For more than six hours, on the evening of October 4th, billions of people had to put their social and business activities on hold as the most popular platforms (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) got stuck for technical reasons. The huge financial losses, human panic, and mental turbulences caused by the Facebook failure, that night, came as a reminder that social media has become an indispensable feature of our existence.
These platforms’ ability to instantly connect people in the virtual life, has become an integral part of the daily real-life routines of human beings, from all age groups and cultural backgrounds. The consequences of service drop went far beyond prohibiting billions of people, worldwide, from checking on or communicating with their loved ones. Tens of thousands of companies, which are depending on social media platforms for running or marketing their businesses, lost millions of dollars over a few hours of stale operation. Facebook Incorporation, itself, lost seven billion dollars over that night.
Around the time of Facebook’s and affiliated platforms’ outage, last week, a former Facebook employee testified before the Senate and leaked information to major American media outlets about the danger Facebook and Instagram poses to the mental wellbeing of teenagers and the threat they represent to democracy. “I am here today because I believe that Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, and weaken our democracy… The company’s leadership knows how to make Facebook and Instagram safer but won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their astronomical profits before people. Congressional action is needed. They won’t solve this crisis without your help;” Frances Haugen, former product manager at Facebook, testified before the Senate.
Surprisingly, anti-social media advocates saw Haugen’s statements and the Facebook temporary failure as a relief from what they call “social media addiction,” which they claim has blocked them from living a normal life. There is no clear definition for what they mean by “normal life” and no explanation on why they cannot adapt to the new form of living using modern-day technology. But, as usual, blaming objects for humans’ failure to control themselves is an attractive topic that many people easily digest. We have seen people saying similar accusations about radio and television when they first appeared in the past century. Actually, the debate about humans being distracted by new objects of their own creation is as old as Socrates and Aristotle.
Unfortunately, Facebook and social media platforms, in general, have been put under the radar of governments, for a while. If there is one thing that democratic and dictator governments may agree on; this thing will be the need to put the brakes on citizens’ use of social media. Haugen’s leaks could easily be counted as part of the larger battle, that has been going, for at least the past five years, between social media and traditional governments.
This conflict reached a peak point in 2017-2019, when international campaigns, online and offline, were launched by vague sponsors to encourage young people, who represent the majority of consumers, to boycott social media. These campaigns went as far as claiming that social media platforms can damage mental health and steal lives. At one point, they held social media accountable for letting Trump win the American presidential elections in 2017, claiming that Facebook manipulated the voters.
In 2020, those anti-social media campaigns proved to be a big scam when social media platforms became the only way out, for most humans on Planet Earth, during the long quarantine months, imposed by governments to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Literally, people would have gone crazy if they could not communicate with their loved ones, during these tough times. In today’s world, social media platforms are the primary source of news and the fastest form of communication. Avoiding social media, in our age, is similar to asking people to be willingly paralyzed and easily controlled.
Personally, I have seen social media empowering women in conservative communities to fight against systemic social and government oppression. I was one of the many young activists, who brought down dictators during the Arab Spring revolutions, by using social media to deliver our message and mobilize supporters. I have also seen social media helping refugees, fleeing Middle East civil wars and terrorism, and saving their lives.
In that sense, the problem is not in social media platforms, no matter how attractive or addictive they are designed to be. The problem is in our behavior on social media. If you spend your whole day hanging out at shopping malls and coffee shops, you won’t blame the shops for being designed to attract you. Rather, you should blame yourself for not being able to control your goal-less impulses and plan your priorities. That is exactly the case with social media platforms. If you have to blame someone for your problems, it is you, not the platform.
You do not need to boycott social media to be happy or free. On the contrary, you need to immerse yourself in the unique and revolutionary experience of communicating through a virtual platform. To be happy and free, you need to change your perception about how much you value your time and manage your life. Ironically, social media can help you make this change! Social media is part of this age’s “normal” way of living.