Is Social Media Destroying Society?

I come from India. Decades ago, the Indian village life and culture was characterized by the simple and meek village folk gathering around a banyan tree, of which every village would proudly boast of, and discuss ‘global’ matters. The matters would encircle the local agriculture, the overall village health, neighbors, families, politics, and the like. These sittings, or ‘panchayats’ as they were called, had a social aspect. One could often see the village folk behaving and acting as a cumulative whole, as a well-knit extended family. The discussions though often lacked the bigger picture: what were the latest trends in science and technology and what was new in geopolitics?

Things soon began to change with the younger generations seeking greener pastures and leaking into the adjoining cities. Globalization further punctured the village borders. Younger generation soon found itself at crossroads: one path led to the ancestral lands, memories and culture that shaped and molded it; the other to the tantalizing gold rush.

This, more or less, seems to be the story of the whole world. When the gold rush saturated, giving us time to take a breath, we realized that we had long trampled on our traditions and culture. The social chains that held our fabric together had been allowed to melt away. And so, with a desire to bring back public interactions and to restore meaning to the word ‘society, albeit virtually, was borne ‘social media’. Several years into this frenzy, we face new challenges.

The gravity of the issues that social media has brought is best tackled in a recent interview by the former VP of Facebook, where he blamed it for destroying society by ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’. And at the beginning of 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced the company’s plan to make grand changes to its strategies, where the current trend of public content dwarfing and discouraging social interaction and, therefore, hurting the very essence of the social networking company, shall change. This means that instead of receiving latest trends in news, geopolitics, science and technology in your News Feed, you would interact more with your social circle.

The news has been met with mixed reactions. Rightly so, since it is not straightforward to judge whether social media has had a net positive or a net negative effect on society. Positives and negatives have to be weighed in. True that social interaction plays the crucial role of a fabric holding society together, but does not starting your day with a news feed packed with latest articles from top-tier science magazines and newspapers give you the start you want? Is there a problem with information-overdose? But why overdose – why can not there be a balance? Can human society be so easily programmed and manipulated?

Science communication comes to mind as another big positive out of social media. This effort aims to bring science done in research labs to the layman. Is not social media the perfect vehicle for such an endeavor? In fact, science communication websites crowd the social media news feed of researchers like me. Besides the well-known science magazines that aim to keep you updated with the facts and fads, there are ‘Pages’ run and managed by science educators communicating the latest research laboratory trends to the general public. This might, unfortunately, change with the new policies by Facebook.

My assessment on the role of social media contrasts with the evaluation of Chamath Palihapitiya, the former VP of Facebook, and I do not agree with Facebook’s big changes. The right use of social media makes the younger generations more educated and aware, increasing the per capita knowledge. Although we do want social media to enhance social interaction, yet would not want it be a virtual panchayat. We should not rob this wonderful human endeavor of the 21st century off its most-prized role of being a vehicle of mass education and making the world a better-informed society.

- Ahmad R. Kirmani


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