The advent of social media has propelled many societies throughout the world into an age of global cognizance. Where there was once a deficit in knowledge and awareness concerning the world around us, various mediums of social media have served to fill the gap. In addition to this, the use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have become a convenient source for entertainment and global communication. Upon first glance it may be difficult to fathom a negative side to our new found wealth. However, a deeper reflection of the effects of social media on users gives a greater understanding of the different factors at play. Regardless of how connected we have become to others from behind a computer or telephone screen, it is as though people’s ability to connect to one another on a personal level has become increasingly difficult. Individuals have become detached from tangible personal relationships in favor of unattached, impersonal ones. Even more alarming is, until now, we have not been able to solve many of the world’s fiscal and humanitarian crises, including Greece’s bankruptcy and Somalia’s food epidemic in 2011, even though we have more than enough resources at our disposal to do so. In peeling back the layers of what is at play, it is fair to say that, in many cases, social networking has not made for a more enlightened, connected and democratic society. In contrast, most people hide behind their perfectly arranged Facebook profiles and a guise of social welfare and advocacy rather than make an effort to effect change in the world. What is mass media and how has it evolved? Furthermore, why do people perpetuate attitudes of apathy rather than support for the less fortunate and how does social media play into this?
Mass media is defined by Roland Lorimer and Mike Gasher, “in two ways: ‘(1) practice and product of providing leisure entertainment and information to an unknown audience by means of corporately financed, industrially produced, state regulated, high-technology, privately consumed commodities in the modern print, screen, audio, and broadcast media; (2) communication to large audiences” (Knuttila, pg 2). The technology of mass media has come a long way from its original form of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. Unlike the expensive production machine, today’s technology is faster, cheaper and more convenient. However, although the medium through which the media imposes gender scripts and the various social structures within our society has evolved, the messages it idealizes persist. The content that is delivered to the audience is, on a large scale, controlled by the media corporations that have an invested stake. Take, for example, the following quote in an internal memo by Former CEO of Walt Disney Co. Michael Eisner, “We have no obligation to make History. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective” (Film). This statement in comparison to what was once known as “the Family Hour” shows a split from protecting the interests and welfare of the young in favor of simply turning a profit. Daytime television, for example, has changed a great deal. At one time it would have been safe for children to turn to any station without worrying what they might see. Today television has become a free for all and it is no longer safe leaving your child alone with the television.
The positive sides to social networking seem endless. From the groundbreaking documentary Kony 2012 by Invisible Children to relief efforts for causes such as the Somali drought and the tsunami in Japan in 2011, for example, awareness and affirmative action seems to be positive outcomes of these mediums. Mobilization of like-minded people is also easier than ever before. At one time organizing a demonstration for a cause would have taken great effort, whereas now, a group need only create a Facebook event page and invite their friends. The benefits to these types of websites alone are endless. A person could create an online business or make a video like “Gangnam Style” that goes viral and gain fame and fortune in a very short time. Furthermore, individuals have much more agency over how they would like to present themselves to others. For instance, musicians have more freedom to create the music they love rather than what their agent wants. This is a huge contrast to what has been seen in previous decades when artists were forced to make the music that the industry executives asked of them in order to honor their contract.
In addition to these, the world has seen the beginning of a paradigm shift in the Middle East. Beginning with the Jasmine Revolution, the people in the Arab world are no longer accepting that their lives be ruled by an omnipotent dictator; but rather, expect to live in a democratic society. Among social movements and revolutions in the Arab Spring, the Jasmine Revolution was mobilized primarily through the use of websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Before the revolution, all of the television networks were owned and controlled by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, former President of Tunisia, and censorship was prevalent. Through making various YouTube videos and posts on Facebook and Twitter, the people were able to create awareness throughout their country. As a result, the people of Tunisia were finally given a chance to speak out against their government and show to the world that rather than being a democratically elected official, Ben Ali was actually a self-imposing dictator. The path blazed by this little North African country paved the way for a series of other revolutions in the Arab Spring causing governments to crumble and for the first time in 3 decades many people were able to discuss politics and religion without the fear of being imprisoned or tortured. Having been under the rule of Ben Ali for over 30 years it was almost impossible for the people to overthrow their government and make changes in a slow and progressive manner. Therefore a people’s revolt was necessary in order to take back their country. However, the formation of a democratic state is a process that will take time to create. Even years after the removal of Ben Ali from office the country is still left trying to create a cohesive democratic system.
Regardless the positive changes as a result of these new forms of mass media, it would be foolish to ignore the negative aspects that accompany the good. Although we have become somewhat connected it is apparent that in our obsession with these websites people are beginning to lose out on personal relationships. Furthermore, even though there are now etiquette’s that are emphasized it is not rare to see someone pull out their phone to check their status while taking their family to a ball game or Chuck E. Cheeses. In addition to this disconnect there is the issue of apathy and slacktivism. The Oxford online dictionary defines slacktivism as actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g. signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website: such email alerts make slacktivism easy” (Oxford). Every day people’s Facebook newsfeeds are inundated with stories and pictures of various atrocities and human rights violations that are happening around the world. Although many sympathize with people living in worse circumstances it is not unusual for someone to “like” a comment or picture and continue on with their day. As stated in the online chapter of “Introducing Sociology,” “[Paul] Lazarsfeld and [Robert] Merton also worry about what they call the ‘narcotizing dysfunction’ and the possibility of creating an apathetic population rather than involved citizens” (Knuttila, 13). As a result many issues that could be alleviated just become that picture you saw last week rather than actually expending any energy in making a difference.
In addition to the pronounced apathy and disconnect as a result of these new forms of media is the increasingly shocking and hyper sexualized advertising that is constantly in a user’s face. The increase in the shock factor aspect of advertising is a perpetual cycle. What we see in our ads on the internet is often due to the types of pictures or content that we “like” or comment on. These things are all monitored; therefore the more sexually explicit pictures are passed around the more we will see these images in advertisements. Furthermore, in order to stand out from other companies the images used in advertising become more graphic, sexualized and violent. Specifically, there are two things at play 1) as we become desensitized the shock value needs to increase in order to make a statement – in order for us to pay attention. 2) What we like impacts what we get, this shows that the more sexual content that is liked, followed or “hit” the more we will see it in pop culture, advertising and programming content as well as advertising. In turn the symbolic realm that is created through our profile picture and status’ along with the pictures, causes and pages we “like” have a direct impact on the concrete realm.
Social media has propelled our society into a new age of knowledge that is literally at our fingertips. As a society, particularly in the West, we seem well informed about the world in which we live and as a result we have a responsibility to act upon the injustices we see around the world. Media can be a source of change or it can maintain the status quo, as in the case of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. It is also important to note that even though Tunisia, and many other countries, achieved a coup d’état, their governments are in a precarious position and they have a great deal of work to do before they may be called a democracy. Also, the advertising and content from the film industry, for example, come from a cycle of having certain images provided and then in turn liking them. There are both positive and negative aspects to mass media; neither of which should be ignored. Although we have more information available to us now than ever before, we have become more apathetic and impersonal. In the words of Albert Einstein, “I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity.” With knowledge comes great responsibility and from what I have seen in television and through advertising I believe we have a long way to go. We cannot believe that by liking, sharing or posting images of injustice on these media forums that we are doing our part and making a difference in the world. First hand affirmative action is necessary if we truly want to make a difference. The Jasmine Revolution and the others that followed would have never reached its heights if people just liked and shared the images seen in ones Facebook news feed. Through social media people became informed, however, it was through the actions of the people that the changes came.
“Albert Einstein Site Online.” Einstein Quotes. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
Knuttila, Murray, and Andre Magnan. “Introducing Sociology.” Oxford University Press Canada. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.
“Slacktivism.” Definition of in Oxford Dictionaries (British & World English). N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.