Originally published: https://medium.com/@IanAxelAnderson/what-social-media-is-for-fbf30aba9fc3#.2ylbanczh

Why do we use social media? What does it mean to us? Is it truly social, if it’s so segmented into like-minded groups? Is its use really meaningful at all, or is it too ephemeral to cling to with any seriousness? This piece will seek the answers to these questions, and attempt to properly understand social media in a deeper cultural, philosophical, and sociopolitical context.

I. Self Promotion

Everyone’s online presence is by default part of their personal ‘brand’. This is a bit of a marketing cliche, but it is true. The way you present yourself online has a direct impact on how others see you in the real world. It can be the difference between getting hired or not, and people inevitably judge you by your online appearance — or lack thereof.

The idea of marketing still conjures, for many, the notion of manipulating people into purchasing things or products that they do not need. However, I think that marketing can more properly be understood in terms of the creation of perception, both positive and negative. All of us market ourselves and our experiences to others every day (Seth Godin spoke on this in 2014 for On Being).

With this in mind, it is wise to understand how your posts look to others (for companies and people with large followings, this means using monitoring tools). The rules are always different depending on the self-image you’re looking to project. Everyone is projecting something, consciously or unconsciously, in the real world — and does so online as well. We are wired to judge people on their appearance, and even if we make no conscious judgment, we often make assumptions about others (even if we’re trying not to) based on their face, gender, race, dress, manner of speaking, posture, and overall aesthetic.

Self promotion is one of the most integral parts of social networking. This fact makes many pessimistic about the narcissism inherent in curating an online self image. Indulge too deeply in image curation, and it seems thatwe remind ourselves too much of our flaws. This has become a popular topic of news discussion in recent years —the press was quick to jump on the story of young Instagram model Essena O’Neill, for example, who proclaimed, (somewhat ironically over social media) that she was quitting Instagram because it was “not reality.”

Social media can seem like an abyss of negativity — a mirror that becomes a constant reminder of humanity’s worst, most shallow characteristics. I would posit that it is something more substantive and complex than that — though still a double-edged sword.

“He who fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146

II. Self Care

1-Pww06bFNDMXCdmMdN8HAqQ Audre Lorde.

What we post online is often a manifestation of our emotions, or a reaction to what we see others posting.

The online space is a massive community, much like that which exists in the real world. Social networks have realized that part of their duty to their users is to institute community rules and guidelines that help keep users safe on and offline, and protect them from discrimination and threats from others.

There has been some controversy over these guidelines recently (think Reddit’s firing of CEO Ellen Pao), and networks have been hit with criticism (most of it valid, IMO), over their inconsistency. Nevertheless, these rules are deeply important to ensuring social media remains a space where people are free to express their views without fear of hate speech or discrimination. Some fear this is “censorship,” a road to fascism-lite and is “anti-free speech.” Others — myself among them — feel that it is the duty and role of social networks to institute very basic guidelines and to enforce them in a uniform way.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

— Audre Lorde

Self care is also about finding and engaging with groups of like-minded people to heal.

While it’s not great to cut yourself off from people of differing opinions entirely — and there is a risk of this online — you don’t need to continuously expose yourself to opposing opinions and attempt to self-evaluate. Self care is also about mental health, and communicating with others — hearing their stories and understanding their pain — can help you sort through your own.

It’s important to note that constant social media use and exposure is widely recognized to be less than stellar for your mental health. It can leave you feeling exhausted, depressed, and cause you to develop negative self-image (sometimes, a social media detox is just what you need). The flip side to this is that many people do find communities of support for these same issues online. There are many of these on sites like Tumblr, Reddit, WordPress, and even in places like 4Chan and 8Chan (though there are some pretty awful, negative communities out there, too). These are places where people can talk about their hopes, dreams, and connect in both substantive and ephemeral ways we never before imagined possible.

Despite its many flaws, social media has improved many lives and brought people together from a plethora of diverse backgrounds. It has helped people care for and about one another and themselves. With proper regulation and thoughtful guidelines, I believe it has the potential to become even more positive.

III. Sharing & Building Community


We’ve just touched on how social media is useful for self care and what online support communities can do for individuals. Social media is a place where community can be built from the ground up. Unique communities often exist around niche mediums, and serve as the basis for social networks like photos (Instagram) or long-form content (Medium and LinkedIn Pulse). They also form around particular issues or interests, like TV show and character fandoms, or the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Social Media is a space for us to share information with one another — everything from serious articles and think-pieces to the notorious cat videosand naked pictures of Justin Bieber. All of this sharing makes something larger, a galaxy or sea of billions of thoughts, feelings, facts and opinions. Social media operates like a online diary — a living record for the lives of the segment of humanity with access to internet — and will continue to do so as it evolves and becomes more ubiquitous. One can conceive that it might one day represent something like a virtual manifestation of the “collective unconscious” discussed by Jung and Freud.

For now, we can see how important the online space is due to its real-world impact. Sharing the stories of marginalized voices, for example, is part of what has triggered political and social movements around the world. Though much of the real action has taken place offline, social media has played a key role in spreading news and helping people organize politically. It plays a central role in many of the most pertinent cultural issues of our time, even encompassing the rise of ISIS and other radical groups. The rise of social media and the increasing ubiquity of internet access has only served to accelerate political and cultural change, and it doesn’t look as if the trend is slowing down.

IV. Ideas, Thoughts, and Dreams


Ideas are a large part of what gets shared on social media (that’s what Medium itself is built on). In 2015, it sometimes seems like everything is amutation of an old idea, but innovation in the information age comes through the process of sharing, evaluating, synthesizing, analyzing, and building on some ideas while throwing away the bad ones, and tucking away some useful ones for later.

Social media — and the internet more broadly, can help us collectively make decisions and find ideologies and communities that suit us. It can help uscreate new pieces of technology, fund startups, create music, and other things. It can help us find and connect with other people who share similar hopes and dreams.

Before I start getting too positive aspiration-oriented, I also want to emphasize the fact that there’s also a regressive aspect to this technology. Social media can also be used to spread negative ideas — like the ideology of ISIS, Neo-Nazis, or the toxic communities that seem to proliferate on loosely regulated forums like 4Chan, 8Chan, and Reddit.

Positive or negative, our ideas, thoughts, and dreams are all human products, just like the social media sites that spread them and allow them to proliferate across the globe. They are multifaceted and complex, but this does not mean that they are beyond our capacity for understanding. Social media has the potential to foster more understanding across sociopolitical and cultural divides, or to be divisive, and cause us to entrench ourselves within our ideologies and communities.

It is up to us, as users, de-facto stakeholders and community members to determine which of these paths is the future of the medium.

V. Moments and Memories

(Nostalgia and Now-stalgia)


Social media has been proven as a major source of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and negative feelings (sourced above). FOMO is a close cousin ofnowstalgia — “how the past informs the present” — or a feeling that one might miss the present moment like a moment in the past.

This present-centric form of nostalgia has developed (or at least become popularized), I think, partially because of social media and the culture around it. With constant reminders of how good our lives could be, and what we’re missing out on (the results of others’ personal branding efforts), it is difficult for us not to imagine how we could have been better using our own present.

“Pics or it didn’t happen.”

— American Proverb

It also seems an essential part of what triggers our need to record the present, — to SnapChat our friends pathologically, for example — and to capture the moments that seem fleeting. If we don’t grab the present, we somehow feel it will slip away — along with the chance to feed our ego with more Instagram likes. Social media seems to be the place where these moments and memories go on display, and the display itself is the biggest feeder of the underlying feelings that drive it. It’s a vicious cycle.

The other part of of this is our memories. As the present is constantly becoming the past, social media enables us to look back on the good times and the bad. Part of social media is highly ephemeral, and makes us live in the moment, but it can also give us a sense of history and stores a lot of information in a unique way. Old photographs on Facebook can fuel a sense of shame, or nostalgia for fun times, people, and places past (they’ve even started confronting us with ‘memories’ in a more direct and recent feature).

Confronting both of these senses on a daily basis, one sometimes feels the need to disengage from social media. I think that this is likely a healthy impulse. As someone who wants to study social networking for a living and has worked on it in a dedicated way for 5+ years, I can attest to the fact that taking a break every so often has been a source of clarity.

Social media is so full of information and content that it can feel like you’re drowning, and always missing out on a breaking story or a step behind your competition. The only way to fight against these forces that undermine your self-esteem is to take time away, and to work in the real world with concrete objects and people. Be present, and try to do what makes you happiest in the long run. This is far more important than what might be achieved in the moment, so try not to dwell on them too deeply.

The duality of past and present is in constant play on social media. However, there is another aspect of time on display, and this aspect also fluctuates and changes moment to moment as the moments march onward: the future. I will discuss this further in the final section of this article.

First, I’d like to discuss how we interpret the present and past through data — and how we can use them predict the future.

VI. Data and Analysis


Social media has produced a wealth of fascinating information about the past, present, and future. The emergence of #BigData was one of the most-talked about trends in business before #CyberSecurity rose to the forefront in recent months. This doesn’t mean that the data has gone away. The rise of places like FiveThirtyEight and the analytic programs developed for marketers by Twitter, Facebook, and Google mean that most businesses are now engaged in collecting data on their customers, analyzing it (or having someone do that for them) and then using it to make better marketing plans.

This wealth of data will likely be used for many purposes. Mapping out places to eat, the weather, where we’d like to go for a night out, for a full week of vacation, and many other preferences are being built into our search algorithms. We can see the effects of algorithms in the varying lenses we get on Facebook’s ‘trending’ column or our newsfeeds, and even our trusted Google searches. There’s a dystopian risk of segmentation and planning that lurks round the corner from excessive algorithm use (the echo chambers and other risks of usage without thoughtfulness that I’ve written about before).

But, there’s always a push-back when it comes to giving control over to machines or new technology. I think we can count on that (among other factors) to keep us from becoming totally ideologically divided, happiness-only seeking creatures that avoid unpleasantness (and likely personal growth and change) at all costs.

This proliferation of data means that information is ripe for the picking, and we now have to consider what the best use of this data might be. My personal favorite potential application is furthering our self-understanding — and through this, achieving deeper and more substantive understanding about our future.

VII. Understanding and Predicting

Humanity’s Present and Future


Social media data is becoming increasingly valuable for sociological andpsychological study as the medium proliferates and becomes more widely used. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter already have their own research teams, and colleges and universities have researchers actively engaged in examining our behavior online.

As the wealth of data increases, so do fantastic opportunities for further study. It could be extraordinarily valuable to use social media to investigate how behavior, thought, and ideas spread in the modern age. Some of this work has already been undertaken, but there is a wide expanse of uncharted territory remaining.

Social media seems not to be an ephemeral passing fancy — it is a way to connect that has captured the attention of multiple generations. It is likely that we will see it change dramatically in years to come, and it may mutate in unrecognizable ways in the future. However, as long as we keep using it to share, the opportunity for studying how we communicate, change, and grow will remain.

Through studying our thoughts online, we can learn a lot about group psychology and personal psychology. New social technology will hopefully center around the exchange of thoughts and ideas, make easier for us to hold debates, reject bad ideas, and form new and (hopefully) better ones. This will help us, as a human community, grow, mature, and change.

Much like the communities we see today online, future communities will require certain characteristics to function successfully. The best communities foster productive and substantive dialogue, have a deep sense of empathy, are extremely diverse, and work towards constructive solutions and without undermining others or questioning the validity of others’ experiences or emotions. I believe that the future of social media ought to be aimed at fostering the growth of these types of communities.

Social media, as it currently exists, seems to help foster this kind of positive growth in some ways. It has, on many occasions, helped us all develop greater empathy by exposing us to new perspectives and ideas (and I think it is clear it has done so already — most recently in giving voice and exposure to movements like #BlackOnCampus), which I think is key in creating more understanding across and making both the country and the world a better place.

Conversely, social media has a side that could lead us into a more deeply divided, curated world, with segmented communities who don’t understand enough about one another to respect the out-group (this mentality is well-documented, and basically explains the current state of American politics) and therefore attack one another and create more friction.

It is up to us to choose which path will be ours down the road.

Social Media’s meaning is:

both what we make of it, and what it makes of us.

The Twitter bird becomes a monster in Stromae’s video for “Carmen.”

We are both stakeholders and products of its impact on our communities and ourselves.

Our project is to ensure that we avoid the potentially disastrous pitfalls and dangerous tribalism that it can produce, and work to create a positive community in this digital world that can foster positive change in our culture, society, politics, and daily lives.

Social media is undoubtedly a technology with a lot of potential. Whether it reaches that potential, positive or negative, will depend a lot upon us as users and all the other de-facto stakeholders in the digital realm. I believe that this also is reflective of the real world. We are all de-facto stakeholders (like it or not) in humanity’s future, by virtue of existence. What we become will be what we make of what we have been given.

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