Social Media Is Not A Brainwashing Monster

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:

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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.

14 thoughts on “Social Media Is Not A Brainwashing Monster

  1. tarynstork

    Interesting post, Raquel. Thank you for sharing!

    After reading in careful detail, I can’t help but think that the other posts that you linked to were more so just suggesting to take a break from technology every once in a while and focus on living in the moment! I do not think they are saying to never use technology And, I COMPLETELY agree! I find that if I don’t take a break, I begin to feel a bit robotic. I can definitely respect how great technology is – I actually run an online business – but I also know how damaging it can be to relationships.
    I know that when I have kids, they will be taught the importance of face-to-face interaction and conversations. This is something that I think is going to be lost.

    What are your thoughts?

    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Taryn! Yes, I agree that the posts I linked to were just suggesting to take a break from technology every once in a while, and I think that idea is totally valid. I just wanted to point out the love/hate relationship we often have with social media. It seems like one day we love sharing resources/reflections and learning from our PLNs and the next day we are raging about how social media is taking us away from our relationships. I wonder – can we use social media in a way that is more sustainable so we don’t start to feel robotic or damage our personal relationships? Also, I completely agree that face-to-face interactions are extremely important; however, I think it’s problematic to use the value of face-to-face interactions to devalue the benefits of online connection.

  2. Larissa Mack

    Yes Taryn that’s exactly what I was saying in my post! I think social media and technology absolutely has its place in the world. We are able to make amazing connections that would have been impossible without social media. That being said, I think people do need to unplug and “be present” in the moment! I commented on Gillian’s blog about my trip to Vegas this past week. We were at the Bellagio fountain show. I quickly glanced around and noticed about half the people there were staring down at their phones during the five minute show! This bothered me! It’s a beautiful sight and was absolutely being completely missed. Interesting post Raquel! I definitely agree that technology is brilliant and has its place! I also believe we regularly need face to face interactions as well as just being present in the moments!

    1. puetzcole

      I totally agree with you Larissa. I find it quite sad that people feel the need to have every ‘nice’ moment captured on their phone. Every concert I go to I see bright lights all around me and I have to question what they are getting out of the concert. Is this just another story to show someone on their phone? or are they actually enjoying the moment? I understand getting a picture and a video for future reflection, but every song? moment? I find it strange. For me, my all time favorite moments are in my head because the LAST thing I was thinking about what my phone. That’s fine with me because those moments are real, and I like to remember them in that way. There is certainly good and certainly bad ways to use technology. I thought you had an amazing post about that topic Larissa. I find it slightly unfair Raquel, that you used these people’s blogs in a post about calling technology evil when, from what I have read, that is not at all what they were trying to do.

  3. Kailyn Smith

    Thanks for your post Raquel!
    My idea while reading most of these posts and comments about taking a break are from people who are totally for using technology in the classroom and when appropriate but highlighting the importance of finding balance in our everyday lives. I think this debate is going to be long going in today’s society but in the end I think both sides would agree that everything in life is about balance, including our social media use. I find myself noticing more of my surroundings when I see it through my eyes instead of my screen as I take pictures, which I think comes with balance also as our screens show us a variety of perspectives.

  4. Gillian Maher

    Very thorough and well written post, Raquel.
    I agree with what you’ve said but also stand by what Ryan, Larissa and I were writing about. I think for the most part, we were aiming towards a balance of personal use on social media/technology and how that effects our day-to-day lives. How I understand your post is you’re more targeting it’s use for professional goals and productivity. I see the value in being able to create a thorough PLN over social media or blogs, like the ones we are currently creating, but what I think we were more touching on was the authenticity of experiencing moments in your personal lives WITHOUT feeling the need to document every second. Like Larissa’s experience over the break, people saw more value in the praise, excitement, or even jealously of their friends in acknowledging the fact that they were posing in front of the Bellagio instead of taking in the actual moment. I think that social media isn’t brainwashing people but I definitely think it is changing the way we act/react as a society. Not unlike advertising companies, social media/technology has an enormous influence on how we go about our day-to-day lives. To say it hasn’t had an effect on society would be equivalent to saying advertising companies don’t have the ability to reinforce the beliefs of their companies (i.e. McDonald’s advertising they 100% Canadian grown beef… but we don’t see what is behind those slaughterhouses… we –for the most part– take it at face value.) . I don’t so much see us contradicting ourselves in saying that there is a need to “unplug” rather, we should maintain a positive portion of our lives dedicated to using the internet efficiently WHILE maintaining the ability to stay present in our real– as in non-virtual– lives. It annoys me beyond belief when I go for coffee with friends and they spend 99% of our conversation checking their Instagram, SnapChat or Facebook while monotonously agreeing to what I’m saying. I 100% agree with you that this is NOT a new concept and social media is NOT the main perpetrator of this “pageantry of vanity” but… it’s definitely allowing for the perpetuation of it. I feel like we are fighting the same battle… but wording it slightly differently: social media/technology is capable of being used in a productive and positive manner IF the authenticity of the people behind it is actually… authentic. Regardless of whether we are on the same wavelength, I really admire this very well constructed post… I must say, I really enjoyed your Frankenstein metaphor as well. 🙂 (This is the longest comment in history… sorry! :S)

    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thank you for your long comment, Gillian! I really appreciate your input. Also, I’m glad you liked the Frankenstein metaphor (far too few people know the actual story of Frankenstein’s monster, in my opinion).

      Yes, my post does focus on social media as a tool for professional development and productivity and I see the difference between that and some of the posts that I linked to, which were focusing more on social media for personal use or posting pictures of cool experiences (which might be better off just experienced). I totally agree that social media use is changing the way we act/react as a society.

      This part of your comment sums up my thoughts really well: “…We should maintain a positive portion of our lives dedicated to using the internet efficiently WHILE maintaining the ability to stay present in our real– as in non-virtual– lives.” We are definitely on the same wavelength!

      It’s definitely annoying when people are rude with their phones, staring at their screen instead of actually listening. That kind of social media use is what I would be happy to support a digital detox for! I think we need to work on using social media in productive, sustainable ways so we can enjoy its benefits without damaging relationships in our personal lives.

  5. Twyla Bellefleur

    Very thought provoking! I love your comparisons Raquel. Really makes a person think!
    And guess what? If it weren’t for social media; I never would have seen this or thought about it much! Lovin the blog!

  6. mckillopryan14

    I will start by saying that I agree there is value in making it a goal “to use social media more productively.” I think online spaces, including social media, provide a platform for meaningful interactions to take place. As Gillian mentioned, these outlets are valuable spaces to build a PLN. I can also see how social media can work to create networks for people to interact and collaborate in a significant way. The problem, however, is that the argument behind my blog post or other blog posts, such as the one Larissa wrote, is not that social media is evil and by using it we are less human. Instead, I was arguing that engaging with social media has become an unconscious action for most of us and having had the experience to completely “unplug” from social media has changed my perception of how I try to use technology in my life. The “I Forgot My Phone” video is obviously an over exaggerated illustration of how phones have changed social settings. Although it is an over exaggeration, the message is not completely false. The problem is that phones have altered the way we interact when we go out for supper with our friends, when we plan a night of bowling, or when we are at home with family. In these settings, social media is not always being used productively. One might argue that the changes in these social settings cannot be blamed on technology, but I would beg to differ. The reason I find Jurgenson’s article problematic is because I believe phones have had an effect on the way we interact. I disagree that the video is about labeling those who disengage from their phones as somehow more real. I don’t think by sharing the video, one is eluding to the fact that they are more connected to their surroundings. Instead, I think it speaks more to the fact that we can relate to those using their phones in these social settings and find it problematic. I will be the first to admit that I have been in situations where I am more connected to everything on my phone than engaged in what is happening right in front of me. Personally, in social settings, I think it is more authentic to be engaged in the moment. This is better explained in a Huffington Post article that I recently read by Leo Garbutt, “Social Media is Changing the Way We Think.” Garbutt speaks to the fact that “social media has created an online culture that encourages users to show off whatever they can” and as a consequence has changed our way of thinking. Once again, emphasizing the point you made about using social media more productively. I think we agree that using social media and technology more productively is a significant goal, but I will ALWAYS encourage others to experience a complete digital detox. Not because I think it makes them more human or because I think social media is “an evil monster” but because the experience is an overwhelming revelation in itself. Living in a village in Costa Rica where I had no access to my phone or any source of technology did not make me more or less authentic or human than my family and friends back home. However, it did open my eyes to the way I spend my time when I am around friends and family. It shifted my perception of how I use social media on a daily basis. It made me aware of the things I take for granted and it influenced me to think about what is truly important in my life. Would I have had this same experience if I was connected to my phone the entire time? I do not believe so. I cannot speak for the others that wrote similar blog posts, but I think we would all agree that as valuable as social media can be, we need to find a balance in the way we use it. Personally, I think the time we spend off of social media or disconnected is just as important as the time we spend on social media. For me, I needed to have an experience where I was entirely disconnected from technology to see the importance in this. Although we may agree to disagree, your blog post certainly intrigued me and challenged my way of thinking.

    1. raquelbellefleur Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Ryan! I’m glad we can share and learn from our different perspectives.

      I totally respect your experience in Costa Rica and your encouragement of others to take a full digital detox. I definitely agree that these detoxes can bring about important shifts in our perspective and realizations about what we take for granted and what’s important. I just think it’s interesting to note that we often blame social media for not being engaged in the moment when maybe we should blame ourselves, or look deeper into why we would rather be looking at our screens that at what is going on around us. Is social media to blame for the changing the way we interact, or is it something in ourselves?

  7. Sarah Wandy

    I like your point about a digital detox of the social media that isn’t helping us connect in meaningful ways, or in ways that aren’t productive!

  8. raquelbellefleur Post author

    Thanks, Larissa, Kailyn, and Sarah for your comments! I definitely agree with the need for balance in social media use. I also appreciate your examples of how we compulsively feel the need to capture/record everything, rather than just take it in and enjoy it. I know I often feel the need to capture the moments of family events and I’m not sure where this comes from.

    I think digital detoxes can definitely be helpful in order to regain balance. The point of my post was to question why we only seem to have those two extremes (social media as amazing or social media as ruining our lives). That’s why I suggested detoxing from unproductive social media use, as that might help us find the middle of the continuum. As you ladies said, it’s all about balance!

  9. Pingback: The End is Nigh but my Spirits are High! | learn. share. create.

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