The holidays have ended. Welcome to 2019. Another year. Another semester of late nights at Robarts and endless scrolls through Instagram. Anything to escape whatever pressing research awaits you under the light of those old oil lamps on St. George Street, aflame long past midnight. Maybe you’re streaming a live news broadcast from the other side of the world. I hope you are. Or maybe you’re stuck on a photo in your feed, reminiscing about the holiday party at your part-time job, where you finally confessed to your crush that you’d like to see her outside of work. Only to hear that she’s not that interested. Or she has a partner she’s never mentioned. Maybe you were too nervous at the holiday party to remember the polite rejection, but it prompted you to guzzle cheap champagne and say something ridiculous to your boss.
Do you wish you could live in blissful naiveté and escape your own Ghosts of Christmas Past? Social media is absolutely not for you. Oh wait. Too late. You already have it — and that girl from the holiday party has unfriended you six times since Sunday on all of her well-curated socials. Or maybe, even worse yet, she’s sympathetically liked that stream of selfies that you thought was a good idea. The internet never forgets, and whatever you post sticks to you — but offline interactions can resonate online as well.
In the greater scheme of human history, social media is a new phenomenon, a “mixed bag,” as U of T English Professor Michael Cobb calls it. He suggests, although we haven’t changed too much in the last decade, “What we do know is that people are constantly consuming images and feeling something. That something could be sadness, it could be envy, it could be appreciation, it could be delight… If it were all terrible, we wouldn’t all be so obsessed and addicted to it, but some things seem foreboding.”
The reality is, the large majority of us grew up snapping photos and posting them within minutes. Did your graduation feel special because of the 256 likes attached to it? Or did your grandmother’s proud hug mean more? Social media phenomena cropped up to ‘help us’ navigate the disconnection woven into connection, especially with catch phrases like ‘be present,’ ‘live in the moment!,’ the umbrella of ‘authenticity’ at large, and later on, the self-care craze.
Did you trust Snapchat a little too much when the description of the application said that every four-second snap disappears? Did the high-profile 2014 Federal Trade Commission’s investigation outing the app’s obscured image-collecting practices affect your behaviours at all? Have you read Facebook’s Terms and Conditions? And have you reread them after every new update? The stark reality is that we’ve all subscribed to these technologies that we don’t and can’t fully understand in the most formative years of our lives. And let’s be honest — we’re not about to let it all go.
Cobb says that the all-consuming nature of our social networks is one of the reasons he has an “anti-technology component” to his classes despite being an early adopter initially: “Students are very different people very quickly. And that’s a learning curve for professors too, to kind of embrace the difference that students seem to be occupying, which is they feel very anxious and very frustrated more readily. They feel worried about performance more acutely than ever before.” Cobb tells me it isn’t that students are adamant about using their phones, it’s just become something we’re all so accustomed to, so it feels weird to be less accessible. We’re all looking for palm-sized distractions, even if they come at a high price. Every company, every new app, every new follower is competing for our time and attention. I am only an hour into writing this article and I have received five notifications from social platforms that I’ve checked in on twice.
Five notifications is a relatively low count when I consider the number of times I saw business people pulling up their LinkedIn QR codes in the hour before Deloitte’s 2019 Predictions presentation a few Tuesdays ago. I was balancing a breakfast sandwich, a coffee, and the event’s printed press release when I surrendered my old-model iPhone to a new friend, who installed the LinkedIn app in under a minute. Now I too could scan my identity like a grocery item and grow my connections as rapidly as the rest of the crowd. The leader of the pack, Deloitte’s resident futurist Duncan Stewart, had spoken to me over the phone a few days prior to his talk. He explained Deloitte’s intricate process for predicting the future of technology, media, and telecommunications, with a striking 90 per cent accuracy in 2018. This year, Deloitte’s evidence-based predictions, as gathered from surveys as large as 5,000 people from across 32 countries, took on the future of radio, artificial intelligence, television sports and gambling, and quantum computing, among other topics. Stewart tells me that “across all of tech, media, and telecom, social is either the most important or one of the most important things that I look at every year.”
Stewart says that across years of surveys, there’s a resounding chorus among consumers of social media: “We ask people every year things like ‘do you worry about privacy?,’ ‘do you worry about your data being being used?’ Over and over and over, people say yes, this is something they’re worried about. And over and over, they engage in behaviours that suggest… they will do virtually nothing to actually protect their data or privacy.” The biggest question now more than ever isn’t whether the masses buy in, but about how they’ll react to being majority shareholders in this way of life. As Stewart says, “This is our new reality. Welcome to it.” But digital sociality is the same thing as human-to-human interaction, no?
For some people, there’s virtually no difference. Kate Differ, a third-year U of T undergraduate student in History and Women and Gender Studies, points me to a recent Atlantic article, titled “The Coddling of the American Mind,” in which two writers hash out what she sees as one of the biggest problems with social media: it’s too easy to find your clan, retreat into it online, and avoid the tough debates of postsecondary education. Differ says that blossoming online communities are helpful for some who may feel alone, “but at the same time, [they] may alienate you from people who have different opinions from you, and I feel like it’s really important to engage in conversations with people who disagree with you. That’s how you build knowledge. That’s how you build experience.” For Differ, the human-to-screen interaction and our relationship to the hardware between isn’t so clear cut: “It’s so easy to idolize someone when you have no context.” Social media platforms are notorious for providing users with endless chances to engage in personal branding and puff up their everyday experiences with a positive spin run through a fancy filter.
Many people work hard for follows and likes, and some masters of the platforms even profit from their influencer vibes, giving rise to the Insta celebrities and queens of our feeds. Our phones and minds are saturated with images, tweets, disappearing snaps, Facebook rants, and popular challenges that can leave us in a constant state of anxiety, depression, competition, or as Differ describes it, feeling like “your soul is being sucked out of you.” The question remains: is anyone true to their representations online? Can they be? Or are we all too deep in the slush to ever know the difference?
Good can come from our online social pursuits too; graduate student Brittney Hubley tells me that she met one of her best friends on Tumblr when she was 14 or 15 years old. This also applies in the academic sphere, as Assistant Professor Mary Elizabeth Luka explains. She fills me in on the Drifts app that she helped create as part of a Narratives in Space+Time Society project to commemorate the centennial of the Halifax Explosion in 2017. Luka says that although the project is complete and the app is launched, its social goals “to build understanding and relationship” are still blooming in the ongoing relations between participants. Some of those participants were civilians who her team had approached while walking the streets of Halifax at the time of the app’s conception.
One of the most famous scholars to have come out of U of T, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” Perhaps our work is not to figure out how to accept a world where Twitter wars are fought through power, fear, and discrimination, but rather to be critical of how that defines our culture at large. We’ve seen movements like #MeToo shake down hugely powerful men and we’ve fought for equality by typing two simple words glued together in a hell of a hashtag: #LoveWins. We’ve also bought in to the whims of YouTube sensations and we still share really good 2012 memes once in a while. We show up every day on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook to scroll down and feel “something.”
Jesse Hirsh, futurist, researcher, and public speaker, attended the McLuhan Centre for Technology and has appeared on CBC regularly. He says that our behaviours online will likely leave us polarized. “On the one hand, I think there’ll be people [going to] more and more extreme lengths and [taking] more and more extreme actions in order to get attention. But I think there’s also the opposite. I think there’s a backlash where more and more people are becoming private, and even secret, because they’re repulsed by the narcissism.” It’s clear that we’ve grown up differently from our parents and some may argue that we’ve done so faster.
While it may never be a reality, it’s important to remember that without users, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter would all fall apart pretty quickly. Hirsh says that our socials are not an opportunity to be wasted, but he adds some famous words — “with great power comes great responsibility.” When I ask what we should do as young people, as entrepreneurs, as some of the most well-equipped and well-positioned thinkers in history, Hirsh replies, “Sometimes I talk about this as signal versus noise… What is your signal to the world? What is the thing you want the world to know about? And it’s not you; it’s what you’re interested in.” The real challenge for us today, he says, is to look past everyone promoting themselves online and to promote knowledge instead. In an age when potential employers often consider our socials alongside our cover letters and resumes, Hirsh says, “Rather than talk about yourself, talk about your world.”