Social media and digital sharecropping
Would a modern-day Gandhi and King be on FB? Having considered social media from a macro-perspective, let’s consider it from a micro-perspective.
Many people bemoan social media in general (“time-suck” is a popular criticism), but a few precise critiques have arisen over the years:
- “the commercialization of friendship” (Micah White, editor-at-large of Adbusters, an anti-consumerism publication)
- “digital sharecropping” (Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains)
- “dehumanizing” (generic term for the criticism of author Sherry Turkle in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other)
As for benefits, they seem to be few (and the champions fewer):
- “crowdsourcing” (Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations)
- “maintained social capital,” i.e., remaining connected to people met offline after moving away, e.g., friends from your distant hometown (Michigan State University researchers Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe)
The criticisms seem to outweigh the positive aspects at the moment, and even call the positive aspects into question. For example, how real are the social media “connections” with those old friends from your hometown? And do the members of the crowd or your FB group really “have your back”?
“The means you use must be as pure as the ends you seek.” -MLK
So which side would a modern-day Gandhi and King come down on? A would-be Gandhi bent on rousing individual citizens to reclaim our representative democracy from giant corporations and special interest groups would find it hard to support empowering a multinational corporation like FB. He or she might argue that as long as FB does not share its profit with the users who help create it, supplying FB with free content empowers giant corporations over individuals.
That said, as an innovator and publicist, a modern-day Gandhi would be intrigued by social media and would likely use it to track down old friends or distant acquaintances. But he would ultimately advise against it, arguing that technology must conform to human limits. The real Gandhi preferred walking to motorcars, spinning to sewing machines, and farming to agribusiness. Safe to say he would prefer human interaction to virtual reality.
Likewise, a modern-day King might experiment with social media and create a FB page and Twitter account. But he, like a modern-day Gandhi, would simply be too busy to spend a lot of time on either platform. (In his own day, King spent more time on TV than watching TV.) Sure, a 21st Century King might allow an aide to manage his social media presence, as many leaders do today. But ultimately he would see the injustice of digital sharecropping and would recommend abandoning or boycotting FB as the real King recommended boycotting companies with discriminatory hiring practices.
Social media is probably still in its infancy or early childhood. It can certainly be used to do good, but for the vast majority of users, it is a tool used by giant corporations to create profit, profits that the users do not share in. So a modern-day Gandhi and King would abandon or boycott FB, but they would not do so alone. Rather, they would try to take as many users with them as they could to a more just and humane alternative, perhaps to a social network of their own.
Note: FB refers to the popular social media network whose name features the letters F and B. A modern-day Gandhi and King would be reluctant to utter (in speech or in writing) the names of multinational corporations.
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