My introduction to the internet happened through electronic mail; I remember when my friend, created our first-ever email addresses – we celebrated that day, by sending each other a thank you note. We took turns on the same terminal – yeah, it is silly. We’re the last human generation from before the internet: from letters to landlines to faxes to internet-based email to social media / instant messengers, we have witnessed the entire spectrum – unfold in front of our own eyes. Nearly 2 decades later, in a pandemic year, – things are very different. Diametrically opposite, physical contact is considered unsafe, the internet has become the primary way for us to learn, work, exchange, engage and shop; there is a bit of internet in everything that we do, now.

It is not the same for kids who came into this world after the Internet became the television of the contemporary world. Their first introduction with it, in 9 out of 10 cases is happening with the phenomenon of the internet that we call ‘Social Media’. Toddlers holding a phone with a YouTube cartoon playing on a loop is a common sight, in the society of the 21st century. This generation is unfamiliar with the concept of lag, real-time is their jam (trying the hip lingo). Well, my first social media platform account was created on MySpace by the same friend who did our email IDs but I never got around to using it. So Orkut for all practical purposes should be considered my first experience in community connection on the internet. Let me admit that social media, did not feel any less magical to me, either: Orkut! The joy of finding a long lost friend, a teacher, a librarian who I had lost touch with on a computer screen was a satisfying encounter. Before Orkut, only way to know that someone was thinking about us was when we were made aware of it by the person himself/herself. Orkut had a feature which listed visitors of the profile, for the first time I had a credible way of knowing who was thinking about me. Pure wizardry!

Then came Facebook, and it felt like how a Ferrari would to someone who has driven a Ford Fiat all his life. Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube – it kept getting better by the day. I enjoyed these platforms for a full decade. I was among abide users with the combined network running upward of 20 K people.

A rather long honeymoon period, however, ended towards the end of 2018, when I experienced my feed becoming incredibly homogenous. I thought perhaps for this isolated instance there are a lot of people who feel the way I do, about some of the burning issues of our times. But, soon it became apparent that it was not the case, Facebook algorithms were playing with my timeline and therefore what I saw was not what my friends expressed but a curated list that engineers put together for users like me – so I was not seeing what people in my network shared but what Facebook thought was fit as per my profile.

I was in an echo chamber that Facebook had created.

I started going easy on my social media interaction, began a series of social experiments to understand the workings a little more: by sometimes playing to the gallery, and at others becoming the voice of dissent and then switching gears back and forth. I took all kinds of positions and analysed how my timeline shifted based on what stand I had choosen. It became clear beyond reasonable doubt that what I was shown on my timeline was in no way a representation of what people in my network thought. It was instead, a list curated to suit by viewpoint. Simply put what I was being shown was a match : echo chamber, personified. There were promoted posts in the mist, which played their role in the timeline construction as well.

So all in all social media turned out to be neither as spontaneous or as social as I had thought. Finding that long lost friend was unquestionably not as magical, when you know that the algorithm is trying to close triangles, with you, a user already in your network and then a third person who could be a mutual friend. I kept social media on a watch for close to about 2 years, after which I quit all platforms (barring Linkedin, have a twitter account too but I follow no one now – so no timeline).

I must point out some of the remarkable mobilisations that FB in a way facilitated: force for the good. Black Lives Matter, Nepal Floods, Ice bucket challenge, the HongKong protest – these were incredible feats. Not a day goes by without us hearing how these platforms helped small businesses and communities come together in difficult times. Not just that, in more underdeveloped countries: Facebook is the internet, so in that sense. These platforms are causing social as well as economic upliftment too.

With these goods, the world also had to deal with menace like the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Alleged meddling in the election, giving hate and violence – a stage and an audience that they do not deserve. Provoking mental illnesses in teens, driving suicides and general discontent in life, by heightened sense of dissatisfaction born out of acts of comparison from the timeline. Very quickly it becomes apparent that these social media platforms in their greed are willing to extend their audiences to the highest bidder, without any thought of the aftermath of the advertisements. They were incredibly sinister and dangerously irresponsible in doing so. Not caring about the privacy of its users is among the least offensive things done by these large multi-billion dollar corporations running the world of the internet.

Both democracies and other forms of governments could not stop themselves from using social media as a tool of surveillance, though at this stage, these are only at the level of allegation and reportage. I must qualify my statement by saying that it has not been proven in the court of law yet, though 49 states in the US are out for Facebook’s blood.

Alongside, I kept my research going, read a few books (the Hype Machine and the other), read research journals (quite a few of them), written to examine the impact of social media on the societal fabric, government functioning, policy-making and economy. I concluded that social media is not for me. I deleted my account from every single Facebook run application, but quitting Facebook powered social media avenues can’t be how this situation gets answered conclusively. It is a multilayered complicated question. That we must collectively find an answer to. Deciding between the promises and the perils of social media is not an easy chor. I have been ruminating on this for a long time, but I still can’t decide one way of the other, but I do have a few thoughts that I would like to share, for us to ponder over.

  • Will attaching physical identity to social media accounts make the platform, less vile, hateful, and indecent in its exchange? Will the absence of veil of anonymity get people to behave better? Will it encourage better accountability. The flip side to this suggestion is that it will force the limitation that the unpopular and minority views face in the real world on to the virtual platforms as well. They will no longer be able to express as freely. So in balance must this be done?
  • Will interoperability or portability make the platform owners play nice to the privacy concerns of the users? Will it work if we had a social media number much like our mobile number which we could move and shift from operator to operator at our own will? Perhaps the fear of losing the users with their identity to another platform will make the big social media companies behave responsibly.
  • Should social media content be subjected to the standards with which media houses are governed, given how much news/information is being consumed on these platforms? Will it help curb fake news?
  • Stronger parental controls, perhaps a regulated minimum verified age: like in the case of permitted age of consuming alcohol to be applied to social media platforms to save kids from the adverse effects.

There is no denying the fact that some of us leaving social media is not going to alter the overbearing impact that social media has on our society. There is also no point in throwing the baby out of the bathwater. What we need to create is a balance in which we continue to reap the benefits of the connected world at the same time safeguarding soceity from its ill effects.

I would like to leave you with these thoughts! 

Until next Sunday, Goodbye👋 

By lavkush