Everyone knows that social media has been the greatest innovation of civilization in the last half century. Nowadays it is impossible to avoid Twitter rants, Facebooks likes, YouTube vlogs, Instagram pictures, and more—the entire world is so connected by online interfaces that it has become unusually uncomfortable to be disconnected. Take a high school student and ask how the cell service is in their English classroom. Then ask what they learned last week. I can almost guarantee which answer will come faster.
There is almost nothing that can stop the power of social media. How many times have you invited a friend over only to hear the words, “What’s the WiFi password?” or rather, how many times have you asked that very same question?
Now don’t get me wrong—I am not one of those nagging critics who denounces everything invented after the 1980s. In fact, I am an avid user of social media. I use #hashtags and geofilters and share buttons. Does that mean I am part of the tech-savvy teenage stereotype? Quite possibly; however, there is no reason to be ashamed of that.
Whether you like it or not, social media is teaching the world new things. Not all of them are positive, but certainly not all of them are negative. The most important lesson we can take from social media is the importance of responsibility.
Many people have already realized that cyberspace can be a hostile field. Cyberbullying may sound like a taboo word in itself, as if it was something invented in the early 2000s and abused ever since, but the word explains itself quite clearly. The reality of cyberbullying is this: harassing texts, rumors, and incessant victimization. If used maliciously, the internet can be unforgivable. People can take a single name online and paint it all sorts of colors. It takes that name and attaches words, images, videos, memes, dark subreddits, and makes a monster out of it. The worst part is: this beastification can happen to anyone, and anyone can start it. If you need any proof of the lethality of cyberbullying, refer to the 2012 death of Amanda Todd.
Social media is also often labeled as an obsession. There are researched health issues that have been linked to the over usage of electronics. The Independent recently released the results of a study saying “the more time young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to become depressed”. Social media users have been victim to self-esteem issues and social isolation due to overstimulation. Young adults and children are losing sleep to livestreams and across time-zone Skype calls. Others are struggling with body image issues because of “ideals” presented in advertising, runway shows, and media feeds. As more and more children begin to rely on the electronic world, physical health issues such as obesity, heart disease, and attention disorders propagate. The constant flow of notifications today has plagued mobile devices and pressured people into a state of instantaneous publicity.
However, if people are properly taught how to protect themselves against the many dangers of the internet, then these issues can be avoided. Restraint and discipline is important in everything. As soon as internet users learn how to take responsibility for their actions, the entire connected experience will improve.
In contrast to social media's poor reputation, new-age networking has actually become a platform for positive reform worldwide. There is a newfound sense of awareness thanks to many online news organizations and their ability to broadcast to global audiences. As many are already aware, half of the U.S. Presidential Election is fought simply through campaigning. You would hardly believe the amount of #feeltheBern and “Donald Drumpf” posts I bypass each day on a typical Facebook feed. Now that the world is slowly evolving from traditional mass media such as TV, newspaper and radio advertisements to Weebly blogs, the activist population is growing.
The social media activist movement has manifested in many different forms. One such example—the art of Ai Weiwei, an international cultural icon. He is a contemporary Chinese artist who rose to fame with his work on the Beijing Olympics stadium, and now he is celebrated for his bold artistic visions. He posts on sites such as Twitter, publicizing his travels or exhibitions that involve current issues. Recently, he has posted a myriad of pictures addressing the Syrian refugee crisis on his Instagram (@aiww); in 2011, Weiwei was arrested for his protestation of his homeland’s authoritarian regime and cyber censorship. ArtReview magazine crowned Weiwei as “the contemporary art world’s most powerful player”, while the Smithsonian dared to ask the question “Is Ai Weiwei China’s Most Dangerous Man?”. He has gained a slew of followers who rally for his art and what it stands for. People such as Ai Weiwei are the empowering force behind social media.
Even religious movements have found a use for social media. The New York Times released an article on March 21st about the Pope’s new Instagram (@Franciscus). If the Pope is online, then who isn’t? As influential figures rally behind the digital age, I have no doubt that some great things can come to fruition in today’s young people. There are a number of successful support groups, solidarity campaigns, and creative outlets that have spurned from social media. For instance, in a response to ISIS conflicts, people around the world took to social networks to speak out under the mantra #NotInMyName, defending Islam and the Muslim identity. Now more than ever, the public is aware. It has become simple to gather, inform, and act—but in order for this to work, everyone needs to engage responsibly. It is not uncommon for children to go through a keyboarding or computer science class at some point, but it is growing increasingly important to teach the public about preventing identity theft, being aware of anonymity, and digital time management. Having an Internet Safety course offered in schools would be as beneficial as Driver’s Ed; a proper Internet prep class could prevent future cases of cyberbullying or overstimulated young adults. Currently, resources such as GCFLearnFree provide numerous tutorials and guides on proper tech-etiquette.
With the growing success of social media, it will not be long before the surface of the Earth is encompassed in one giant WiFi signal. As satellite technology is improved, FaceTiming someone in orbit may become a regular thing. Sending a smell may be tomorrow’s new breakthrough. I highly encourage everyone to look at social media with a taste of optimism. It is no longer sensible to dismiss the new age of mass media as a passing fad or a waste of time. The internet is not to blame for cyberbullying or a life of addiction. Instead, it is vital that we educate the population in proper Internet usage. The University of Social Media can be a place of learning, bonding, and reform, but only if it is approached with the care it deserves.
Ling is an editor for The Millennial Times.