Social media has taken on a mind of its own. In the process of consuming a growing amount of our attention, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have begun to mollify traditional news and information avenues, including that of the traditional town, or public, square. While evolution is not necessarily a bad thing with respect to technology, the negative effects of social media’s meteoric rise in popularity could be foreshadowing nefarious consequences – ones that could reverberate for generations to come if left out of meaningful discussion.
Over the course of history, public squares were erected near the centre of town to allow for ease of congregation. If we think of a historic public square as a form of solar system, it was the sun and we were its planets. They would essentially give us life by way of information through daily socializing; we would mull about it, gathering information and discussing local issues. They were indeed the centre, or one of the key centres, of daily life. This changed over time, first slowly before a relatively abrupt shift in the early 21st century. We are no longer planets in a solar system of information; we are suns. Through the utility of the internet, information orbits to interact with us rather than us orbiting to access information. Additionally, the amount, scope, and access points for information available to us are magnitudes greater than previous generations. Consider that one might have only known about the local goings-on within a 20-mile radius 200 years ago, whereas today, information can be transmitted instantaneously around the world. This has reduced the traditional public square to a mild recreational space from a once-bustling community hub. Indeed, the hypothesis holds that the public square as a gathering location, meeting place, and source of local hub-bub has gone virtual.
However, the move to the digital square is not the only shift that has occurred. It is worth noting because it directly influences the current notion of a public square in today’s world. Building on internet reliance and given the proliferation of social media, we have become a very narcissistic society; we hashtag meals on Twitter and post pictures of our dogs on Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook so others can like us, while liking other’s equally egocentric interactions. Our reliance on social media has become so pervasive that our accounts now act as ersatz public squares for gathering and commentary. We use them to build personal networks, search for acceptance from those with similar interests, and dredge up information on personally relevant topics. People use these arteries to attract and interact with the world; the user is the centre. Every one of us becomes our own public square.
This is important when considering the beacon for any social media user – going viral. A viral entity cannot be a public square in itself; it has to be contained within one because it cannot make itself relevant. If we accept the thesis that each human is a public square and they seek out information significant to themselves and their virtual colony, then an entity becomes viral when it is universally relevant. For instance, a tweet is the Twitter equivalent of a nugget of information being transmitted in a public square in 18th century England; a retweet would be that same nugget of information being passed along in an adjacent town’s square, and so forth. If this happens enough times in a large social media network, be it Twitter, Instagram, or whatever, something goes viral.
A glaring disadvantage of this realization is temporal. Even though it is very difficult to permanently scour something from the internet’s palimpsest, nothing goes viral forever; after a few days or weeks, even it will disappear, lost in our new-found ocean of narcissism. This makes it difficult to discuss important topics and spark meaningful change, especially for younger age cohorts who are increasingly immersed in virtual media. At the precise moment where Instagram pics of Johnny’s 19th birthday bender are more important to young adults than impending elections and global unrest, our society will have reached a frightening precipice.
Decentralizing information has given the average person more obligations. It is less the responsibility or ability of people of authority to deem something important. More and more, those tuned into the gigantic social media web are choosing what to consider relevant and viral. Despite obvious benefits of increased socialization and instantaneous information, a problem persists with egocentrism. We are becoming disconnected from collective issues for want of personal entertainment. If continued, informing the masses on domestic and foreign affairs could very well devolve into an exercise in herding cats. While the individual might not see this as an issue, the collective should because it will influence entire generations. Those who cannot see past themselves are doomed.
And if this occurs, how do we reverse the trend? Don’t worry, I’ll answer that, but first, just let me post another picture of my cat sleeping.