Attempts to delineate or disentangle the “material” world from the so-called “virtual” one is an exercise in futility. Things that happen in the tangible world become the subjects of interest and debate in virtual social spaces, and vice versa. Although we cannot draw a clear distinction between where the “material” ends and the “virtual” begins, we can say that the virtual social-media networks we participate in create new ways of creating, disseminating, validating, and gaining information. For instance, virutal social-media “products” like memes, .gifs, “share” and “like” buttons, and blogs like this one allow us to engage with information and each other in new ways. Of course, social media also exposes one to high levels of disinformation through hoaxes an photoshopped images. But, false information are realities of the material world (and come from the material world too), so we must forgive the internet and realise that it is not the source of the age-old problem of the manufacturing of “truth”.
What I have enjoyed about this blog is the space it creates for me to reflect on and more deeply engage some of the developments and events that have gone “viral” in social media networks. In doing so, it has become clear to me that there are major events which have more of a life on social media than in the material world. Usually, this is due to the simple the fact that the majority of the world will engage in a “material” event virtually, while only a relatively small minority can fit into one physical space such as a stadium, arena, or court room. To participate in these events virtually is also to participate in the discursive eruptions which accompany them. Discourse is the vehicle of social media communications, be it in the form of images, videos, or typed text. Sometimes, these events are even virtual themselves, and take the form of something that has gone viral through social media networks, like the nefarious Kony 2012 campaign.
This is why I find it hugely worthwhile to engage in social media during such events. There is actually something unique about following twitter during events that have international interest. Local examples include the internationally televised Nelson Mandela memorial at Soweto stadium, and the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing in 2013 which had the world gripped (and distracted from work) by the 140 character messages produced by journalists tweeting from the courtroom.
Rapidly emerging and transforming discourses also have implications for social justice, in that they can confirm and promote, or subvert and challenge dominant stereotypes, prejudices, judgements, and inequalities. Of course, the existing digital divide mediates who is able to participate in this, but cellphone internet technologies are increasingly filling the void which once existed between those who could afford a PC and internet connection (predominantly those in the “developed” western world) and those who could not (the “developing” global south).
There is also a banality through which hate and violence occur, and forms of media can function in ways that are damaging and helpful. Consider, for instance, the role of the radio in the Rwandan genocide, or the effect of the May 2008 front page image that was printed in many South African newspapers depicting a Mozambican man on fire (with a police officer looking on smugly in the background) – the day this image appeared in papers, the already simmering levels of hatred towards African nationals boiled over in townships across the country.
Despite the power of social media, I am surprised when people act as though it is irrelevant or not worth a second thought. I know quite a few people who refuse to engage with, and entertain, social media at all. Sometimes, they claim that our fixation on social media is making us somehow less “authentic” as humans. This is a futile debate.The (virtual) reality is that the internet is here to stay, so we must take it seriously as a space where meaningful human communication occurs. What we really need to be concerned about is the pending infringements on our internet freedoms, like Angela Merkel’s recent proposal for a “Europeans Only” internet. While this proposal reflects Merkel’s glaring ignorance about how the internet actually works, it is a dangerous idea that would restrict flows of information and create segregated virtual spaces. The US government is also working to create restrictions that would severely censor information on the web. Bizarrely, protecting internet freedom may be an area of common interest between embattled conservatives and progressives.
I am grateful to have the space on this blog to write about things like this. A faster press than the slow turning wheel of academic knowledge production, and able to by-pass the usual time lags between events and their reporting in newspapers, social media allows us to get news out there in real time and discuss how we feel as we are feeling it. The wonders of human creativity are everywhere on the internet, and “social media events” allow us to collectively engage through one another.