“Social media is bad and it’s ruining your attention spans” right? Done, nothing more to be written, the topic has been roundly tied off and thrown into a ditch. We may laugh or sigh at such proclamations by this point, so often are they wheeled out, often with the air of “when I was younger we used to go outside, things were so much better then” God, we know already, get off our backs. Because warnings about the addictiveness of social media tend to come with a side-order of finger wagging and moralising, indifference seems to be the widespread response, like kids ignoring the advice of a teacher because, well, it just isn’t cool to care.
Indeed, we can’t exactly just roll back the project, undo what has become such an integral part of people’s lives by this point. In many ways social media is now baked into the way many of us experience not just the internet, but life. We are told if we want to increase our publicity, we need a social media outlet, social media manager is not an uncommon position, and most events and get-togethers are now organised through the social media channels specifically designed for that purpose. While we could just sign off entirely and consign ourselves to more old-fashioned ways of organisation and information dissemination, there’s a distinct sense, and it’s not entirely unjustified, that by doing so we are losing out on a useful tool. Indeed, the only reason I still have a facebook account, when it comes down to it, is it’s usefulness in a communication and information capacity.
And if this is where it finished, as a tool, social media wouldn’t really be an issue. Indeed, was this not the primary purpose of social media, as something useful, a way to keep in touch with people, a tool to augment life… the issue is where we cross the boundary from an augmented reality towards a virtual one; we find ourselves in a rhythmic limbo of notifications, auto-playing videos, vaguely “relatable” status updates, quibbling, nitpicking, self-aggrandisement..
I myself was lead to write this after spending about half an hour browsing Facebook before realising I hadn’t really seen anything interesting in all that time. It was the anticipation of seeing something interesting that drove me, the expectation that something might happen, against the odds. I had just been sitting there scrolling through nothing, and it struck me how this is precisely where Facebook, Twitter et al want you, sitting there motionless scrolling through a small rectangle, willingly or unwillingly falling into an experience of pure banality. Completely immobilised. We begin craving the small dopamine rush of receiving a notification and so we continuously check, a fear that something might have happened while we were looking in the other direction. It is, as cliched as this might seem, a form of addiction, one that can be extremely difficult to kick, removal from the matrix leading to a constant twinge to pick up the phone, log in, check once more, one more click.
There was a Facebook advertising campaign, I’m not sure if its still running, called “Let’s Get to Work”, featuring a montage of people going about a variety of jobs; butcher, barber, candestickmaker, you get the jist, and I remember first seeing the ad in a cinema and openly laughing when the Facebook logo appeared at the end. It was a similar [if not quite as strong] surreal disconnect I noticed in that infamous Sainsbury’s Christmas advert clumsily welding their logo into the end of a tearjerking and well made short about the first world war. We have footage which over-bearingly signals that this is genuine, real, and that you, your small business, your life, is at the heart of it, and then a logo is imposed onto this footage of a company we know has no such concerns. Not only this, but the genuine-ness signalled in the advert is starkly at odds with the unprecedented levels of facade we encounter on the platform itself.
Facebook had pulled that old advertising trick of trying to convince you that they are the exact opposite of what they represent, something they are pulling again in the wake of data scandals and evidence of their untrustworthiness by trying to convince us that we’re in safe hands, that there’s nothing to worry about. What this particular campaign, maybe unintentionally, put across to me however was a conflation between the reality being shown and the reality we encounter on Facebook, as if one was the equivalent or the same as the other. In showing nobody within the advert actually using the platform, no hints of information technology at all in fact before unveiling the logo at the conclusion, the advert seems to engage in a kind of bait and switch, leading us down one path and at the last second pushing us back in the opposite direction.
Social media relies on this confusion, a contradiction between the fake and the genuine, the direct and the distant, until we dull our ability to distinguish, between fake-genuine and genuine-fake. When one refers to Baudrillard’s popular term Hyperreality in regard to social media, many might assume what’s being talked about is social media as a wholly alternative reality, something you plug into the back of your head and phase into. If it were that simple. What we have is the ultimate development in postmodern condition, the next step in the great immobilisation. Think of politics, and the endless spats, call-outs, and arguments that constitute its presence on social media. To put it bluntly, if people are busy quibbling endlessly online, they aren’t organising, and if you’re spending hours scrolling through vapid newsfeed posts, you’re not doing something constructive, but we see these things somehow as constructive themselves, we begin to find the distinction dissolving between uses of time, between interactions, the very fabric of reality becomes a digital smokescreen. We look at the world and only see something to post online, something to further our digital augmentation. Social media hasn’t simply become a reality in-itself as much as reality itself.