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A power of the powerless?

| Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The use of social media has increased by massive numbers over the past decade, with everyone from teenagers to seniors being drawn into the wave of digitization. Apps and platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat allow users to keep up-to-date with the happenings of their friends, as well as the latest news of the day. What drives us to connect and follow and join social media? Is there something more than just a desire to keep up with our friends driving us to download the latest apps and technology? The unspoken urge to get social media, and the social fallout that occurs if you don’t upgrade, may actually speak to a much more inherent and deep seated ideology than mere “Fear Of Missing Out.” And the thing is, we may not even know that we are conforming to it.

“The Power of the Powerless” is an essay that was written in the 1970s by Vaclav Havel—a Czechoslovakian writer and politician—which theorizes on how dissent fits into the inherent conformity in communist nations. In this monumental essay, Havel talks about what life as a cog in a broader system of machine-like control looks like. Among the many ideas and topics that are raised is the hypothetical situation of a “greengrocer,” who puts up a sign in his shop that reads “workers of the world unite.” Does the greengrocer believe those words or is he putting them up as an act—subconscious or conscious—of conformity, with the underlying ideology of what Havel describes as “post-totalitarian” government? The moment he puts up the sign, the sign becomes more than that. It becomes a symbol of his obedience to a social order that emphasizes conformity.

Whether or not we are living in the post-totalitarian world that Havel discusses is the topic for an entirely different essay. However, the subconscious act of the greengrocer has important significance to the modern use of social media. More specifically, whenever we get social media or download the latest sharing app, we are putting up the sign of the greengrocer.

An important distinction to make is between FOMO and the subconscious adherence to an underlying ideology. I postulate that they are, in fact, the same thing. Potentially more riveting is the question of whether we are truly subconscious or if we get and stay on social media because we are well aware of some kind of consequence, a consequence we are trying to avoid. The greengrocer in “The Power of the Powerless” puts up the sign in his store because he is aware of the ever-present threat of force the state wields. With this knowledge present, subconscious or conscious regardless, he puts up the sign to avoid this threat. In the case of social media use, then, what is the “threat,” if there is indeed one? The threat is the backlash that occurs if you don’t have the latest and greatest social media. In the face of large percentages of the population having social media, those without it are left behind and isolated—an ironic choice of words in an increasingly digital world—from the means of communication that their peers have.

Applying the example of the greengrocer on a deeper level, however, the use of social media goes beyond keeping in touch with other people and friends. Whether we mean it or not, we are really conforming to the ideas of a bigger, larger interest that transcends our own. The question that begs asking then is what is this hidden, controlling interest that motivates our update, trend-driven mentality?

The answer is the multi-billion-dollar corporate interests that control, own and founded the social media platforms we are all on. Using user data, they learn what the “pulse of the times” is, and then use that information to advertise trends and products that we are likely to buy. An article written in PCWorld tells how Facebook, Google and other platforms collect user data and “sell you to advertisers,” all with the goal of tailoring the ads you see to goods and services they think we want. The goal is efficient advertising to make more money, and if corporations have to control what content we see, take our information and make us feel obligated to get social media, they will do so.

In accordance with the greengrocer, then, social media is a form of control. Social media was, perhaps, formed with the altruistic motive of promoting individual opinion, connecting friends and increasing the efficiency of all of these processes. But what if, in the name of giving people a voice, social media has taken away, or sculpted that voice, into the shape of some norm or ideal? Havel states that “the primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.” Social media presents ads tailored to what viewers click on and search. Algorithms use information of what we click on and search to show users more of the same material. Some apps, such as Snapchat, allow the user to manually filter content. Thus, on the one hand, social media is enclosing us in our own worlds, allowing us to filter content and get the same opinion and perspectives fed back to us. Social media is increasingly being used to keep up-to-date with current affairs issues and news—as published by a blog called the globalwebindex, and the use of these algorithms tailors and controls what content we see.

We aren’t really getting a free, uncensored opinion on a fundamental level. We are at the mercy of large corporations that control what we see while they send our information to advertisers.

Inevitably the argument that social media isn’t anything close to the greengrocer’s sign could be made. After all, if people are getting on to social media to avoid the negative consequences of a fallout of not having social media, then how do you explain cyber bullying? This is a very negative consequence of using social media, and in a survey conducted in schools located in England by the HMC, almost two-thirds of the students stated that they would not mind if social media never existed at all. However, this still does not separate the scenario from the greengrocer. He puts up his sign to avoid the negative consequences he knows exist in society. However, this does not guarantee him automatic immunity from them. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of many socialist or communist countries is the secret police they weaponized to keep control over dissent, often conducting “witch hunts” to search out those who they thought would compromise the government. Among many places, secret police existed in the Soviet Union and in Czechoslovakia, and Havel himself was at their mercy numerous times.

On the other hand, social media has often been the instrument against conformity. The outspoken organization of hackers called Anonymous, which works for radical social change, albeit through controversial methods at times, has its own Twitter account. The MeToo movement, which has united women against abuse and misconduct in society, has employed social media to bolster to this already powerful movement. This perhaps speaks to the sections of “The Power of the Powerless” where Havel talks about what happens when the greengrocer fights back against the system. This fight may or may not be as widespread as it should be, however.

I am not saying that we should all delete our apps and start contacting each other with handwritten letters and emails. Social media has, undeniably, impacted our world immensely by letting us contact one another in increasingly more efficient, quick and effective ways. I am not questioning this. However, I am asking you, dear reader, to question the inherent sense of obligation you may or may not realize you feel when you download social media from the app store. Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter are the signs put up in the mart of the greengrocer. Again, I am not asking for us to delete our social media accounts. I am merely asking for us to reach up and cut the marionette strings that corporate interests have attached to us.

Because then, we won’t be using social media because everyone else is using it. We’ll be using it out of an inherent and authentic desire that we came up with.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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