It’s funny: as a society we can’t seem to make up our minds about anything. We love it, then we hate, then we love it and hate it at the same time. It’s what’s happening with fat in a dietary context: we’re currently loving it because sugar is our latest enemy, but who knows how we’ll feel next year. It’s also what’s happening with social media. On one hand it’s a revolutionary tool uniting us and galvanising global change; on the other, it’s turning us into socially incompetent hermits, politically neutralised by trite distractions or the illusion of participation.
Quite the dichotomy, but there’s probably truth to both arguments. Online technology has objectively empowered us to transcend limitations of space and time, allowing us to connect with people anywhere in the world instantly. We can find our ‘tribe’, likeminded people who we’re unable to locate nearby in the offline world. But, like anything else, it has its pitfalls.
Good or bad, the online sphere has radically changed the way we socialise. It’s also reinvented the concept of community — it seems in 2016 that no discussion of community can exist without reference to online communities. Does this entail an inherent distinction from those in the ‘real world’? Are the lines blurred now?
Meetup.com is a classic example of offline communities facilitated online. I also have a friend who joined an online community related to, of all things, the TV show ‘Countdown’. From there she attended offline events and meetups, and now considers people from this network some of her closest friends. Point being: lots of online communities have offline events and counterparts — they seem to trickle into the ‘real world’ eventually and inevitably.
This trickle effect — this blurring of lines — is how it should be, I think. Online engagement should be complementary to, not a substitute for, offline action and interactions.
There’s a silent loneliness epidemic in this country affecting young people (18–35s) the most. This seems like dissonant information, considering how connected this demographic are through social media. We’re able to communicate with anyone anywhere at the touch of a button; we’re constantly aware of the movements of our friends and family through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat etc. There’s seemingly no way to feel ‘out of the loop’, but seemingly we do. The more I think about it, maybe our loneliness makes sense — if online interactions are used in place of offline, face-to-face connections.
It comes back to the idea of complementary vs. substitutionary usage. Social media is an amazing tool to keep us connected with distant loved ones, to quickly and easily organise our social calendars through Facebook events and invites. But social media should not be the end point for social interactions — it should be the beginning. At the end of the day, connecting with someone online can never truly replicate the real thing — it can act as a placeholder, a temporary stopgap, but not a replacement.
We can never fully experience the nuances of human interaction through text and screens — how is really affecting us that so much of our communication now takes place through these mediums?
Social media and the wider online world aren’t just altering how we experience our personal relationships, but also the way we learn about and engage with politics, social movements, and charitable causes.
Critics of the impact of social media in this realm point to slacktivism, where people engage with a political or social cause on the Internet through likes, clicks and shares. Slacktivism requires little time and effort, eliciting a ‘feel-good’ factor but having no real impact. Relatively harmless though it may seem, the danger of slacktivism comes from the illusion of participation; from the false assumption that political engagement online is enough to really be part of a process to enact real-world change. Like with social relationships, the road doesn’t end with online interaction, it begins. We needs to come offline at some point.
It’s not to say, however, that online technology hasn’t been politically revolutionary. It has, most notably in providing people with access to information — live information, information directly from the scene, information from outside of the mainstream media. It has also given citizens of the world a voice, creating a two-way conversation between citizens and governments/businesses/those with power. We live in a new era of accountability where those at the top can no longer control the conversation and hide undesirable information — the average person can talk back, publicly.
Social media has also become instrumental in galvanising and organising movements, in orchestrating offline action. This is that trickle effect at its best, where online technology and community are complementary to offline mobilisation.
Taking It Offline
There’s an undeniable power to real world, face-to-face communities. In some ways it’s hard to explain exactly why that is, especially in the technological world we live in now. Perhaps it’s something innately human — we are social animals, after all, having always lived in close-knit tribes until relatively recently.
Maybe we need to look at what makes a community — any community — effective. Something that is missing from the Internet free-for-all is a sense of order. Communities need leaders, or at least clear processes and structures, to moderate the conversation and actions of the community. With face-to-face meetings, there’s a real sense of being heard by others, and entering into a dialogue. This is where political engagement on the Internet fails — there’s no point saying anything if no one is listening.
Face-to-face communities also create a sense of accountability that can sometimes be absent online, where many of us operate anonymously. When you’re part of a community that operates in the real-world, anonymity isn’t possible. We feel more accountable for how we act, and become more directly accountable as a community for taking action. It’s easier to get the ball rolling, to build momentum, when you have a group of people in the same physical space — for whatever it is you want to do.
We could go on forever debating whether social media is good or bad, complementary or falsely substitutional. I suspect the truth lies firmly in the grey. Perhaps more important is to recognise a need to look at online and offline interactions as separate things ultimately fulfilling different, yet supportive, functions. The real danger is thinking that they’re one and the same — interchangeable — that the former negates the need for the latter.