Margin Notes: Movements of Social Media

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A few weeks ago, my college’s security director sent out an email about an incident earlier that night concerning a student’s safety walking alone, the most recent in a series of incidents over the past weeks that have left our small town campus on edge. Within only a few hours of the email, almost all students present on campus had joined the college’s “Safe Walk” page, a Facebook group created by a student that allows students a place to offer and request rides and walking buddies.

rachael allenThe idea for the page hatched from a post on Yik Yak (an anonymous Twitter-like app, popular on college campuses) and for the first few days, the page was in full use, students posting their current and desired locations and receiving nearly instantaneous responses and cell phone numbers.

This Facebook page is fad-like and impersonal, the same criticisms often given to social media in general. A text from a friend to make sure you’re okay means more than a post from a person you vaguely know offering anyone a ride home anytime, an offer that while good-intentioned, you probably won’t actually take up once the page popularity peters out. And yet, regardless of how many people use the page or how long its popularity lasts, the page serves as more than a logistical networking tool — it’s a symbol of comfort. It projects the idea that your classmates have your back at a time when safety feels increasingly, unidentifiably threatened. It may not run as deep as an in-person connection, yet it does have power in its sheer size, the whole campus having virtually committed to a cause.

Social media, in its intangibility and ease of manipulation, always seems bigger than it is. It’s persuasive, as all tools of promotion are. We know Facebook friends and “likes” and birthday posts are often as meaningful as however long it takes us to click the button, yet we (and Facebook) give value to these numbers. We know that person’s beautiful candid picture was probably staged and definitely filtered, yet we instinctively wonder why we aren’t having that much fun. Facebook’s self-focused set-up inherently plays to our insecurities and our susceptibility to appearance. We know things aren’t always as they seem and yet they affect us anyways.

Facebook’s capacity for illusion is like the influence of the media, only in this case, people we know influence us, altering our perceptions of whatever larger group they belong to — their school, hometown, family. With its guaranteed audience, Facebook offers a space not only to promote charity fundraisers or political campaigns, but also to build and spread movements, as exemplified most recently by a number of college students. With increasing racial tensions across colleges this semester, students at my college and other colleges took to social media to share links and express opinions. Some students posted statements of solidarity, particularly with students of color at the University of Missouri. Here, Facebook served as a news outlet, cueing me in to not only the developing events at different schools but also the developing reactions at my own — a jumping off point to go find information from other sources.

After the Paris attacks in November, Facebook again played its part in current events, this time serving less as a source of information and more as a display of virtual emotion. Many added the Facebook-created temporary filter of the French flag to their profile picture — a visual display of solidarity that accompanied statements of solidarity. While some posted strong opinions about the Paris attacks, most generally lamented the tragedy and posted their prayers. These public thoughts put others in a curious spot — must you too post your prayers to show support? And then came other posts — what about Beirut and Baghdad and everywhere else in the world? Are we disrespectful for posting so much about Paris and letting only this tragedy consume our news feeds, never mind the news itself?

Social media entangles these questions since it reflects not only the news but also our messy reactions. So much is at play in the way we consider and respond to tragedies, yet social media, home of quick, superficial, and infinite connections, can handle only so much complexity. Yet social media has become so popular for talking about current events (from Twitter campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter to self-published Facebook op-ed-like statuses) — we’re starting to expect it to handle more complexity, more meaningfulness.

In its inherent oversimplifications, social media isn’t fully capable of this complexity. Social media has increasingly become a political tool grounded in the social, a combination that is most pervasive and controversial in both topic and platform. We judge each other on our virtual personas and statements and, unconsciously, persist in these judgments, for no real person is there for us to fully engage with and thereby for us to evolve in our judgments. Social media may be powerful in its ability to influence people, to alter the atmosphere of “what everyone’s talking about,” yet its power is effective only as long as real life always takes the lead.

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avatar Posted by on Dec 10 2015. Filed under Featured Content, Opinion. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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