The process of changing one's perceptions can begin in the most inauspicious of moments. I've already alluded to this in previous blog entries by way of the manner in which my older views towards radical feminism and operatic music were changed during chance encounters.
I had another such damoclean conversion recently. At the time I thought very little of the sentence that prompted the change; I considered it another fashionable utterance designed to make an impression. The time and place was the Sheffield DocFest early in 2011 and the catalyst was a talk given by the filmmaker Adam Curtis (All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace). What he said was this: "Twitter is a self-aggrandising, smug pressure group, that's all it is". I enjoyed the quote and watched it reverberate around the blogosphere for a couple of days.
A rather more profound reverberation was taking place in my mind however. Up until then I had been an enthusiastic if somewhat late-adopting user of Twitter. Furthermore Facebook was - and still is - an integral component of my social life. Indeed after hearing Adam Curtis' talk I still continued in this fashion; tweeting and sending out my status updates on the livre de visage. However I soon began to analyse this behaviour. Was Mr. Curtis correct? The media had told us that these new, "democratic" tools had helped societies to break free of oppressive regimes. They had given a voice to the faceless millions, who now only needed a net connection to be heard.
I thought back to my early adoption of web 1.0 back in 1994. I created my first (and long defunct) website in that year (Brighton Clubland). The internet had not at that point been colonised by the masses or the corporates at that point. Indeed this was around the time when William Gates was still dismissing WWW as a fad. The early web was shaped by those of us who created content. It was inventive and radical, websites had to be hand-coded in HTML, if there was something you needed to say, your best bet was to create the platform for it. The limitations of the technology (bandwidth etc.) meant that content was truly king - i.e. what you wrote was as important as how it looked. With 56kbps access for most users, only lo-res images could be used, and certainly no video.
Web 2.0 has brought much "progress". Broadband access means that high-def images and video are ubiquitous. Ajax and other technologies mean that web applications of a high level of complexity can be created. The corporates have moved in and their might has obliterated the true pluralism that the internet once offered. What sites do we visit most these days? YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, BBC. Sites like Brighton Clubland created and maintained by someone on an equal footing to the readership are rarer in the modern web.
For many users then, self-expression is only possible via the large sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The other thing about these corporate websites is that as delivered applications, they of course create restrictions upon the possible actions that a user (or should that be consumer?) can perform. On Twitter one is limited to 140 characters per update (yeah, I know that's the whole point) or via links. On Facebook users are restricted to short status updates or the posting of photographs, events videos links and notes. You may think that this is sufficient, however you are acting in accordance with what Mark Zuckenberg and his team deem appropriate, at least in Web 1.0 you chose what you disseminated and how you put it out there.
These websites may also be continuing the trend of encouraging a reduction in our attention span. Are we heading to a point where we respond less to complex argument and more to flashy, splashy updates on the internet? Of greater concern is that many users of these media (Facebook especially) tend to post mainly positive updates. I mean you're less likely to tell the world that you have "been sacked for persistent bullying of other employees" rather than posting pictures of you on your luxury holiday or at a cool party. It seems to me that there is a general trend (for my "friends" at least) to post updates about how great one's life is.
Thus my concern is based upon the idea that these updates may create dissatisfaction in other readers. Manna to advertisers and marketers one might think because as is well known, creating dissatisfaction is the first step in their efforts to sell us stuff. For example there are no end of adverts telling us how big a problem sensitive teeth are. These commercials then go on to offer us the solution - Sensodyne toothpaste. However, humankind seemed to function perfectly happily prior to the introduction of this particular brand into the marketplace. Furthermore this dissatisfaction created on Facebook is focused on those related to the poster, i.e. friends, relatives and acquaintances. Unlike traditional advertising where materials are based around unrelated models or famous faces the effect may well be even more acute. Check out the social psychological theory of social representations for an academic basis of how this may work
So the point is that the danger of the "self-aggrandising" nature of FB, Twitter and their like is not merely a faint annoyance at having to put up with others bigging themselves up, rather it is that these social applications may drive us - like sheep following each other - ever deeper in consumerist and materialistic habits. Far from being the democratic tools of freedom, social media may be another circle of enslavement being spun around us by those who seek to make their fortune from the masses. The last word then to Radhakrishnan (1948):
"The value of sciences, especially their practical applications ... are important for ... the comfort of citizens. The relation of sciences to humanities may be stated roughly to be one of means to ends. In our enthusiasm for means we should not overlook the ends..."