The digital media revolution in the 21st century is one of the most amazing phenomena that we have witnessed so far. It has transformed the lives of people in every sphere of life. For example, if one must learn something new, open YouTube, type the key words and in mere seconds numerous pages, channels, and videos pop up at one’s service.
Similarly, if one must keep up with the latest fashion trends and branding strategies, one must follow the hashtags on Instagram. If one needs to find the latest news and happenings and get in touch with distinguished communities of scholars, Twitter is there. What is the future of such platforms in the coming 100 years? How do they affect our social identity and where are we heading towards? What impact do these platforms have on our social lives? Is it just a tool to generate the economy and paralyse people, or will it provide meaning to our lives? Although there are a large number of digital media apps that everyone is associated with in one way or the other, as they have easy access, a simple interface, and are easy to operate, such apps have created a dichotomy in how we view the world. In the words of Henri Tajfel, a British social psychologist, social interactions can inculcate meaning into our social situations.
In today’s world, social interaction is more prone to virtual worlds than that of physical interaction. Thanks to globalization, people living in various corners of the world possess smart phones and internet connections to keep in touch with their family and friends. However, there are some serious questions looming in society. With more access to apps like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, etc., we are losing our connection to nature, socially created norms, politically chartered rules and laws, and economically generated values.
The prominent psychologist in the field of psychology, Ivan Pavlov, produced extraordinary work on classical conditioning that focused on how animal behaviour can be controlled. He introduced some conditional and unconditional stimuli to animals, which allowed them to perform actions like eating when they were exposed to those stimuli. Likewise, in the same fashion, we humans are prone to this conditioning method as well. For instance, when our smartphones beep, we are conditioned to take our smartphones out of our pockets to check notifications to see if people have liked the pictures and videos that were posted on Facebook a while ago. Similarly, sitting in a cafeteria with friends, when any of them takes out his/her phone, we all do the same and look for the texts and phone calls. This is unconditioned stimuli. Such behaviour is so intact that we feel dependent on digital media apps. This dependence is a matter of concern.
Furthermore, with the increased use of social media, we are losing our identity. Identity, according to Henri Tafjel, is the core belief of who we are and to which group we belong. Language and culture are the primary motivators in shaping one’s identity. However, with the advent of digital media, the mass media went under transformation. Not for who they are, but to be known to others for something they are not. Famous apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., give men freedom to be whoever they want to be, and have made them sociotechnical slaves.
How are digital media applications accessible in an effortless form? Infrastructure and platforms give us freedom to perform as we please. Lisa Park and Nicole Starosielski, in their book, “Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructure,” highlight the social, political, and cultural implications of communication networks (internet, television, and telecommunications) by studying how they distribute messages across space and time. The goal is not only to study the means of communication, but rather to show the material transport of information (the signal traffic), which reframes traditional questions of media production, circulation, access, and policy regulation. Similarly, the platforms are the result of intense work on infrastructure. In the past, we have witnessed several internet companies, typically described as platforms, reach the scale, indispensability, and level of use typically achieved previously by infrastructures. Google and Facebook are perhaps the most compelling examples of this infrastructural evolution of digital platforms.
Facebook started in 2007 as a student repository application, but as a platform it has provided people with information in a timely fashion. Per se, we can communicate with our friends and family wherever they are considered to be located. Consider that in previous times, when technology was not readily available and there were no fast means of communication, people had to wait for telegrams and letters. Facebook, like many other apps, provides online communication to people (connectivity).
Data access and knowledge are at one’s finger tips, thanks to Facebook. COVID-19 is the latest dramatic chapter of the 21st century. This event prompted digital media apps to make institutions and organisations more accessible. The online surveys and posting of precautionary measures to users in combating the deadly virus is itself an achievement for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) in general, and Facebook in particular (datafication).
Similarly, the learning process has been made easy. There are numerous pages of different genres like food, travel, adventure, sports, and crafts from which people learn. Due to the huge number of advantages that Facebook enjoys among many digital media apps, there are still challenges such as identity crisis, impression management, and so on.
Firstly, the users of Facebook are not safe in the cyber space world. Their data, which includes their pictures, videos, and check-ins, is all available on their profile, which may be used against them. One of such incidents took place in Azerbaijan. In November 2019, political activist and public figure Gultekim Hajibeyh’s Facebook page got hacked. Her followers were removed from her account and derogatory remarks were posted. However, her account was later recovered, but incidents like that are a matter of concern in the future.
Another drawback of being associated with apps like Facebook is a waste of time. Facetime is a feature which is used to describe the spontaneous usage of an app for longer periods of time. Youth, who serve as the backbone of every nation, waste their time using Facebook and other apps. This complex socio-technical process has changed society and their actual purpose of life.
To critically evaluate the phenomenon of identity process in this socio-technical process, human beings have lost the true meaning of life. Nowadays, men and women are more concerned about how they are perceived virtually. They prefer being liked on digital apps to being talked to. The true meaning and joy of life is when you do something good and you have the feeling of doing it again, not whether someone likes it or not.
The digital media progression has made the lives of people miserable. They are in no man’s land. According to a survey of media and society, 75% of people upload their pictures and videos just to get themselves acknowledged. Digital media is also being manipulated by the wrong people to create chaos and panic in society. Digital media apps have no doubt made an impact and imprints on our lives. However, the impressions they make can create havoc in the lives of people. Nations and their institutions must ensure the best possible ways to monitor the use of these apps, which have the power to change the perception of fragile minds. Similar efforts must be made to give both genders the respect they deserve.
*Sikandar Azam Khan is a Research Officer at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN).