Who would have imagined that we would take it this far — and how much further can it go?
This is a question I often ask myself as I flip back and forth between social media platforms, rapidly clicking my thumbs as I scroll through different timelines. My gaze resides firmly between being simultaneously transfixed and entirely apathetic. In the scenario I’m describing, the most likely thing to happen next is that I will click the button on the side of my phone, which will plunge my screen into darkness and force me to find something else to occupy my time.
Within minutes, sometimes seconds, I’ll be back refreshing the same sites I was on previously. I hope to see new content that will satisfy what feels like an insatiable need to be stimulated, plugged in, and present in the digital environment. Sometimes I don’t like what illuminates my phone screen, but I’m often deeply immersed. I fall into the age-bracket where I’m young enough to be a product of the information age, but old enough to remember what it was like before the internet.
On this subject, I tend to err on the side of caution but do not assume a position of holistic rejection. This mindset is driven by witnessing what I think is the best and worst of what these platforms have to offer. It’s easy to simply view sites like Instagram and Twitter as incredible tools that have allowed individuals from across the globe to connect and converse all while carving out beautiful and unique spaces for various communities. We presume that this allows them to explore themselves and become more confident (myself included), build relationships, start careers, and self-express on a scale that they otherwise may not have been able to.
Aspiring photographers can post images on their accounts and receive positive reinforcement that they should keep shooting, even if they’ve never been told before that their work was worth anything. Even one compliment could be the pivotal difference that makes someone quit or keep on keeping on. A person who dreams of being a musician can upload their music directly to a platform like SoundCloud and expose their creation to the world, sometimes leading to fame. It seems that now more than ever, the gradual establishment of a tangible base of supporters can spawn online.
All of these observations are certainly true. But, it is difficult to appreciate those outcomes without acknowledging the more sinister alternatives. There are those who, rather than use the internet as a force for beneficial and healthy connectivity, have chosen to use it to make known the darkest parts of their being. Back when the website Formspring was closer to its height of relevance, I remember receiving anonymous questions that would range anywhere from arbitrarily insulting my appearance to criticizing me for “talking white” to making judgmental assumptions about my sexuality. Not only was it harmful for me to be inundated with these sentiments in general, but the fact that I had no idea who was saying it added a layer of discomfort. I frequently found myself obsessing over commentary by people who were only empowered when concealing their identity.
Another heinous example often seen online is when people become disgruntled with a public figure and, in their minds, justify the act of leaving mean-spirited comments on Instagram photos, hitting “send” on tweets containing words they would never utter offline, and even sending threats of violence in direct messages. I imagine these acts could be incredibly destructive to a person’s mind-state, especially over time.
There are countless examples of users weaponizing the anonymity offered by the internet to bully and harass others. Some have theorized that rather than social media corrupting the individuals who engage with it, the various platforms simply reveal their true character. Without the threat of legitimate, “real life” consequences when someone steps out of line with societal expectations of decency, people feel free to be as venomous or as sweet as they please online.
There are countless things I love about social media and what it offers, and for the most part, I use it daily. However, there are also days where I have to reduce my consumption, as I can feel it wearing me down mentally and emotionally. It is for this reason that I am empathetic to anyone who chooses to always be on, or always be off. We must be mindful of the tight grasp that social media platforms have on us to ensure that we use it in a positive manner and don’t let it fully consume us.
Is it all worth it? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Photos by Sophie Kubinyi.