The Bluebird of Doom’s Social Dilemma
The year is 1999 and I am a digitally naïve 16-year-old about to experience my first web-based dopamine hit. My friend has dial-up on his family’s computer, we’re having a sleepover, and he introduces me to the uncensored, anonymous world of Java chat rooms. Anything goes. Anything can be said. Everything is said. Who’s to know? Who’s monitoring us? Much like the test subjects in Sugata Mitra’s “hole-in-the-wall” experiment, we are left unchecked. We giggle as we type words we’d blush to say out loud.
Fast forward to what, technologically, seems like an eon. It’s the end of 2021, and “doom and gloom” social media scrolling has left my mental health in tatters. A 6 month “cold turkey goal” begins to formulate. Zero social media contact. No lapses, passes, or “there’s an app for that” denial. A digital detox while acting as an online learning consultant for my division (there’s irony afoot). Netflix’s The Social Dilemma, a 2020 American docudrama directed by Jeff Orlowski, only spurs me to untangle myself from the Interweb.
Reflecting on the tail-end of my social media detox, the list of pros and cons cited in The Social Dilemma seems apt but finite.
Momma Always Said to Look on the Bright Side First
Let’s review some positives:
- Streamlined communication (For example: content creators with followers)
- Communication accessibility to those with (dis)abilities
- Instantaneous and expansive access to NEWS and information
- Digital accountability for words and actions
- Self-expression, collaboration, connection
- Former Firefox and Mozilla employee, Aza Raskin posits that Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 were intended for “humane technology,” despite current deviations.
- Worth noting is the questionable number of retired tech gurus interviewed for The Social Dilemma who proclaim their original honourable intentions while forever laying blame elsewhere…but I’ll save my judgment for another time.
Which of course leads us to…
But My Momma’s Nickname is the “Bluebird of Doom”
The negatives appear in spades:
- Political polarization and radicalization (I won’t link anything because I don’t want to give anyone more “hits” than they deserve)
- Fake news, misinformation, disinformation (great link to Civix for student lessons on these topics)
- Early online exposure and social media addiction
- Increased rates of youth body dysmorphia, anxiety, depression
- Information overload (this one hits personally)
- Targeted algorithms and “people as products”
- Loss of authentic connections and life skills
To name a few…
The Big Picture
But what do all these positive and negative bullet points, discussed in The Social Dilemma and our EC&I 833 class, mean for our schools and society? How has this affected us on personal and professional levels? I doubt WordPress contains enough bullet points to summarize the impact. As educators, we know the influence of social media has been palpable in the classroom. From more benign trends like bottle-flipping and TikTok dances to malignant teen incel rallies, social media has changed the depth and breadth of our educational interactions and responsibilities. What happens in the classroom can be broadcast globally. What happens digitally outside of school hours can be dramatically dragged in with the bell.
Despite inheriting my mother’s doomed bluebird tendencies, and my social media self-extraction, the web’s future is not entirely bleak. A wealth of information and engagement remains online for students to consume and create. Using social media, students can hear diverse perspectives and rally for social justice causes like never before.
In Marc Prensky’s journal article, H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom, he explores the duality of our digital evolution. Prensky’s hopeful “digital wisdom” perspective outlines the potential for increased data accessibility, deeper analysis and insightfulness, streamlined planning, and greater exposure to diverse perspectives. As Neil Postman would argue, however, each of these so-called gains results in losses elsewhere (sorry, “bluebirding” again).
A Bluebird’s Final Thoughts
It’s the ebb and flow of these gains and losses that highlight social media’s nuanced nature. At its best, in the hands of aware and empathetic digital citizens, social media can be used to learn, connect, and collaborate. At its worst, weaponized by hatred and bias, social media morphs into “the enemy.” The tool reflects the user.
As stated in The Social Dilemma, “something needs to change.” Ethical design, corporate accountability (cough cough…blame-shuffling Meta), and legislative reform are needed. In the meantime, awareness and accountability must begin with us and extend to our students if we wish to create “digitally wise” future generations.
Even this Bluebird of Doom hopes for that…
Points to Ponder
- What are your earliest memories of interacting with the internet – Web 1.0 or 2.0? Did you first use it educationally, mindlessly, or somewhere in between?
- Have you ever taken a social media hiatus? How do you navigate staying informed while protecting your mental health?
- Do you see social media as an agent for good/harm? Simply a reflection of the user?
- If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma, how would you rate it? Does it expose the web’s dark side….or not explore deeply enough?
- Do you agree with Prensky’s concept of digital wisdom? Is it possible?