On the Digital Age

Social media: A profile is a broadcast

Back in 2000, it wasn't really possible for an individual to reach a wide audience, except perhaps through their work. The exceptions were minor: political leafleting, vox pop on TV or radio, a community magazine, maybe Speaker's Corner. Now any fool can open a Facebook, Twitter or Blogger account and instantly become a broadcaster. And many of us do. A simple Facebook profile page is a method of broadcasting, even if that isn't its prime intention.

Many of the pitfalls of social media arise from people, especially children, failing to recognise the difference between one-to-one communication and one-to-many broadcasting. We are inexperienced broadcasters and we make mistakes. Even the professionals sometime get it wrong on Twitter, because they don't always recognise that a few keystrokes on a phone constitute a broadcast.

There's a loss of control of information when it's broadcast and reaches the public domain. The genie can't be put back in the bottle. This is a big problem for children and adolescents who wish to explore elements of their personality without committing to permanent change. They're still not sure who they are and one week they may be character A and the following week character B. This is tricky if character A makes it as far as the Facebook profile. A psychologist can spot the multiple aspects of a personality and the progression to the final model, but a lay-person or another child doesn't have the skill to do this and may get stuck on their friend being character A and resist them moving on to B. By doing so they become a drag on their friend's personal development, not necessarily through anything malicious but because they're unable to keep pace.

There are two further dangers with personal profiles, even within the sphere of the user's own control. One is that profiles are self-centred. They tend to be made up of I did this and I did that. This isn't so bad in a personal diary or journal, which tends to be private and may even be a useful tool in personal progression. But when it's public there's a danger of narcissism. For those who haven't read the Greek morality tale (condensed to a few lines on the web) Narcissus was a mythological character who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, and being unable to abandon the object of his desire, eventually died. There's no example of a Facebook user staring at their own profile until they fade away, but then it's early days. There are certainly examples of people spending too much time on their profile.

A connected issue is that of self-image and what's called mirroring. In real life we don't know all that much about what others think of us. And what little we do know is probably wrong. If we're half-way well-balanced we simply assume this is the way of the world and almost unfixable and we get on with our life anyway. Also we don't spend all that much time in front of the mirror, except for that brief period of sexual bloom when we know we look wonderful and a few extra minutes at the mirror will turn us into showstoppers. Otherwise it's a quick inspection to make sure the wrinkles and blemishes haven't progressed too far and there's nothing unsightly dangling from the nostrils.

A profile though is a written mirror, and it must be accurate because we wrote it ourselves. Aside from the danger of narcissism and self-obsession, there are further traps at the other end of the scale. Is that all we've done with our lives? Is that all we've done in the past month? Why aren't we as witty and confident as character C from the Hitler Appreciation Group? Through viewing ourselves in a mirror, we may see ourselves as monarch of the realm, or we may see ourselves as Cinderella scrubbing the fireplace. Neither thought is very good for our well-being. In the real world, generations of experience brought us broad control over the dangers of introspection, but now we have to learn them all over again for the digital world.

In time, we'll learn to deal with all the pitfalls. The next generation will be born to parents who used social media themselves, so can advise their kids who naturally won't listen, but that's an age old problem and nothing to do with the Digital Age. It's likely that the worst problems were experienced by the first generation of adopters, and later generations should do better.


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