Press "Enter" to skip to content

The slow descent into social media’s superficiality

I think I know why social media is good for everyone. I just think I do, but don’t really.

Besides being a vehicle for sparking Arab Springs, social media is first with the news and enhances your brand if you’re a journalist, editor, social commentator or political analyst. In fact if you’re none of these you can now become one, just have a couple of views, handy. You can promote your book, if you’ve written one, and can feed traffic to your news organisation’s site and get many “likes”, which will feed the good old ego. Then of course there’s the “engagement”, “robust debate”, “participation” — ultimately all good for democracy. On Facebook you can even send pictures of yourself on holiday and friends from your past can find you.

I’ve read about the fact that social media is great — in academic and other treatises — and because I’m not an active participant I’ve been scolded and told admonishingly how great it all is, ad nauseum. I haven’t seen all the democracy in action in South Africa though. To my mind it’s very much about the likeminded affirming the views of the likeminded. Nothing wrong with that I guess. Affirmation is surely a positive thing.

But what I’m struck by is encapsulated by these four words: superficiality, banality, competitiveness and viciousness. Sometimes just banal and stupid impulsivity. What on earth drove one leader of the official opposition to take a picture of her big toe, bitten by a rat, and post it on twitter? And then say something like: Yes, I know I need a pedi. I remain bemused and astonished. If she’s seeking attention she got the attention she deserved, didn’t she?

So as we descend into the world of “likes”, ticks, strokes on Facebook and other online media, I think of how similar it all is to the reality programmes that took television by storm a decade ago. Ten years passed. I didn’t get it — the “survivor” social phenomenon, the best strategist and who will stay in the game for a few millions. What a plethora of utter tedium, starting with Big Brother. While that voyeurism was taking off, social media was stirring. Now I hear that people have really mastered the art of posing on Facebook. They paint pictures of their lives and smile a lot in foreign destinations to let others know how happy they are. Others, I’m told, then feel sad about their own lives. There are others — equally as undiscriminating and impulsive as the one who posted a pic of her toe — who post boasts about their alcohol binges and sex excesses.

Meanwhile my slow foray into social media has got me onto twitter. I haven’t tweeted anything yet, mind you, a whole year later, but I’m reading tweets, and retweets. The tweets I read I struggle with. Why would your followers want to read that you just walked your dog or that your cake recipe flopped. Every now and then people tweet something interesting like the latest at the Leveson inquiry or a New York Times article about plagiarism. Mostly though I call it the descent into superficiality. Well-suited to the self-centred and vainglorious. It really is quite narcissistic.

Of course I see that news happens on twitter before the print media and you will see on twitter the night before what you will see in the papers the next day. For instance I found out last night about university friend Dali Mpofu’s stabbing on twitter and earlier in the week about Margaret Thatcher’s death. With the latter, if I had discovered only the next day that this racist, rightwinger who called freedom fighters terrorists, had died, I would not be worse for wear. I was surprised she took up so much space.

I’ve seen people asking for directions on twitter. What happened to Google Maps, GPS or good old map books? And on it goes. This is the banal stuff, let me not start on the vicious stuff. I once said to a colleague that I couldn’t imagine writing (and people being interested) in personal stuff like I just bought lipstick from the Body Shop, in ruby red. It’s matte and stays put — even after eating — and it doesn’t leave kiss marks on people’s cheeks or collars. His response was “but how do you know people would not be interested in exactly that about you?”. By writing this blog, because they are my personal views, I’m now of course a partial participator in social media. I’m indulging my unimportant views about social media.

I read people’s tweets and continue to read people’s blogs. Some of it’s wheat but much more is egotistical chaff. The world has changed and as I was trying to figure it all out it overtook me like a tidal wave on a beach. I thought 10 years ago that I should make the time to figure out reality programmes. I walked up and down my veranda with the then ubiquitous cigarette in one hand while I gesticulated with the other and talked to myself — in the way I imagined Aristotle would when trying to figure out a complex problem.

I didn’t figure anything out then. In the same way today, I still don’t know what’s really so good about social media.