Pretend like its 1993

Blurring boundaries between our actual and digital lives, social media is fast alienating people from reality, and hence dismantling our sense of community

Wi-Fi Password: Talk to each other, call your mom, pretend like its 1993. I recently stumbled upon this sign inside a café in Karachi. It was a friendly reminder by the owner to enjoy the moment. Today, four people sitting at a dinner table all looking down into their telephone screens is no longer considered an odd site. Someone is taking endless pictures of their food for Instagram (the lighting, angle and filter — all must be just right), while another is checking into the restaurant on Facebook. The event takes place in one room. But the ideal version of the event occurs on social media.

In 1637, French philosopher René Descartes argued the proof of human existence as: Cogito, ergo sum — I think therefor I am. Today, this conceptualisation is quickly being altered by social media to ‘I post therefore I am’. People frequently want to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ through their Instagram photos and Facebook likes, for social media gives them control over their lives when the real world isn’t so kind. It is a place where faces are always flawless, friends add up to hundreds, and the days are spent chasing likes. Social media platforms have created another two dimensional sphere in which an individual can exist on their own terms. But this flat new world is both dangerous and deceptive.

According to the Global Digital Report 2018, there are currently over 3.1 billion active social media users across the earth — meaning 42 percent of the world population. Of the many social media platforms currently available, Facebook is the fastest growing social network with over 2.2 billion active users followed by WhatsApp and Instagram respectively. Consequently, today ideas travel like wild fire for a single individual can speak to a hundred others all at once. And the by-product of this mass virtual gathering has become the trendy new notion of ‘viral’— stemming from the word virus.

Music videos, social campaigns, challenges etc. are all concepts which tend to go viral. People share, engage and replicate these notions, there by making new waves in society. Recently, the ‘kiki’ challenge gained much popularity across social media platforms. Inspired by Instagram comedian Shiggy, the challenge requires an individual to dance alongside a moving car to Drake’s latest hit ‘In My Feelings’. But the fun and games fast lead to people being injured. Warnings against taking up the challenge were issued in several countries including India and the UAE. The occurrence, however, is not the first of its kind.

Sensations stirred up by social media have frequently caused harm in the past. During 2012, the salt and ice challenge invited participants to test their tolerance for pain by pouring salt over their hand and then holding an ice cube against it. Many youngsters suffered third degree burns as a result. But the madness had only just begun, for then came the fire challenge. In 2014 individuals were pouring flammable liquids on their body and setting them on fire while being taped. Several young boys in the US were hospitalised as a result. Although the number of individuals attempting such viral challenges is nominal, their occurrence speaks volumes about the power of social media over human minds.

Absorbed by the world on our telephone screens, we know what someone sitting in a different continent is doing but not how the person sitting before us is feeling

Last year Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, admitted that his social media application works by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”. This underpins research carried out by neuroscientists in 2014, which claimed Facebook triggers the same impulsive part of the brain as gambling and substance abuse. The obsession of taking selfies has been identified as a psychological disorder — termed ‘Selfitis’ — in a study published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. Selfie-related injuries and deaths continue to rise. We are willing to cross all boundaries simply to paint the perfect versions of ourselves for the world to see on social media. But at what cost?

Blurring boundaries between our actual and digital lives, social media is fast alienating people from reality, and hence dismantling our sense of community. Solidarity has shifted from active engagement to the passive use of filters and hashtags. Recently, a survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health concluded that social media platforms, namely Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, have detrimental effects on the wellbeing of youth, aggravating anxiety and depression. And this is no surprise. Today we are more connected but have fewer connections. The number of active social media users continue to rise. But so do suicide rates. According to the World Health Organisation, one person commits suicide every forty seconds.

Absorbed by the world on our telephone screens, we know what someone sitting in a different continent is doing but not how the person sitting before us is feeling. So next time you sit down to eat: talk to each other, call your mom, pretend like it’s 1993.

The writer has a Masters in media with a distinction from the London School of Economics. She Tweets @mawish_m

Published in Daily Times, September 12th 2018.