For many of us born in the early 1990s or before, social media is unquestionably a good thing. This is especially the case in the Middle East – here fewer press freedoms mean networks such as twitter or facebook are viewed not solely as networking or self-promotion tools, but as a largely free arena in which to connect, debate, and articulate.
Our generation is not only addicted to social media – we believe it in. Some even use words like “liberating” or “revolution.”
But then we’re not 16 and in High-School.
For a good couple of years now, I’ve watched my sister and her friends using social media. Beginning with MSN, then BEBO, and eventually of course Facebook. It’s pretty much changed the way i see digital interaction, perhaps even the internet in general.
Before going further let’s go back a little. The internet was supposed to make the world more democratic. Remember the Declaration of Independence in Cyberspace? As the latest tool in the age-old battle against the restraints of class, color, tribe and creed cyberspace was supposed to render the world horizontal, and create a level playing field. Open source philosophy preached, and continues to preach, collaboration over the shibboleth, and access to information as a profound right.
But the reality is more complicated. Facebook began as an elite networking tool. Global Voices have found that even online, users find themselves almost without knowing operating in predetermined national, linguistic or social spheres. Stories of wikileaks are set against the spectre of a two-tier internet. The point here is not to undermine the fundamental changes the internet – or open source theory in particular – have brought about, but rather to show things are nuanced. The digital world is powerful, but its freedoms are constantly being fought over and negotiated.
So back to teenage girls. Based on years of watching my sister I’ve come to suspect that just as the internet can act as a force for freedom and self-expression, it can also be used as an incredibly powerful tool for censure and oppression.
There are lots of stories i could tell. I could chart how a facebook turf war in Jordan ended up with me picking my sister up at Heathrow one night, or how the implicit (or explicit) competition between the girls to look their best resulted in her spending hours every day beside a mirror photographing herself. How looks and social popularity became the most important thing, and how any interaction was meaningless unless it was photographed – and branded online. How the taunts of the school yard could find their way into your home, or phone, like never before, or how real world behaviour – from cliques to bullying – could be replicated or even enhanced online.
I’ve watched the existence of a knowing digital life conflict with the controlled circumstances of life at home, and how the insecure and impressionable can turn to social media, particularly Facebook, for encouragement, love, self-affirmation, and a sense of constancy. I’ve seen it become a drug, more real than the real world: a fountain of identity, a place where you can reach out to everyone anywhere but also a place you can’t quite control, where every comment, indiscretion and mistake are recorded. A place that is literally anywhere at any time if you have the right device. The perfect fix.
Seeing all this, i’ve come to suspect that perhaps its only kids like my sister that really understand the power of the internet and social media. They’ve grown up with it. We haven’t. For them it’s something all-embracing, something that shapes their behaviour, psychology, relationships and character. It somehow seems more inextricably a part of their being… and as a result something far more ambivalent. Our generation can still (almost) exist offline. That’s not the case for those born 10 years later.
Perhaps the architects and early adherents of the internet underestimated the extent to which it would come to reflect human behaviour; the refuse of our psyche’s and hundreds of years of history.
Of course just because teenagers abuse social media doesn’t make it inherently bad. But nor can the capacity of social networks to entrench social misery and injustice be ignored. As with the advent of television in the twentieth century, the results of this new digital paradigm may well change the future far more than even its loudest proponents can imagine.
Social media is not innocent: it’s very human.