend or colleague who feels the need to correct your post with their well articulated politically correct words of wisdom that they so freely bestow upon others under the false assumption that they are “raising your consciousness”? Consciousness raising or narcissism? People in the digital age have forgotten manners. How many times has a friend of a friend decided to contribute to a debate or thread on your social media platform? How about the political correctness expert who could very easily private message you to tell you that something offended them, but instead they post in your space for the entire world to see. I often wonder whether peoples’ posts are really the result of good intentions or narcissistic ego. Also, while I may not agree with my conservative family member or friend, I surely don’t need another friend chastising or attacking them in my digital space. Would you come into my home and tell my family member they are an asshole? Probably not, so why would you come into someone’s digital home and do so? Did you really think that critiquing police after Dallas was going to help advance social justice discourse anymore than #AllLivesMatter posts were helpful after Baton Rouge? Manners matter folks, even in a digital world, but somehow we have gotten away with violating them for so long, that we have become so self absorbed that we justify it in the name of the free flow of information or for the sake of consciousness raising.
Social media is not leading to a more socially just world
In the digital world we desperately want to believe that are blogs, tweets, forums, posts, etc. are leading to a more just world. The reality is that at best it is emphasizing our difference and divisions, and at worst it is destroying us. We tend to point to social movements such as Arab Spring and #BlackLivesMatter as evidence that social media is changing the world. I would caution against this type of thinking as for every social movement taking form in or using digital spaces, there are 10 hate groups also utilizing digital spaces to advance hatred and injustice. It is also important to realize that in social movements to advance justice, real human beings die, so while I am sure that those involved in the Arab Spring or #BlackLivesMatters appreciate your supportive hashtag and meme share, they would likely appreciate your warm body alongside them in the trenches even more. Whether or not social media is helping or hindering the advancement of social justice is entirely subjective, but what I am seeing currently indicates that we are as divisive as we have ever been, only people are quicker with their tongue and putting perspectives out there in digital spaces, while at the same time they are lazier with non-digital forms of advocacy and action; the combination does not bode well for social justice.
In conclusion, while social media and technology provide many advantages and resources to society, we must all pay careful attention to its negative impact on our cognitive, mental, social, and emotional dimensions. Social media and digital tools cannot take the place of critical thinking, education, perspective taking, dialogue, self-reflection, or good manners.