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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Social networking: a boon or a bane? A psychological perspective

Some clarifications to start with: 1) I am no hater of social media; I am rather an avid user of Facebook and Twitter. Also, I have no intention of using 'social media' and 'Facebook and Twitter' interchangeably but they dominate the picture as I am ignorant to a host of other sites in the category 2) I am no expert in the field and my ideas may not be polished and well-articulated. 3) I would love to do an empirical study in the subject and write with more confidence but I am utterly short of time for that sort of work. 4) Objectivity is attempted but I cannot guarantee it, however, I'll try to clear things by giving appropriate references

As I type these words in one computer out of many with internet connections, every single other person in the room is busy with facebook; obviously most of them chatting often with multiple persons at the same time. Just imagine what they would be doing now if there were no facebook or any other equivalent social networking site: reading or sleeping? Chatting with friends or watching movies? Playing carom or watching porn? Giving some long calls or writing a lengthy email? Could they be simply pondering over something or writing some serious stuff? Could they be submerged in a fiction or a serious autobiographical book or a history book?

Put it another way: How productive and meaningful are the activities taking place in the fora of social media like sharing photos and chatting? Would these activities take place in absence of this medium? Is social media filling the void in the lives of people or is it displacing potentially more productive activities? Overall, how is the exponential growth in the use of social media shaping psyche of the individual as well as the outlook of the social interactions?

Even though this particular form of communication is relatively new phenomenon, there are some well-argued pieces which present the more broad and objective picture of the evolving scenario regarding the increasing use of social media. A brilliant piece by Kartik Dayanand Boddapati literally debunks the myth of facebook as the benevolent giant promoting the free flow of information in his article titled 'Meet the enemy of the Internet' which starts with this sentence:
Not the government, not some anonymous hacking group, virus or terrorist network; the greatest threat to the internet as it exists today is from none other than its biggest site, Facebook!

With proper references and astute analysis, Kartik builds a powerful argument around how the commercial interest of the global monopoly contradicts with the free flow of information in the ordinary sense. He bluntly puts the myths like If it is not shared on Facebook it does not exist! and makes some shrewd observations: 'Facebook is ‘The Internet’ for many!' Facebook hides more stuff than it shows!', etc. and delves into issues of how Facebook is essentially implementing censorship; different and unconventional but unambiguous censorship. 

Then comes the second article about the evolving 'Facebook culture' by David P Goldman written soon after the Facebook's botched initial public offering in May this year. Goldman expresses his ideas about facebook in one short and terse statement: A Facebook page is a pre-arranged display window whose purpose is to block our gaze from the real person behind it. Here he elaborates why the Facebook's stated objective of non-conformity is a fraud and how conformity is promoted in every possible aspect so that the 'malleable consumers' end up shaping their consumption patterns in ways sought by the advertisers who pay money to enrich Facebook.

Well, they are ideas of those analysts and finding most of their observations relevant does mean only one thing: I endorse them. That, however, does not make those ideas or arguments mine. As already mentioned, I don't want to make sweeping generalizations and intend to focus on my simple observations here and there. 

Needless to say, sites like Facebook and Twitter have come as a boon for many people who use them judiciously and constructively. Twitter, in particular, has made the sharing and flow of information so frictionless that, it is no longer a single site where people exchange words but rather a mega junction of innumerable links from which people can pursue the ones of their interest and leave alone the others. And if Facebook were not implementing the kind of censorship explained in the piece by Kartik in aforementioned article, it would be doing an equivalent job.

My point now is, given that a vast number of people are entering these sites daily, there is little need of explaining how bright and useful these sites are. Instead, it is highly prudent to delve into the downsides of this relatively recent innovation so that more people become aware of them. A vibrant discourse on the issue is likely to add more relevant arguments, I feel.

While Facebook helps one to display everything and is a heaven for the exhibitionists, Twitter tempts anyone to become a gossip-monger; who can or cannot resist the temptation is a different matter. And in addition, both media have made the absolutely needless exchange of words a norm for so many people. While communication is a must in daily life, it is only means of sorting out certain problems or building up something tangible that helps us to fulfill our biological, psychological or social needs in daily lives. Communication is thus only the means and never the end. But when people confuse means with ends and prioritize the very act of communication over the actual theme or message to be exchanged, they end up revolving in a self-perpetuating loop in which an act of communication makes further communication essential and so on. And when for a particular moment, the alternative of a lazy but sensational, sensual or provocative chat is the laborious act like studying textbooks, it is too easy to utterly mess up the priorities.

Given that any activity in those sites is, at best, a pleasurable distraction from the daily ordeals of real life, what exactly do people accomplish from them? Do their accomplishments meet the expectations? These questions can be answered only through an empirical research but my common sense says this: whether they acknowledge or not, the main reason behind the excess indulgence of people in social media is the sense of self-worth and self-empowerment that they achieve through it. Indeed it is hard to find anyone who wouldn't be pleased to see people 'liking' and 'sharing' his/her words or images in the social media. How exactly these media empower the individual or induce their creativity is a question to ponder but there is no doubt that they feed and bolster the ego of the individual and help him/her to project an image that does not necessarily match the actual being but represents the one he/she intends or aims to be. To put it bluntly, this projected image of the individual represents the way in which he/she wants to 'appear'.

So what is this sense of self-worth and empowerment worth? Is it real at all? What is the cost of this? Are people just wasting their precious time chasing a mirage?

Well, these instantaneous and obvious questions may be the mildest concerns of exponential rise in use of social media. The grave concerns arise when the long term impact of these activities is taken into consideration. Now that the new global monopoly of Facebook is successfully projecting itself as the 'whole internet' to a vast majority of newly internet-literate people, what happens to the innumerable other online resources of learning? What if the facebook-mania thus forecloses the unlimited possibilities of learning and recreation? What if a whole generation understands internet as gossiping in facebook chat, watching videos in Youtube and downloading raw porn from few sites?

As David P Goldman puts aptly in another article, there is a limit to which the new applications and innovations support or aid the creativity of people. He makes a scathing observation about the tablet computers which are meant to induce people to 'text' but not to 'write' (which is obviously a tedious thing to do with no or clumsy keyboard) thereby discouraging the most creative human activity of all: The tablet helps dumb the culture down. Easier access to streaming movies and video games makes people stupider. Tablets can be used to read books, to be sure, but a tablet user is less likely to read a book and more likely to be distracted by other things.

I have a similar worry for the social media. If you can find a thousand different methods (ranging from inspirational quotes to erotic videos) of recreating (or wasting time) in a single site, why bother reading a book that is nothing but a monotonous collection of words? And when that book is not some thriller or even a fiction and needs a lot of concentration and patience, how can anyone be coerced into such a futile task?

I have never said that people would automatically read good books or get engaged in a host of other creative activities if social media did not exist. But in the absence of instantly gratifying modes of indulgence, a proportion of people with ordinary intellect (just as this writer did many years back) would seek ways to utilize their time with some meaningful task. And that search for something creative to engage with, is the point from where most of the creative activities start. It is justifiably said that poverty is the mother of all inventions. But when the whole new generation grows with the disastrously illusive sense of possession and creativity in absence of either (in fact, social media sites are innovation of few people who really benefit) and fails to see the poverty in terms of intellectual paucity and creative bankruptcy, the possibilities of innovation are thus tragically foreclosed.

Even with my rudimentary ideas about the issue, I could well continue for pretty long but I usually desist from overburdening the reader by forcing them to bite more than they can chew. Hence I now trim the article to bring it to an end shortly. This, I hope, however, is not the end but the beginning of a serious discourse on the issue. I will definitely continue with my arguments if there are any responses to this article. Even otherwise, I may come up with another article dealing with other aspects of the issue.  

To me, social media are not all about feigning (what you are not), displaying (what little you have) and gossiping (how little you can resist the temptation to talk for conversation's sake). But a vast number of people in the platform, most of them relatively new to the field, are doing just the same. While this has definitely bolstered their ego and resulted into an exponential rise in exchange of words, I hardly believe this bulk of communication is helping anyone or any cause. While shrewd people are using many of the new tools of innovation to their optimum benefit, most others are lost in the fog and have altogether forgotten that, it is the dog who should wag the tail and not the other way round. I sincerely hope the increasing (ab)use of the tools ranging from smart phones and tablets to social media sites does not end up wasting the creative potential of the whole new generation. Yet I know I am hoping against the hope as the magic inventions draw the young minds just like the bright lamp in dark draws the butterflies.

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