In my Inter-Religious Dialogue class last week, we had a discussion about social media and how it can have negative effects on conversations. The points my classmates brought up inspired me to write this post in defense of social media. Enjoy.
It is true that social media is not always the best platform for informed, respectful dialogue, especially between people and groups that disagree with each other. One only has to look so far as the comments section on a popular YouTube video to see just how quickly people can become hostile and disrespectful in an online conversation. Interactions on social media can quickly become screaming matches in which both sides are simply insulting the other and expressing their opinions as loudly as possible rather than trying to actually hear each other out and come to some sort of agreement. But I would argue that this is not an issue with social media itself but rather with the way social media is currently being used.
Social media is a powerful tool for sharing one’s life and connecting with others one would never come into contact with outside of social media. People use social media to stay in contact with distant friends and relatives, to interact with their favorite celebrities and musicians, and to connect with other people who are interested in the same things they are. Social media is constantly adapting and finding new ways for people to express their personalities, share their lives, and connect with others. The possibilities are endless.
However, social media does have at least one major flaw. Anyone can create an account on a social media site under any name and say whatever they want with very few consequences. Because there isn’t a standard way of validating a person’s identity online, a social media user can basically be anyone they want to be online. Some people argue that online anonymity is integral to the survival and proper use of social media, but I would argue the opposite. Until people are held accountable for what they say and do online, social media will continue to be plagued by people (often called “trolls”) who do not feel responsible for their actions online and therefore feel free to say whatever they want, even if what they say is offensive or harmful to others.
Because some people do not see their online identity/identities as a part of their own identity, they do not have to feel bad if they say something hurtful or even downright irrational online. They can log on to the computer, say whatever they want to say, and then walk away like nothing happened. They might even feel better after venting their anger online rather than having to deal with it in a healthy, appropriate way.
And because people do not see their online identities as a part of their “real-life” identities, they do the same for other people. If I do not consider my online actions to be representative of who I am, why would I consider someone else’s online actions to be a part of who they are? I think this view of social media dehumanizes those we interact with and leads to mistreatment of others. When people treat social media like a bunch of pixels on a screen rather than what it truly is (connections between real people with real opinions and real emotions), this is when we have problems, and this is why many people are so critical of social media.
But there is hope. Not all social media users see their online identities this way. There are many healthy ways to use social media, and I think the majority of people use social media in this way. Keeping up with friends and family online is a great way to maintain connections with those you love. Social media has completely changed the way celebrities in the entertainment industry interact with their fans, which has led to more transparency in the industry and more power for consumers. People connect with each other on social media based on shared interests, creating new venues for community and dialogue. Social media offers a healthy venue for people like myself who may not be the most extraverted to express themselves in meaningful ways. And social media empowers everyone to share their lives in whatever way they choose, based on the idea that everyone’s story is worth sharing. I think the benefits of social media certainly outweigh the costs.
And steps are beginning to be taken to ensure that people are responsible for their actions online. Anti-cyberbullying legislation is trying to make the Internet a safer place, especially for teenagers in high school who can be especially susceptible to the harsher side of social media. Google Plus, the new social media site from Google that is also used to create identities for YouTube and the site we are using to host our class’s blog, requires that users use their real names when creating profiles so that they cannot hide behind online aliases. Of course, this decision did not come without controversy, and it is only a small step in the direction of holding everyone responsible for their actions online, but it is a step nonetheless, and I hope to see other social media sites make similar requirements in the future. If everyone could see their online identities as a part of their “real” identities and understand that those they’re interacting with feel the same way, I think a lot of the issues associated with social media would go away.
I’m not against parody accounts, online characters, and things of that nature. But I believe all of these accounts should be tied to the person who is responsible for the content they create so that if there is an issue, someone will be held responsible for what is posted from these accounts.
We must also keep in mind that social media is a relatively new phenomenon. We are all still trying to figure out what exactly social media is and how we should use it. Much of these decisions are personal and must be made on an individual level. But I have hope that as we become more aware of social media, its power, and its consequences, we will begin to see our online identities as a part of who we are, and we will use it for good, hopefully opening up social media as a platform for informed, respectful dialogue of all kinds in the future.