Is social media enriching our lives, or poisoning them one update at a time?
The answer depends on your outlook. If nothing else, I hope this post makes you reevaluate your perspective on social media — maybe even life. In order to get any value out of it, though, you need to read every word.
A modern perspective on social media
The world is complex. Six of the Earth's seven continents are inhabited by complicated human beings whose values, beliefs, opinions and habits vary as wildly as their physical appearance and native language.
And the one thing that connects us — besides our humanity — is social media.
The early days of social networking
From its inception through the early stages of its meteoric growth, social media was regarded by many among mankind's greatest inventions.
From Myspace and Facebook to Twitter and Gowalla, social networking websites and mobile apps quickly charmed their way into our lives. During this honeymoon period, our fascination with connectivity seemed progressive and appropriate — even justified. It felt like a privelege to have been invited into this exciting new global society.
In fact, anyone who refused to join the "social revolution" risked being labeled a luddite and left in the digital dust.
Winds of social change
As time passed, however, the business of social networking became increasingly lucrative. Dorm room and garage startups blossomed into publicly traded behemoths, and users' content and attention were transformed into currency.
Suddenly our social feeds were filled with fewer and fewer of our friends', family members' and acquaintances' greatest achievements, random thoughts, gym selfies and dinner photos (and if we're being honest, those of strangers we friended in college while drunk at 2:39 a.m. on a Thursday).
Instead, it became increasingly clear that our once-coveted streams of social connectedness had been hijacked by expertly designed ads disguised as genuine content. What's more, the needs of advertisers suddenly seemed to carry as much weight as those of loyal users during UI design overhauls.
As things progressed, an increasing number of links accompanied by cleverly crafted headlines began luring us to blogs bursting with factually suspect content, cute kittens and #epicfail videos — all in the name of ad impressions and website traffic.
The clutter expanded as retailers began clueing us in on exclusive sales and presenting us with personalized offers created "just for you." Hell, they were even kind enough to guide us to the website where we could exchange our hard-earned money for the products and services they'd so carefully curated on our behalf.
What was happening?
Was our beloved social world crumbling before our eyes?
No, but it had been irreversibly altered.
Modern day social media
In some respects, modern social media hasn't strayed too far from its roots. Most of us still rely on social networks to maintain contact with friends and family, read the news and entertain ourselves while waiting for a flight, watching TV or taking an extended bathroom break at work (don't lie — some of you are in a stall right now).
In other, more significant ways, however, it can be argued that the world of social media today bears little to no resemblance to its former self.
The increasing need to stand out
The ability to tell the world "What's on your mind?" or to "Write a comment..." used to be innocent prompts intended to promote sharing and engagement.
Today, however, many users seem to interpret those prompts as invitations to rant about why certain immigrants should / should not be allowed into the United States, engage in shameless self-promotion, say dispicable things to strangers, grandstand their (often grossly uneducated / misinformed) political views or simply to portray a lifestyle so lavish even Lil' Wayne would be envious of it.
Is social media headed in the wrong direction?
As I stated earlier, I believe it all comes down to your perspective.
A negative perspective on social media
It's hard to ignore the negative impact social media has had on society.
A pessimist could easily argue that:
- Rather than bringing people together, social media appears to be dividing us
- The value of friendship is being diminished by social media
- Social networks have become breeding grounds for discrimination, intolerance, racism, bullying and hate
- Breakups and the growing divorce rate can be partially attributed to an increase in infidelity being facilitated through / discovered on social media
- The ability to hide behind a username emboldens people to say things online they would never say in the physical presence of another human being
- Narcissism and insecurity are at all-time highs thanks to social media
- Social anxiety and depression are at all-time lows thanks to social media
- Social media has become a cleverly masked marketing tool
- Bright, impressionable teens and young adults determine their self-worth based on how many "likes," Retweets and comments their posts receive
- Teens and young children are being conditioned to interact solely through digital channels, which is deteriorating their ability to communicate in-person
When I consider these arguments, it makes me sad to think about the people whose lives have been negatively impacted — even lost — because of social media.
In spite so much tragedy, sadness and negativity, however, I try to remind myself of the positivity and value that social media adds to the world.
A positive perspective on social media
Focusing too much on the negatives makes it easy to overlook the positive impact social media has on our society.
An optimist could easily argue that:
- Social media unites people in a way that no other channel can, empowering people across the globe to support one another during times of great joy and celebration, as well as times of unspeakable tragedy and mourning
- Social networks foster new friendships, and strengthen existing friendships by making it easy for friends to stay in touch — even across great distances
- Social media shines a spotlight on powerful social issues, and serves as an instrument of change by facilitating conversations about those issues
- Social networking empowers friends, family and complete strangers alike to share words of love, encouragement and support to those who need it most
- Many modern relationships and marriages start on social media, and are actually enriched by interactions on social networking websites and apps
- Sharing fun, unique life experiences with friends and family on social media boosts confidence and self-esteem, and allows us to share those experiences with the people we care about the most
- Even when we feel like we don't fit in or life can't get any worse, social media can serve as a powerful reminder that there are a lot of people who care about us and that things will get better in time
- Social advertising makes it easier than ever to discover products and services that are highly relevant and can actually make our lives better, and helps small business owners reach new customers with little to no cash investment
- Teens and young adults are learning powerful lessons about personal validation, which may positively influence how they measure their self-worth
- The minds of teens and young children are being enriched and expanded by the digital tools at their disposal, and exposure to global social and economic issues is inspiring many young people to dream bigger and achieve more
When I think positively about social media, it dramatically changes the way I feel about things I see and read. This optimistic outlook helps me recognize the value in content I might have otherwise scoffed at.
Rather than viewing my friends' vacation photos as boastful or self-aggrandizing (and vice versa), I realize how lucky I am to know so many adventurous people who work extremely hard so they can explore the world.
And rather than judging others for sharing their controversial opinion on U.S. immigration policy, I instead give thanks that I'm connected to so many passionate people who lend unique perspective to important topics.
The moral of the story
Though it comes with its fair share of cultural and societal baggage, social media is great for the world. Social networks are unmatched in their ability to connect friends and family, unite people and ideas, proliferate change, facilitate crucial conversations, accelerate business growth and much, much more — on a global scale.
So the next time you find yourself questioning the value of social media, try adjusting your perspective. I think you'll find that looking beyond the negatives will open your eyes to a wealth of value and positivity hiding in plain sight.
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