Like the air we breathe ?

Social media has been broadly defined to refer to 'the many relatively inexpensive and widely accessible electronic tools that enable anyone to publish and access information, collaborate on a common effort, or build relationships’ (Murthy, Dhiraj (2013). Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age). This is probably the most succinct definition that I have come across that sums up the role of social media in our modern society and makes obvious the change of paradigm brought about first by internet and then by the mobile smart phone technologies. The democratization of these technologies has brought in a huge change in the way we look at ourselves and at other people across the world. Thanks to the easy accessibility, these technologies have enabled us to integrate and interact with communities that span the globe that was not easy even a decade ago. We are in constant touch with our friends, family and peers, irrespective of distances – not only physical but also cultural, religious and often linguistic; the technological progress has brought the world to the confines of our own lives.

Social media today plays an important role in our lives that will probably have a long term impact on our points of view, both about ourselves and about the world in general. It is easy to enumerate the positive effects of social media on our lives – easy and constant communication, enlargement of our spheres of contact and influence, almost instant access to information resulting in swift action, for instance in case of natural disasters and catastrophes. Social media allows us to get in touch with a large number of people coming from different countries and societies – an enormous boon for artists, writers, musicians – not only they can reach out to a large and diverse public but they can actually get feedback very quickly. It is not surprising that politicians and businesses quickly jumped on to the social media bandwagon to promote their own interests. Never in the history of mankind has it been so easy and so economical to reach out to a global audience. The champions of all sorts of causes – social, economic, cultural, political, humanitarian – have embraced social media with fervor and enthusiasm for garnering support. Some recent historical events like the Arab Spring, the mass uprisings in Egypt were largely engineered by technologically savvy activists. Social media played an important role in Syria, in Libya or in Tunisia as well. However, it must be remembered that the same power of social media can equally be used by other types of groups for propagating false information, disinformation, racial and religious hatred, fascism, or doctrines harmful to the society. “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth has a chance to get it pants on”, said Winston Churchill, and it has never been more appropriate.

The different social media platforms on internet and mobile telephone are constructed to be lucid, entertaining, intuitive and totally user friendly that inspire a degree of trust in the average user. We willingly share a lot of information about our opinions, tastes and preferences. Our digital personalities often complement our real life persona, though this remains a hotly debated point amongst social scientists and social media observers. It seems that social media have actually encouraged people to forge digital identities that are very different from real ones. In spite of that, the amount of information generated by ‘genuine’ users is absolutely stupendous that is very efficiently used by savvy marketing managers selling different types of goods and services. The social media users are constantly tracked by these commercial enterprises as well, which is somewhat scary – a lot of people in different places are therefore trailing each user for different purposes, good or bad, that can lead to individual or collective paranoia.

In fact, social media users are sometimes victims of stalkers and trolls who carefully choose their victims and can make their virtual presence a real nuisance. Social media are fertile grounds for cyber bullying as well mostly directed towards the relatively young users but not only. Such targeted aggression can have very negative effects on the vulnerable. Our interview this month deals with all these issues and more. Our 23 respondents have shared their thoughts and ideas on these important issues.

“Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it” said Robert Frost well before the era of social media. One cannot help wonder if the poet was actually clairvoyant and had foreseen the power of social media almost one century back.

Aparajita Sen


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