One look at my Facebook profile will give you a fairly accurate depiction of my persona: Swarthmore College student, loves Kanye, fairly Indian, works at the Lang Center, somewhat basic. Upon such a brief glimpse, you may fail to deduce that, confused about my faith, I didn’t cut my hair till I was 15. You also may not realize that I come from a desi family that is progressive yet traditional in the best of ways, from the humblest of origins.
That is to say, scrolling through my profile might not help you understand why I am who I am, where I have come from, or what I have to say. To be fair, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram were never intended to be stand-ins for face-to-face interaction. Perhaps even a brief conversation in person with me would bring light to these aspects of my being. Today’s media platforms facilitate so much of our communication with others, however, that they have begun to serve as substitutes for in-person contact to a detrimental degree. Many of the most controversial confrontations I have witnessed within our Swarthmore community have taken place in comments on a Facebook post, with ad hominem insults and personal attacks thrown around freely. Understanding the impact of words waged upon individuals is far more difficult to do behind the security blanket that is one’s computer screen; you don’t have to concern yourself with the immediate ramifications of remarks made and can pursue guilt-free attacks upon peers, who you can then proceed to unfollow, unfriend, or block if you so choose.
Social media has provided many benefits to its users in the realms of activism and productive discourse. Generating awareness of events, be they tragic or fortunate in their nature, is extremely easy through the change of a profile picture, a brief status update, or post share to partake in collective excitement or stand in solidarity. Students can learn from their friends and followers and engage with one another in a potentially meaningful way. Unlike a classroom setting, where there are fixed time and physical limitations, a conversation can go on indefinitely, without inherently barring or prohibiting anyone from engaging. Providing outside information that is theoretically more objective to other interested participants through article and research links, thereby spreading information and facts in addition to opinions, is rendered effortless. Further, real time conversations allow discussions to occur as events are unfolding, allowing students who may be seeking an outlet to share their thoughts and opinions to find such a forum at their fingertips with ease.
The aspect of heated discourse or activism via social media that I find particularly problematic is the propensity to judge people based on their engagement on online platforms and social media, forming preconceived notions based on their participation or lack thereof. The initial intent of platforms like Facebook was a networking and connection building tool, rather than a means of facilitating social justice efforts or civic engagement. As a political junkie myself, I absolutely condone (and shamelessly engage in) the usage of social media to express opinions in efforts to mobilize others; however, this choice is my own to make, and I would hope that if I were to refrain from this behavior, I wouldn’t be looked at any differently by my peers. We should indubitably be judged by both our actions and our words, but not the words we choose not to use on a platform as inherently meaningless as Facebook. We should not form assumptions based on what one fails to post, or pass judgement on someone’s character or level of awareness if they choose to refrain from updating their profile picture in the wake of a tragedy. Instead, take the time to interact with one another in person and understand the predispositions and sentiments of one another through actual conversations.
Further problematic is the fact that most users are generally more likely to connect with and follow people who are in similar circumstances or come from similar backgrounds and have similar predispositions, creating a self-reinforcing echochamber that enables us to almost exclusively consume media and opinions that align with our own. This concern is amplified by how easy it is to “like” and “share” the thoughts and expressions of others, effectively condoning or endorsing a message without taking the time to construct your own arguments or think for yourself. Each of us is able to see how our peers think about an issue before we form an opinion for ourselves, generating an almost indetectable pressure to conform or align with a majority view without first thinking critically on our own. This further exacerbates the effect of the echochamber phenomenon; a desire to agree and be affirmed by others strips, at least in part, our individual perspective from the lens we apply in analyzing and interpreting issues, marred by the narrative that dominates our newsfeed.
Finally, we are almost inevitably losing the ability to engage critically in person with others. In-person interaction requires putting yourself out there in a way that online platforms do not necessitate; you lose the ability to shut your computer or phone off and run away from a conversation or debate when you interact with others in person. You are forced to confront uncomfortable notions and battle frustrating ideas, even when you may no longer feel like engaging. This form of debate can often be the most meaningful, forcing each participant to look through the eyes of the other and gain perspective, rather than allowing each individual to express their opinion without hearing the subsequent responses and alternative viewpoints.
Our social media selves and our politically and civically engaged selves do not need to be one and the same; having an opinion or being aware does not obligate you to post incessantly or share your views through every possible platform. While it is absolutely your prerogative to do so, there should be no pressure to utilize social media in order to appear mobilized or engaged, nor should we pass rapid and final judgements upon one another if we disagree with the status of another. In taking a step back from our monitors and our cellphones and stepping into in-person interactions with one another, we may provide and take advantage of the finest learning opportunities on campus and beyond.