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Column: Is social media promoting or stifling debate?

When we profess to care about a cause on social media, are we helping the discussion or just making ourselves feel better? Stephen Downes discusses whether the information age is killing genuine debate.

Stephen Downes

I RECENTLY LOGGED on to Facebook and began reading through the latest status updates by friends, acquaintances and other writers from all over the world. It’s one of the joys of mass social media that anyone can share opinions and experiences with people of all walks of life in almost every nation on the planet. On this occasion, one profile update caught my eye and motivated me to write this article

The update was, what most people would call, a ‘rant’. Such posts are not exclusive to Facebook, you can get them on Twitter (in 140 characters), and on any social media site dedicated to any topic – on many writers’ site they’re especially amusing.

This rant was to do with a crisis; it was a humanitarian appeal for common sense during a natural disaster in a faraway country. That in itself is not unusual and maybe even laudable for anyone to write – plus, like most people, I’m guilty of typing the same sort of open-ended epistle when something happens on the news that particularly galls me. The subject-matter is not my issue with social media, what disturbed me about this post (and the thousands of others that are similar which I’ve read through recently) is the lack of intent to action, the lack of unrestricted debate and the lack of academic substance in forming opinion.

Critics of my concerns will, and rightly so, point out that social media has been vital in great political upheavals, such as the Arab Spring in Libya, Egypt and Syria, also in fighting personal injustice such as the imprisonment of advocates of human rights and free speech in Russia and China, to name but two in the recent news stories. This is, of course, correct and the ability to spread news of crimes and injustice is yet more proof that the internet has altered our world vastly and beyond even our own expectations.

Fair point or ill-educated, knee-jerk reaction?

But what of the rest of us, those countless millions of us not living through civil wars, repression and natural disaster, the average user of social media; how are we affecting and being affected by this mass media revolution on our smart phones and laptops?

Just one example, a rant on an unnamed site: “Why don’t the camera crews of the TV stations bring food to those affected by the disaster instead of just filming them?” Is that a fair point or just an ill-educated, knee-jerk reaction to something you don’t understand?

By liking Amnesty International on Facebook, are we helping human rights or just making ourselves feel better? When we ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ a message calling for political change in our own country, is that the same as getting out to vote, marching in a demonstration, writing to our TD? Or is it just us in our offices, typing and having a moan; like the guy in the pub who says he’s going to write his life story but the only thing he’s done in life is sit there and say that?

Another example: 100,000+ people like a profile poster deriding the ‘Property Tax’ but only a few hundred march in a protest against it. If, by the press of a button, we are losing our will and ability to take action on our opinions (no matter if this author agrees with what they are or not) then we are losing the aptitude to decide our own social and political fate.

For me, there is a real frustrating sense of non-action surrounding social networking.

‘Quick reply’ culture

Our proficiency at open academic/social debate, too, has suffered because of the ‘quick reply’ culture that now exists. In the Dark Ages, before the coming of the smartphone (blessed be its name), you talked to someone about national politics, breaking news stories, even personal issues, when down the pub or calling round to each other. We sat face-to-face and formulated our opinions on the basis of considering what the other person(s) have said and the way they said it, their passion, their conviction; it’s the way in which mankind has governed themselves since the dawn of civilisation.

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Now, on whatever social site you favour, you state your opinion, you countermand those who hold different views with a single post or reply and you leave (log out) having the same understanding that you came in with, you’ve learned nothing, you’ve changed nothing and you haven’t achieved anything either.

This all might seem a bit harsh for what is ‘just a bit of fun’, just a social network between friends, school buddies, college mates, and for the most part I’d agree, but there is a serious ramification to all this; school friends and college mates are the political and economic future of Ireland, do we really want to go down the road of having a generation of leaders who lack the ability to formulate opinion through genuine debate? Can we even stop it by any power in our means?

The unpredictability of our speeding technological advancement leaves these questions unanswerable. One thing is for sure, in this author’s opinion (which of course he will post and tweet later on) is that changing the world, our nation, our lives for the better is more complex and difficult than pressing a button marked ‘like’ … and so it should be.

PS: I’m aware of the irony of this being a rant about having a rant… so please don’t point that out on Twitter (smile).

Steve Downes is an Irish contemporary poet, playwright and novelist, currently living and working in Ireland. Steve’s first novel, Cosmogonic Marbles (part 1 of 3 of the Botolf Chronicles) is a comedy fantasy.  He is currently working on the second fantasy novel in his series as well as a new poetry collection for 2014.  Steve is a Graduate of NUI Maynooth in Anthropology and Classical History.

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