Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks have transformed the way we interact, but how real are the virtual selves that we create online?
Unlike any other time in history, the average citizen is getting a taste of the world of celebrity. With little more than a laptop and a user account, we now have the power to create an “image” comprised of photo albums, status updates, and tweets. And we can reap tremendous social praise for our glam-shot photos, humor, and popularity as measured by our quantity of “friends” or “followers.”
But this new era we have knowingly entered, as with any era, will have its repercussions, many still unknown. Though social networking is passionately embraced among those eager to communicate, collaborate, and make money globally, perhaps the world of celebrity offers the best hints as to where this new culture of artificial reality could lead if we’re not careful.
Ten years ago, it would have been absurd for your sister to tell you she was getting married through an email. Just this week, my coworker found out that her sister, who she lives with, was engaged through a Facebook status. In her sister’s defense, it is much more efficient to write a Facebook status, where all of your friends and family can be alerted to an important announcement at once, rather than making separate phone calls. But it is this quest for immediacy, and the pressure to keep up with the times, that ironically will de-socialize our social-centric society. Despite this revelation, the machine cannot be stopped. Critics will become hypocrites; I am no exception as I type this “revelation” on my iPhone while having lunch with a friend.
Celebrities are being forced to become more “real,” via outlets like Twitter, in order to synergize with the new self-made celebrities of social networks and reality television. A Facebook or Twitter profile is seen as a more accurate portrayal of an individual, because it offers the full spectrum of life — personal, professional, and emotional — and it is often less censored than their public persona. What we are discovering is that relatable and local characters are more compelling than super-sensationalized celebrities. Ironically, this encourages the average, “real” citizen to create a more sensationalized version of their own public persona.
By now, both critics and enthusiasts have acknowledged the “Facebook Effect,” but back when the quiet storm was still developing in Silicon Valley, no one could have predicted the power of its impact. This freedom that social networks provide has facilitated political movements, the most recent being the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, which were driven, in part, by messages on Facebook.
While people are starting to realize the power of “image” on social networks, be it real or false, Internet-image security is quickly becoming a powerful new industry, as the world is made smaller and people are forced to submit to the social machine. For example, a new application called uProtect.it was recently introduced on Facebook, to protect comments, status updates, and even prevent Facebook from accessing them. Michael Fertig, CEO of Reputation.com, the company that created the app, highlights its social and political implications: “You want to help the guys in Tunisia? Here’s your tool.”
These concerns spark paranoia, not only for citizens of oppressive nations but also among average citizens right here in the United States who not want their bosses finding out what they did on their “sick day.”
So why can’t we stop sharing our personal business on the Internet? Is it therapeutic, or have we become so self-obsessed that we truly believe the world cares about our every rant and rave?
Movies about the future have all offered commentary on where they think the world is headed socially, and it has always been toward an apathetic, narcissistic society. Although the insights are typically guided by humor, the writers are clearly on to something. The Pixar film Wall-E (2008), for instance, depicted a future where careless humans consumed all the Earth’s resources and were forced to live on a space shuttle. The humans are obese, mobile only with the assistance of flying La-Z-Boy-style chairs. They have no face-to-face interaction; they speak to each other on video chat screens, usually around a pool that they never swim in. The film suggests not only that the trend of ever-greater convenience will eventually lead to chronic laziness, but also that our technology will one day reshape our reality.
A false and perverted reality is also the theme of the 2009 film Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis. This film takes place in a future world where people never leave their home, but interact through surrogate robots that go into the world as more polished versions of themselves. The surrogates are physically and cosmetically superior to their owners. Although this may be extreme, social networks in many ways serve a similar function. We present ourselves in a manner that we feel is more attractive and appealing, and ultimately many of us prefer sharing and interacting that way over connecting in person because of the control we have to carefully manage our image.
It’s obvious that social networking is changing the psychology of our culture. We love being constantly “plugged in.” We crave the immediacy of communication and the instant gratification of seeing friends respond to our random thoughts and observations. We also love the way it has helped us improve our sense of self. Thanks to social media, we now have the opportunity to create an artificial version of ourselves that makes us look good to our friends and followers. But in our enthusiasm to connect, are we in danger of trading truth for virtual reality?
Every day across America we see self-segregation in lunchrooms, in classrooms, and in church pews on Sunday morning. But how about online?
Recently I began looking around the online spaces I frequent: Twitter and Facebook. I wondered if people, particularly those who were just online for social reasons, mix and mingle any differently than they do face-to-face.
To find out I did what any respecting social media junkie would do, I tweeted it. That is, I sent a Twitter.com microblog post polling my followers. And thanks to the Twitter/Facebook link app (aka “application”), all my Facebook friends got the same poll question: Has social media changed U? Do U now connect w/ a broader range of people? How? Offline too?
My new Twitter follower Bill Snyder responded quickly. “My friends certainly span a wide age range. Not totally sure I can attribute that to social media.” Bill, a fellow writer, whose blog is called A Life Beyond Traditional Media, added: “By default, I am more likely to meet people similar in age and skin color [off line]. Digitally speaking, though, it’s a different game. Through social blogging and Twitter, I put out ideas and read other people’s ideas. I find myself engaging in an exchange of thoughts and feelings before exchanging knowledge of skin color, gender, or age.”
Ramiro Medrano, a Facebook friend, indicated that social media had not changed him at all, having been raised in an ethnically diverse environment. Ramiro says, “I have added economically diverse friends to the list, which would apply [on and offline].”
It’s not surprising that the trend in our online relationships would follow that of our offline connections. Yet the Internet’s power to transcend the old boundaries of geography, race, and class also gives us the opportunity to encounter people, for better or worse, whom we formerly would never have had the chance to know otherwise.
Social networks are changing the way we receive our news and how we think about faith, politics, and a myriad of issues. The first amazing images of the “Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash last January were from a private citizen’s cell phone photos posted to his Twitter page. And much of the current protest raging in Iran over the dubious reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is notably taking place through the Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter dispatches of young Iranians.
Social networks also have become the new marketplace, particularly for startups and entrepreneurs. So, consequently, seeing a patchwork of multi-colored faces smiling back at you on a Twitter profile doesn’t necessarily say that racism is dead or that we’ve made great strides in racial reconciliation. It could also be confirming that money is green, no matter if it rests in a black hand or a white hand.
While many social media are used to bring people together around socially positive or neutral themes, sadly many pockets of the Internet thrive on hatred and bigotry. Racism does live in the digital world.
Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.com can attest to that. This spring, Laytoya led a panel discussion entitled “Can Social Media End Racism” at South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, an annual cutting-edge media conference/festival. Ms. Peterson pointed out that she sees online racism every day on her blog in the comment box. Whether its on blogs, social networks, or news and opinion sites, comment areas are typically filled with racial slurs and off-color sexual references to people of color. Just look at the recent comment by Republican activist Rusty DePass. On his Facebook page, DePass apparently suggested that First Lady Michelle Obama is a gorilla.
The four-person SXSW panel, consisting of Latoya Peterson, Phil Yu (AngryAsianMan.com), Jay Smooth (IllDoctrine.com), and Kety Esquivel (CrossLeft.org), came up with three constructive ways to address the pervasive problem of digital racism.
They proposed that we resolve to use social media to:
1. Spread knowledge about racism through podcasting and videos.
2. Create refuge or sanctuary for those who are striving to defeat racism.
3. Mobilize for social justice and anti-racism grassroots efforts like those surrounding the Jena 6.
Some of the conversation around the SXSW event was held on Twitter, which according to Pew Research studies, tends to have a younger more racially-diverse crowd. One Twitter attendant observed, “There’s no ‘end racism’ app or we would’ve pushed that button a long time ago.”
If I just do a click-through of social media profiles, it’s easy to see the racial mixing and matching, the crossing over to the other side of the proverbial tracks. But I know racism (and classism) still exists. In fact, the anonymity and exclusivity of some networks can foster racist behavior. Statistics from Websense Security Labs confirm this. According to a recent Websense report, racist content has shown a marked increase on Facebook and Youtube during the first quarter of 2009. It’s human nature to hide our faces when we lash out in hate.
All things considered, I find it encouraging to see open dialogue about racism, taking the online world offline. Making the social media world really social. I particularly like it when it happens in Christian circles. For the faithful, being in a social network presents an excellent opportunity to come against the darkness of overt and covert racism. It’s a chance to create a new social climate, one that is inclusive, sensitive, honest, and interdependent.
Those of us who are Christ followers and social media junkies need to reach out across the digital boundaries that divide us with intentionality and fervor. Go looking for those in your niche that don’t look like you. Connect with those individuals and strive to interact with them regularly on a substantive level. As they follow our tweets and status updates, hopefully our online (and offline) behavior will reveal that we are following Christ.