The Power of Social Media

My name is Fiona, and I am obsessed with the Internet.

I spend my waking hours checking Facebook, Twitter and my emails continuously and impulsively, sometimes without even realizing I’m doing it. My phone is my portal to the rest of the world and I have an unquenchable thirst to access this world at all times, whilst, rather narcissistically expecting my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to feel the same way about me.

So ok, maybe I’m exaggerating ever so slightly. But I frequently wonder what the Internet and technology are doing to us. In the past week I’ve been particularly intrigued by this question. I’ve seen the Internet harness great power with the flash riots in Egypt’s Tahrir Square being lead not by violence, but by social media, texts, mobiles and email. In a recent article, The Observer’s Mona Eltahawy suggested that Twitter offers the youth of Egypt self-expression. “The internet didn’t invent courage”, she states, “social media allowed activists to connect with ordinary people and form the kind of alliances that we’re seeing on the streets of Egypt where protesters come from every age and background”. It is a fascinating reminder of the demonstrable power of social media leading to democracy.

On the other hand, I’ve seen the Internet substitute one voice for many. There is the ongoing debate between critics and the “ordinary man” as well as journalists and the “amateur” blogger. The Internet has eroded the traditional critics’ authority, encouraging everyman opinion on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, and for this reason, they seem reluctant to fully indulge in “new media”. The BBC has recently decided to cut their online budget by a quarter to 103 million, resulting in 360 jobs lost and a radical redesign of their website. Have they chosen traditional media over new media? If so, I believe they are making a huge mistake.

The Observer’s Neal Gabler said on Sunday, “authority has migrated from critics to ordinary folks, and there is nothing […] that the traditional critics can do about it. They have seen their monopoly usurped by what amounts to a vast technological word-of-mouth of hundreds of millions of people.” I’m all for replacing the critics’ semblance of opinion. They told me ‘The Social Network’ was good; I thought it was rubbish.

So the Internet can be extremely powerful, giving us a voice and more control. But, if I have more control, why do I feel so incredibly reliant upon it?

We organize our lives through digital interfaces. There was a time when I could recite around 10 phone numbers at a time, now my memory is measured in Gigabytes. My childhood toy, Betsy Bunny that would always be lovingly dragged wherever I went has been replaced by my iPhone, forever lurking where I am located. Today, there is nothing more inconvenient than when we lose our phones or our laptops go into meltdown.

I’ve begun to fear a world unmediated by computers. Think of Mubarak’s response to the flash riots; he called upon the brutality of the security forces, the might of the riot police but most acutely, he shut down the Internet. It gave his people a voice, and he tried to silence it. Does the Internet give us more control or are we in fact controlled by it?

Technology mediates human relations. We can sculpt responses to text messages, ignore them, delete Facebook friends, and block emails. But what is this doing to us? Rafael Behr said, “It is the decision we make to put our faith in technology as the antidote to human frailty, when acceptance of human frailty is what makes us human”.

Are we all slaves to the computer now?