When I first watched Star Trek as a primary school child, like many others of my generation, I was intrigued by the concept of the communicator, a little box that the characters carried around in their pockets that could be used to contact anyone, anytime. This eventually gave rise to the catchphrase ‘beam me up, Scotty’ – the characters’ stock strategy for getting out of any trouble they had created whilst interacting with alien lifeforms.
But one thing Captain Kirk never did was check his social media feeds- maybe humankind will in fact get beyond that by the twenty-third century? And, as things are going, we can maybe hope…
Taking the plunge…
After a long period of refusing to succumb to social media, I began to feel like Turner’s Temeraire, in that my requests to others to share a message or particularly worthy appeal, were reminiscent of the stately old sailing ship being towed into oblivion by the new power of steam.
I finally took the Twitter plunge in 2017 because I was carrying out research into young people’s use of social media, then Instagram in 2021 and Mastodon a couple of months ago. I have never, however, succumbed to Facebook.
I still suspect that I operate rather like the equivalent of a steam ship such as the Temeraire with a bolted-on steam engine upgrade, just as I previously did in the days of the Nokia 3310 when I enthusiastically learned to ‘txt’. Or at least I thought I had until one of my then teenage children presented me with a ‘periodic table of texting’ for future reference (lol).
…into treacherous waters
My research, undertaken in the late 2010s, indicated that not all was well in social media land for younger generations, who worried about ‘sharenting’ and, more prevalently, the effects of social media on younger users’ mental health.
The problems here could be divided into two main issues:
- relentless peer bullying
- comparing themselves to ‘social influencers’ who present idealized versions of themselves in the attempt to build a huge follower base and thence earn money by promoting products through their social media account.
What I found certainly confirmed that I was right to be cautious about engaging in the social media phenomenon, even as an adult. I started in the knowledge that social anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that it is simply unnatural for human beings in general to share so much with strangers, and that mental health issues are therefore highly likely to be emergent, and I came to the conclusion that he was right.
Psychologists have been sounding the alarm on this issue for the past decade. Eva Ritvo pointed out that the most powerful reinforcement for a highly social creature such as a human primate is a signal that others are seeking contact, raising levels of dopamine and oxytocin within the physical brain. Ciarán McMahon compared human responses to message notification sounds from networked devices to animal responses within operant conditioning contingencies, subsequently finding many similarities.
I wrote my own articles on the dangers of social media for young people in The Psychologist in 2017, and in The Huffington Post during the previous year. But while the social media companies were making huge amounts of revenue whilst offering a free service which despite its downsides, had many positive uses, it seemed that there would be little impetus to change anything. The warning that ‘if you are not paying for the product, you are the product’ largely fell on fallow ground. Too many people were enjoying social media too much for any collective impetus for change.
Is social media eating itself?
But fast-forward to the present: one of the many unexpected events of 2022, somewhat buried beneath other, more dramatic headlines, is that it is shaping up to go down in history as the year in which social media began to eat itself.
2022 marked the first full year of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta- an online portal in which people interact through on-screen avatars. And the indications are that it is shaping up to become an expensive failure; the number of users expected have not materialized. There is evidence that the company did not think-through how some of the bullying on first generation social media platforms might translate into avatar interaction. Thus far women have begun to report avatar-to-avatar sexual assault, and there are many further reports of racial and homophobic abuse.
“The casual way people were using extremely violent language that was homophobic, racist, sexist meant that… I became desensitised to it…. There were rooms where the most racist conversations were going on, and other people were just chilling, not paying attention. [And] when people are acting out sexual assault on you, I know it’s not real. I get that – I can’t actually feel them touching me. But those people are… acting out that sexual assault [on a virtual reality interface]– using their hands to grab at you or push you against a wall.”Yinka Bokinni, the Guardian, 25 April 2022
Zuckerberg continues to fund Metaverse, despite the fact that it is absorbing billions of dollars earned through Facebook, and its failure is also beginning to impact on Facebook’s wider reputation. In November, Cybernews, in a report on the Metaverse problems, speculated: ‘maybe we have fallen out of love with social media and become exhausted at the pretence of sharing a highlight reel that suggests we are living our best life.’
Meanwhile, all is not well in the Twitterverse, either. Elon Musk’s take-over of the platform has not gone well, user numbers are falling, advertisers are leaving, and Musk himself appears very disappointed with his failure to spur the mass media into response to his ‘twitter files’ release
Twitter users are questioning whether the information contained within them is worthy of such attention, given that it appears to be limited to a set of diverse examples of the way in which powerful people attempt to influence the content of media, which has been evident across many generations. Whether the fact that this is also happening with social media is newsworthy is open to question
The fact that social media has been used for pinpointed, targeted influence such as in the case of the Cambridge Analytica-FaceBook advertising campaigns has in the past been a big international news story. But the Twitter files do not, as yet, seem to have unearthed anything as newsworthy.
Musk’s practice of asking worldwide Twitter users to vote on US government policy has also come as quite a surprise to many.
What will happen now?
While it is unlikely that social media will ever disappear altogether, there are certainly signs it may be on its way to morphing into something rather different to the forms that we use today. There are many ways in which this might be harnessed as a change for the better, particularly with respect to children and young people, whose mental health has clearly been impacted.
The current social media formats grew organically, and their effects, both positive and negative were entirely untried and untested. We are of course, all much wiser now. If Facebook and Twitter continue their decline, is it possible that we could set up new platforms designed to avoid the pitfalls of the first generation?
All of this is, for now, in the future, as the world deals with much bigger problems. But perhaps, in a university department somewhere, there is a technology being developed that will retain the positive elements of social media, whilst banishing or at least muting its ravages on mental health and wellbeing.
It’s certainly one potential phoenix that may arise from the ashes being raked in the tumultuous twenties, and something to look forward to with hope rather than dread, as the new year dawns. Perhaps Scotty may yet beam us up, after all.