Social media: a nettle, thorn and rose

Close-up shot of a young woman typing on her mobile phone.
Photo credit: Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Charlotte has grown up in West Sussex and recently completed her A-levels at a school in Chichester. She has always been interested in science and maths and is planning to go to medical school. She loves writing as a creative outlet and a perfect blend of academia and creativity. She is keen to contribute some thought-provoking pieces to Sussex Bylines.

Social media has great power. In a world increasingly dependent on technology and digital appliances, our lives are well connected and shared with ease. The miles between us are no longer obstructions, just mere inconveniences undermined by online messages and the occasional video call.

But, as we all know, with such great power comes even greater responsibility to understand social media’s impact on everyday life. Whether as a lover, hater, impartial onlooker, influencer or just an occasional user, we all have some sort of relationship with the online world.  

Should we refer to this great digital power as ‘social or anti-social media? Can etymology help?’

The word ‘social’ comes from the Latin socialis, originally meaning ’of companionship, of allies; united, living with others’. The Ancient Greeks, too, had a clear perception of what makes a social person. However, over time, the meaning of the term ‘social’ has greatly widened and changed.

Since the early 2000s we have experienced a highly charged digital revolution which outshines any level of computerised progression before the 21st century. Today we are surrounded by the uncertainties that the power of social media offers. The question is: is social media really encouraging us to be social? Or, in fact, is it causing the opposite?

People all using their mobile phones to photograph something.
Photo credit: Barbara Provenzano on Unsplash

Social media spreads information like wildfire. Clearly both positives and negatives can be drawn from this, and the speed at which we are all able to connect is, itself, revolutionary.  But, unlike wildfire, social media can be used to deliberately target victims, with fatal precision. Consequently, this makes it an unnerving, lethal weapon.

Likewise, the damage caused by wildfire is usually obvious, with symptoms being a burnt or a darkened landscape. However, the wounds inflicted by social media are often beneath the surface, easily covered, but equally as scorching.

After each wound inflicted, the shape of social media’s blade changes, and so the victims are less easy to spot. Mean comments, harsh jokes or viral mocking haunt many victims of social media, who, most of the time, suffer silently. Unfortunately, once caught in the offending path of social media, there is little hope of successfully seeking any refuge and so the damage is often irreversible, mistreated and unnoticed. Until in years to come our grandchild’s child will ask, “Why did nobody see the damage it caused?”

Whilst nobody is forced to download a Facebook page, Instagram feed or snapchat filter, the social media sites have been marketed smartly, often exploiting personal insecurity for commercial gain. Indeed, a common belief is registered − ‘social’ networks will improve our social lives… Do they really?

Surely, sole reliance on digital communication to strengthen relationships is a steep slope towards physical isolation and, not long after, loneliness.

Nonetheless, understandably, in Covid times this form of communication has been a blessing for many. In your own home, you can rely on your screen to connect you to the outside world. There are constant updates on the news, crises, family members, friends, distant relations and old colleagues. And so, with each like, comment or scroll, you take another mouthful of social media. And with each bite, we expect to feel more socially full… But do you?

Unfortunately, this hope is based on deception, because, beneath all the digital conversations in the last year, there is still the sense of loneliness. We have stayed connected by social media, but kept apart physically, and, indeed, there is a hovering breeze of loneliness this spring. This undeniable undercurrent, felt by so many social media users, supports the idea.

Social media does not lead to social fulfilment. It makes you appear, not feel, fulfilled.

You see, the Ancient Greeks were right all along: social fulfilment comes from ‘being in the actual presence of others’ and, no matter the efforts of commercialisation, this cannot be mimicked on a screen. The brain recognises the falsity of this commercial effort, and so the feeling of loneliness remains. The Queen said a year ago, “we will ‘physically’ meet again”, and let us hope, to shade loneliness, this is soon.

Now, returning to the question: ‘social or anti-social media?’ Both adjectives have a multitude of meanings. One highlights the ‘demonstration of displeasure when with other people’. Others suggest a more criminalised abuser of goodwill, whose lack of compassion and care leads to uncivil behaviour. And when one hears the term ‘anti-social’, the mind immediately pictures a lonesome, displeased individual or act, offering little benefit to a community and wider society. So, does social media benefit society? Or does the term ‘anti-social’ more accurately describe social media?

Obviously, what you make of social media is up to you, and what you believe it is encouraging people to become. In the last few years, we have seen the birth of the ‘woke’ culture, encouraging people to be more active in tackling injustice. This is a positive use of social media. However, with wokeness, things such as productivity, activism and finding a solution should follow.

Often, social media encourages criticism and intense opinions which, yes, initially raise deserved awareness. However, like the digital revolution, to tackle any issue, a progressive alternative must be found, and sometimes over-criticism just acts as a distraction from this search.

You see, for change to have meaning, it needs a direction.

My only advice is to be mindful. Yes, digital power can benefit us and keep us all beautifully connected. However, beneath the beauty, it can be twisted, like a bed of thorns, and challenging to untangle yourself from. Like a nettle, it can sting and hurt anyone, unexpectedly, in a variety of ways.

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