A recent FM channel survey caused me some intrigue, since the topic of discussion was the novel one of “Problems caused by Facebook.” Callers were invited to narrate their own experiences on how Facebook had adversely affected them at some point of time. The reactions were intriguing and varied, ranging from people whose posts, consisting of quotes, had been misinterpreted by their girlfriends and wives, to those of office bosses taking umbrage at employees enjoying themselves during office hours.
It seemed surreal to listen to some accounts, so astonishingly naive and funny were the interpretations made of posts. Having had similar experiences on occasions on Facebook, I can say that the social implications of the virtual world are very real, even if one is not connected to any form of social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Personally, I have not been able to formulate a black and white approach to social media and the nuances of the virtual world. At times, I feel I am a cyborg wafting from one nation to another, from one subject to another, my eyes firmly fixed in front of the computer. There are now research studies that indicate that the human brain, and indeed human behaviour, may have been irrevocably altered by the advent of social media.
Social media provides enormous power and with power comes responsibility. Social media can provide anonymity to people for expressing their opinion, but these opinions can be borne without the additional responsibility. Also, the fact that commentary on social media is not moderated leaves huge room for vicious, vindictive and intemperate attacks that very often get out of hand. Something that can be of advantage for all can turn into a free-for-all playground where opinions and beliefs can give vent to prejudice. Indeed, unregulated voicing of opinions has led to many instances of hate messages being circulated and fear being stoked in very sensitive situations involving different communities.
However, just as no forum can ever be perfect, social media are also not perfect and it seems we have to live with this model.
Of course, social media have been with us all along, even before the advent of the worldwide web. For many, the computer has become synonymous with the internet and I would include myself among that band. To take it a step further, for many people the virtual world and the internet have become synonymous with Facebook. The addiction is intense and there are times when one feels completely out of one’s immediate spatial and temporal surroundings. And the phenomenon seems here to stay.
In a book called Cypherpunks, computer maverick Julian Assange discusses the varied aspects of the impact of the virtual world on society. It is well known now that to some extent at least social media like Twitter have played a role in some revolutions and political upheavals that took place in the Arab world during what is termed ‘the Arab Spring.’ Whilst there is certainly a very healthy discourse on politics in the social media and in what is described as ‘the public sphere’ by philosopher Juergen Habermas, the extent of influence exerted by social media on political and social affairs is still debatable.
Facebook is still full of personal trivia and vitriol and obsessive selfies. It has also unfortunately become a forum for settling scores, a novel form of which consists of making posts without naming the intended target. Tagging and games also are construed as a nuisance by many. Concerns about spying and snooping continue to be major bugbears. To top this all, the biggest aspect of the virtual world is the all pervasive commercial aspect. Indeed Mark Zuckerberg has just announced his future vision of Facebook which bears testimony to this.
Given all the contours of this debate, there is much in Amartya Sen’s declaration on the social implications of the virtual world that can serve as a useful beacon to all of us: “Social media can be helpful but you must read more books.”