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Why we need to stop demonising the internet and social media

Sunday, 22 June 2014 - 3:50pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

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A video called ‘Look Up’ recently made the rounds on social media garnering over 43 million views. The video cleverly captures the perils of todays wired generation, with a combination of rhyming verses and a romantic encounter between two youth who chance upon each other in a boy-stops-girl-on-street-to-ask-for-directions scenario. Apparently ‘one real connection is all it can take,’ because they end up living happily ever after. 

While the message of the video is valid, it is also rather hackneyed, not to mention slightly Bollywood-esque. How many times have we heard the ‘social media makes us anti-social,’ ‘smart phones make us dumb,’ and ‘man is a slave to technology’ argument? But whether people internalize the video’s message or it goes down in the books as yet another viral trend is not the main issue; it is most likely the latter. The larger problem with the video is that it fails to look beyond the binary ‘good versus evil’ debate around social media and the Internet, which we desperately need to shift out of.  

Social Media is Emerging as an Indispensible Tool for Young Professionals

Eliminating social media or the Internet from our lives is no longer a practical option for most of us. The Internet and social media are tools, and like all tools we can choose to use it to our benefit or not. Like most millennials, both of us spend the majority of our days behind our laptop screens, and a large chunk of that time browsing through social media. But a lot of this time is neither destructive nor unproductive. As writers, social media enhances our professional development in many ways: whether it is blogging or connecting with other writers, the Internet at large provides a significant space to express and amplify one’s views on different issues. The interactive nature of the medium also helps gauge what those around you think, which helps a writer sharpen his/her own argument and views. 

Social media haters may label this communication as superficial. After all, nothing can replace human interaction, which is undisputable. But social media is not necessarily a substitute for human interaction; rather it is a starting point. A group called Political Dialogue India, which we are members of, is a network for young individuals working in the space of governance and policy to connect with each other. One of the group’s main objective is to spur offline dialogue and meetings. In the course of our work, we have connected with several professionals on Facebook or Twitter, and often those connections have evolved into friendships that are no longer limited to the virtual space. Spam and suspicious friend requests are of course an inevitable component of social media too. But networks like Facebook are fortunately trying to minimize this through the option of the ‘Other’s inbox, and the option to mark a friend requests as spam. 

Different kinds of social media can be beneficial for specific professions, and are often vital for young professionals. A friend in the art industry shared an experience in which an interviewer inquired about his Pinterest profile. Those applying for Public Relations jobs are often asked about their presence on Twitter. Instagram serves as a visual avenue through which brands, especially smaller ventures in the area of food, or design, and craftspeople of all sorts can showcase their products and share their talent. 

In an age of information overload, getting noticed is even more difficult. Many studies suggest that companies and universities screen candidates based on their online presence. Coupled with youth unemployment, it is easy to why young professionals flock to social media outlets that are vital to their industries. LinkedIn is centered on crafting your personal brand image. Teenagers have flocked to LinkedIn after the company’s August 2013 decision to allow teenagers as young as 13 (minimum age varies by country) to create profiles. Younger generations increasingly view the platform as an indispensible unit of the social media spectrum.  

Many Succumb to Superficial Interactions on Social Media 

Social media can help forge connections that are meaningful and useful, but the onus is on us. The way in which many of us use social media undervalues the importance of genuine communication. Insta-gratification is what most of us seek when we post a picture to see how many ‘likes’ it gets, as opposed to sharing something that we genuinely feel is important to convey. Sadly technology has also created a social language in which less communication is the norm. You can ‘stalk’ someone’s Facebook profile for hours, but can’t send him or her a message, because that’s ‘creepy.’ Another video called 'Could Have Been A Love Story' portrays how individuals hold back from communicating honestly and expressively in the digital world. Unfortunately these inhibitions that increase the superficial nature of our conversations carry over and exist in our offline interactions as well. ‘Awkward,’ a term that our generation is all too familiar with, is often used when referring to social behavior.

As far as genuine connections are concerned, we know a couple whose interactions began on social media. A Facebook message concerning job advice, which led to a lunch meeting, finally culminated in a romantic relationship that continues today. This story embodies the ‘all it takes is one real connection’ message, which the ‘smart phones and dumb people’ video emphasizes. But what most of us do not acknowledge is that genuine connections can begin online as well. 

Let’s move beyond the ‘Social Media: good versus evil’ debate

Most of us have squandered an absurd amount of unproductive time on social media platforms, but demonizing social media for our unproductivity is a clumsy perspective. The bane of procrastination has plagued us since time immemorial, whether it is videogames, watching TV, or doing anything that involves us being largely passive with minimal productive output. The advent of the Internet and social media simply increases the number of these outlets. Ultimately the question is not about how we can live without these platforms, but how we can put them to more constructive use in our lives. Moving beyond the ‘good versus evil’ debate around social media is key to answering this question.

Watch the video below:

Saanya Gulati is an alumnus of Tufts University with a B.A. in International Relations and Sociology, and co-founder of Political Dialogue India. She was previously a Legislative Assistant to a Member of Parliament (LAMP) Fellow at PRS Legislative Research. She tweets as @BombayDelhiGirl.

Digant Raj Kapoor holds an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge, where he was a Cambridge Commonwealth Trust Scholar. He is a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @DigantKapoor.

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