As I engage with my classmates’ posts regarding digital identity and building online networks, I find myself continually coming across a strange paradox. People are acknowledging how important it is to build a positive digital identity and how beneficial it is to have a supportive PLN yet simultaneously framing social media as this evil, wraith-like entity that threatens to brainwash us and take over our lives.
It sounds like a great plot for a horror movie. We’ve created a monster, and it will destroy us! (Oh wait, that’s Frankenstein. Give up on the horror movie; it’s been done.) It sounds silly, but posts and videos demonizing social media in this way are extremely prevalent.
Posts on Disconnection
My classmate, Larissa, wrote this post describing how she is able to disconnect from the craziness of social media when she travels. She encourages readers to live in the moment rather than be constantly attached to social media via our smartphones.
Inspired by Larissa, Ryan wrote this post about the importance of “unplugging” and the need to find a balance between technology/social media and what’s happening right in front of our eyes. He challenges readers to a “digital detox,” or a commitment to take a break from at least one form of social media.
His post also included the popular “I Forgot My Phone” video, which I’ll embed here:
This video sends the message that as a society, we are far too attached and addicted to our phones. It accuses us of being more focused more on capturing moments than enjoying them or fully engaging with them.
Ryan received many comments on his post as others affirmed his beliefs in the power of disconnecting:
Similarly, Matthew’s post “Enjoy the moment and put that phone away!” describes the disconnectedness that social media causes during daily interactions with others. He also criticizes concertgoers who forget to watch the performance they are at because they are so busy trying to capture it through pictures and videos.
And finally, Gillian describes herself as a “slave to her cell phone most days of her life” in her post “The Ambiguous Balance.” She states her belief that constant indulgence in cell phone use is changing the face of society and ends with this spoken word poem by Prince Ea.
This piece asserts that social media is controlling our lives as we spoil our precious moments by recording them, take pictures of all our meals, and “perform in the pageantry of vanity.” It encourages listeners to disconnect so they can be closer to humanity.
Social media as Frankenstein’s monster
Evidently, the idea of social media taking away from our ability to fully participate in life resonates with many of us, and I think there is some truth behind it. However, I wonder.. What if social media, much like Frankenstein’s monster, is being misunderstood? What if its purpose and all of its possibilities are being horribly misconstrued?
“Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good — misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” –The monster to Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley)
The monster had the potential to be good; however, continual rejection and isolation drove him to seek revenge on his creator. Now, I’m not saying that social media is going to seek revenge on us if we reject it and choose to disconnect. What I am saying is that we are making problematic distinctions between what is “real, authentic, human” connection and what is “virtual, inauthentic, less human” connection.
This critique of the “I Forgot My Phone” video helps to illustrate my point. Nathan Jurgenson asserts that the whole premise of the “we are connected but alone” idea is false, citing research that states that people are using social media to connect more with others, even face to face. He then exposes the real problem with the video – the obsession with the real, human, and connected. This obsession positions those who disconnect as more human and more alive than those who use mobile devices/social media, who are positioned as less-human-unthinking-robot-zombies.
I think it all goes back to the idea of performance vs. authenticity. People see the way social media can force us to “perform in the pageantry of vanity,” as evident in stories like this one. Although this type of performance can be very harmful, I think it’s important to remember that the conflict between performance and authenticity did not start with social media. Because identity is fluid, not fixed, performance happens IRL just as much as it happens online.
The performers of this amazing spoken word piece describe it better than I can:
The point is that we are constantly enacting particular discourses as well as changing the way we portray ourselves to suit the social situation we find ourselves in; however, people often attribute this idea of performance solely to social media.
As this important piece states: “The disconnectionists see the Internet as having normalized, perhaps even enforced, an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance.” But I have to ask – what is authenticity? Is authenticity authentic? Is it really a thing?
What’s the point?
Instead of fully disconnecting, maybe our goal should be to use social media productively. Maybe the new “digital detox” could be identifying what types of social media use are beneficial to us and what types are serving the purpose of comfort blanket or distraction.
Online interactions are not repressing our authentic selves. You will still be performing your ever-changing identity whether you decide to disconnect or not.
Social media is not an evil monster that brainwashes and enslaves us, or a mysterious entity that blinds us to the beautiful, authentic, human things we used to enjoy. Rather, it is another space where we can make powerful connections with others – connections that are just as real as our face to face interactions.