Social Media and the Self

What is it about social media that turns us so easily into converts and addicts?

This is not a difficult question to answer, really. It is immediate; it provides a sense of control and participation; and it allows for quick self-expression. In short, it makes us feel important and engaged – logged in. What’s more, you are quickly convinced that holdouts – those who continue to resist using social media – are going to lose out.

Of course, the affordability is key as well. The apps are practically free to use, once you have a smartphone or a computer.

Imagined Impact

And once you start, your curiosity is aroused at the possibilities on offer of connecting, of exploring and of making an impact with little effort.

I have written before in this column about why the smartphone is good, and why the smartphone is bad. It is good because it allows the mind to act more in accordance with how it is hardwired. Unconnected thoughts and inklings rush through it, and the smartphone provides apps that allow us to act on these little “brainstorms” with minimal hesitation by sending off messages or knocking the ball out of our many courts, as it were.

The smartphone is an impeccable digital accessory to our disordered analogical brain. But it is bad because the immediacy in action and thought that it allows in fact side-lines the external Here and Now. It turns us into fast-action heroes – if you consider “texting” and “sharing” as proper actions, which of course they are in some sense. For fast-action heroes, the extension of space and time are the enemy – distance to be traversed and endured and conquered.

So there are good enough reasons to take reasonable yet divergent stands on the matter. One can accept the new technologies gladly or grudgingly – or one can, as is more commonly the case, have mixed feelings about it.

Because the dynamics of globalisation over the last few hundred years have been defined through (1) technological innovations and inventions, beginning with the steam engine; (2) by the diminishing of distance and time; and (3) by the enhancing of trade in all things including spices and currency as much as by slaves and drugs. Social media is naturally considered part of this accelerating process of the world becoming a smaller place and of the breaking down of cultural barriers. It is part of Globalisation.

Global Parochialism

This recent development of social media is an extreme phenomenon, though, and anything this extreme is bound to generate an undercurrent moving in the opposite direction.

The psychological shrinking of space and time, I observe, tends to nurture a self-absorbed mindset that in effect undercuts the curiosity and the tentativeness that we associate with a global or cosmopolitan mindset.

The selfies, the group chats, the echo-chamber “sharing” – all these are gratifying in being events within the individual mind and in being the reflections of its multi-layered concerns. This is individualism being reduced to the atomic level. Simply and crudely put, it is psycho-masturbation. The Self gains relevance, importance and satisfaction within a laboratory of its own creation, over which it has a comfortable level of control. One can interact socially with little risk, and with little chance of making a faux pas.

Furthermore, the excess of access to information that we increasingly find hard to judge to be true or not, encourages us to retreat by creating information portals of our own, be this through private chat groups or favourite news sites.

The emotional content and the impatient satisfaction afforded by social media lure us into individually constructed social cocoons and cyber-villages.

Worse than that, is the smartphone turning us into narcissists? Is social media in fact making us care less about real problems and real people in real time through the self-thickening illusion that we are cosmopolitan and enlightened by virtue of our apparent connectedness?

Is social media offering us refuge from the onslaught of complicated information about an all-too-complex world? And are we seeking refuge too readily?

Has globalisation’s technology created its own nemesis? Are we becoming parochial geeks? And is that necessary a bad thing?



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