A deep dive into how social media can do more harm than benefit to our lives socially, mentally and well-being, leading to the overall increased feeling of social disconnect.
Written for WRI227 - Social Media and Content Creation, University of Toronto.
Online = Offline
Social media is no longer simply just connecting with people online. People no longer communicate with others at ease, as media and social media continues find ways to commoditize users and creating privacy issues. In a 2018 article, Douglas Rushkoff highlights that, "we are not the customers, we are the product" as firms, like Facebook continuously harvests our personal information, sell it to firms who then uses the data to create advertisements and triggers that manipulate user behaviour.
It has been evident that what happens online, ultimately affects us offline. News travels fast. When we see revolts and major events happening around the world, the media escalates, creating a domino affect that emphasizes or misleads information further offline and online. We cannot hold Facebook, mass media or social media responsible "causing these riots, but their merging dynamics were instrumental in shaping the course of events" (van Dijck and Poell, 2013).
Mass Media Logic and Social Media Logic
Mass media present itself as a "neutral platforms that fairly represent different public voices and opinions" but it is extremely evident that this is not the case because certain events and information receive more exposure than others (van Dijck and Poell, 2013). For example, the United States Presidential election happening this month has made circulations through social media posts, the news, and the radio - everybody is talking about it. These commercial stations take advantage of how easily information spreads to create worldwide coverage because media outlets copy the superficial trappings of media neutrality while explicitly articulating an ideological stance" (van Dijck and Poell, 2013). These ideologies shape the opinions of the public thanks to the speed of the spread of information in a short amount of time by generating a flow of communication between people, thus, enhancing the "corporate and state legitimacy"(van Dijck and Poell, 2013).
There are four main elements for social media logic: programmability, popularity, connectivity, and datafication. Whenever we use social media, the information around us shapes the way we perceive the world, people around us and ourselves.
Programmability is the manipulation of content to define the user's experience in a continuous flow. For example, Instagram feeds used to be ordered chronologically to present the most recent posts first, but in recent times, they changed its algorithm that may seem "random" to users, but in fact, it filters out pages that users hardly interact with and frequently show pages that users have most interaction with. Additionally, the home page or search page for Facebook and Instagram contains pages, posts and advertisements as well as suggested "people to follow" that are filtered and tailored to the user's usage patterns and behaviour by combining the data of posts they have liked, clicked into, and people that they follow. What we do on social media is closely monitored and controlled and through generating content and participating on such platforms, we are enabling these actions.
Popularity, defines people who have a strong social media presence and are likeable to the mass population of users and are favoured by corporations who then seek for their popularity to promote businesses (i.e. endorsing, collaborating, spokesperson). Influencers and celebrities use social media have high engagement per post or tweet made through likes, comments, shares and retweets. For example, popular pages are shown most often or at the top of the explore pages on YouTube and Instagram. Popularity is like power. In most cases, popularity can influence great change for the world but there is always an underlying abuse of this power to influence, maintain or even takeaway someone else power by using social media.
Connectivity using social media is the action of providing relevant news and information nationally and globally to different audiences. People connect geographically, politically, socially and physically. With social media, all of that can be connected through using applications wherever we are. You don't need to physically be in Asia to know what is happening there. Different platforms of course, promote different types of connection: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promotes human connectivity while YouTube connects self-made content. Even though these platforms value and promote individuality within, it ultimately strives to build a community around the platform through the sharing and creating of user-generated content.
Datafication is the use of platform activity and profile data to quickly spread information to reach a large audience. We are no longer in charge of what we see, hear and think. It is a pessimistic outlook, but also quite evident when only a small oligopoly of conglomerates and firms own the mass media and social media that we encounter every single day. The idea of not being in control is scary and something that is hard to accept. While using social media, we become targets for thousands of businesses and firms every day and every second that we use the Internet. By choosing to create a social media account, we consent to our information to be used (it's somewhere in the "terms and conditions") and we do the work for these companies by building our profile and especially when these profiles include sub-questions that force us to set our interests, and allow them to tailor content and opinion mine without us realizing. To balance between using these platforms publicly and being public, we change our settings and place restrictions on views, comments to prevent the potential misuse of our information. Isn't it ironic that we are concerned about all these privacy issues, but can't seem to stop using it?
Effects on Mental Health
Gen Z's have reported to be the loneliest generation in a 2018 Cigna Survey. Different factors such as sleep, workplace environment, time spent with family and physical activity play a role in the mental well-being of participants. Those who rates higher on all factors, tend to feel less lonely. It is also reported that those who "engage in frequent meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face" (Pollack, 2018).
Out of all the friend we have on Facebook or the Followers and Followings that appear on Instagram and Twitter, how many are actually people we connect with outside of social media? How many can we confidently say are our real friends? Many users, especially Millennials believe that the quantity of likes, followers and friends that we have define who they are and their social relationships - the more friends, the more popular, thus, the less lonely, and vice versa. But in reality, they only talk to a hand full of people on a daily basis creating a discrepancy in what they see and what actually is, creating an overall increased sense of loneliness. The misconception that online friends dictate social relationships offline will also increase feelings of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). If the only way for us to reach and stay connected is through online conversations, this intensifies the anxiety and loneliness when that line of communication is cut off.
Why Can't We Get Out of It?
Instant gratification. Addiction. Social media is a drug. With our phones, the Internet and social media platforms being so readily available, users can't find the time to put their phones down. Almost half the population uses social media and a shocking number of over 90% of Millennials are active social media users. A large reason for that is because of the convenience and continuous improvement of the applications progressively "makes it simpler by the day to access social media, no matter where you are" (Mohsin, 2020). Social media marketing is powerful. With the increased migration of e-commerce, most businesses rely on social media marketing and user-generated content to generate brand awareness and sales.
It is important to create personal boundaries, mentally, for how we define our social media usages because as Rushkoff stated, "real world interactions allow you to establish rapport and bond in ways that just don't happen online."
van Dijck, J., & Poell, T. (2013). Understanding Social Media Logic. Media and Communication, 1(1), 2-14. https://www.cogitatiopress.com/mediaandcommunication/article/view/70/60
Rushkoff, D. (2018, March 21). I ditched Facebook in 2013, and it's been fine. Retrieved October 03, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/21/opinions/ditching-facebook-rushkoff/index.html
Mohsin, M. (2020, September 28). 10 Social Media Statistics You Need to Know in 2020 [Infographic]. Oberlo. https://www.oberlo.ca/blog/social-media-marketing-statistics.
Pollack, E. (2018, May 1). New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America. Cigna, a Global Health Insurance and Health Service Company. https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america.