I left Facebook in January of 2016. I had burned out on the constant drama surrounding the election and decided that I was tired of hearing even the opinions that I agreed with. It took some time to stop automatically typing facebook.com into the search bar when I opened my browser, but eventually I retrained my brain to focus on my actual reason for going online instead of being immediately sidetracked with social media.
An unintended consequence of leaving Facebook, and perhaps one that I didn’t really understand when I made the decision to leave, is that I ceased to exist in some social circles, and those within those circles ceased to exist to me. I had a large number of friends in bands, friends from music festivals, and friends from high school that just faded out of my life simply because I no longer had that ease of connection. I had the eerie experience of looking at an old Facebook post the other day and noticing three of the four people who commented were now deceased, and only one of them was someone I remember. But at one point, those people knew me well enough to comment on my post.
So there is an inherent importance to the social connection aspect of social media that I won’t deny. In fact, I met my husband through Facebook. But, there is also something to be said about living in a world where we all know too much about one another. Growing up in Connecticut, I was raised to avoid conversations about religion, politics, and sports. The first two because they’re no one’s business, and the third because a Yankees/Red Sox brawl could break out at any moment. These were topics that you left at the door to enjoy a peaceful conversation. Now, friendships are tested and families are torn apart because of a glut of personal opinions shared online – click-happy keyboard warriors who will share a meme or news story without ever thinking to check their facts or caring about who it may affect.
In Social Media Strategy: Marketing, Advertising, and Public Relations in the Consumer Revolution, author Keith Quesenberry notes that with the rise of social media and the increase in amateur content available on the web a transfer of power has occurred. Quesenberry notes that the rise of amateur content has made it increasingly difficult to tell fact from opinion. “Suddenly individuals had a way to communicate directly to other individuals. They also had the potential to skip traditional gatekeepers to reach a mass audience” (Quesenberry, 2019).
I’ve noticed the term “gatekeeping” has become somewhat of a dirty word around social media these days. It is often used to represent a type of behavior in which an individual uses a hobby or particular type of knowledge to elevate themselves above others, or to use that knowledge to suggest who should have access or rights or a community or identity. Even in the dictionary definition, gatekeeping is “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something” (Oxford Languages, 2021).
Restricting access is bad. Social media has solved that issue by allowing everyone equal opportunity to add to the conversation. This should be a universally celebrated fact. Unfortunately, with the demise of traditional media and all the fact checking that came along with it, without the gatekeepers to slow the deluge of information, real and fake, we have quickly slid into the post-truth dystopia in which we find ourselves in 2021.
The rise of social media opened the floodgates of information, changing how we learn about and share information faster than any other technological invention in human history. Oliver Luckett suggests that we have created a system in which every person can contribute their voice without checks and balances. It is, indeed, each of our responsibility to know that the information that we are propagating is true and correct, but we don’t yet have the skills to discern for ourselves between truth and fiction. Furthermore, in a society that is so disjointed that each of us believes that our perception is reality, with no gatekeepers to slow the crashing tides of information, who is to say what is the truth?
Social media is the tool of a direct democracy. One individual, one voice. Everyone has an opinion, and you know what they say opinions are like… It is a technology with enormous power to bring people together, allow individuals to interact with companies, and allow companies to adjust to better serve the consumer, but it also has the power to tear people apart and to introduce dangerous lies that people hold up as truth because it conforms to their worldview. Of the direct democracy, James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason.”
I am hopeful that our ability to moderate our online personas and learn to take responsibility for the information that we share through social media will catch up to the damage that has already been done. As Quesenberry states, “social media is here to stay and will only grow in scale and scope.” It is paramount that we learn how to harness this incredibly powerful technology to serve our culture rather than to further divide us as people.