This feature was produced in collaboration with European Center for the Study of War and Peace.
This past week I had the pleasure of attending a couple of the events put on as a part of the Zagreb Book Festival
. This year’s theme was #SelfieCulture
and focused on the effect of social media in today’s world and literature. After listening to a panel discussion between Ari Turunen
, Igor Rudan
and Željka Matijašević
, as well as a lecture by Andrew Keen
, I feel a bit more informed as to the concerns surrounding the "selfie culture" that has become quite common in our world.
In today’s world social media takes up a lot of our time as we connect and communicate with all 400 of our very closest friends and family from all over the world. We have learned the right angles and filters to use as we present ourselves to the public. And that is what most of us present – a filtered life. We generally present the very best of ourselves, creating an outer veneer of perfection that – we hope – encourages others to like us. Both literally and sometimes, even more importantly, by pressing that small little thumbs-up symbol near the bottom of our post.
One of the panelists who spoke at the panel I attended was Ari Turunen
, a Finish writer and political scientist who has written multiple books analyzing the culture of Europe (primarily) from multiple different angles. One of his books entitled Don’t You Know Who I Am?
explores the history of arrogance. The argument in relation to social media goes that some of us have begun to place our self-worth in how many likes or followers we get; making our lives a popularity contest that Turunen related to the sort stereotypically found in an American high school. (As a former student of an American high school, I must say that my experience with popularity contests and drama was not nearly as extreme as Hollywood would like to make it seem.)
He also argued that we have become arrogant and narcissistic, and claims that it could be dangerous. On that point I would agree. I do think that a very self-focused outlook on life is dangerous and I would say that social media does provide us both the means and opportunities to get caught up in that sort of self-interested spiral. We can end up wasting our lives focused on our own reflections, much like Narcissus in Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection and ended up dying staring at his reflection in the pond. On the other hand, I would also argue that a lot of the people who use social media don’t use it only for self-interested purposes. Personally, I really only use it to communicate with friends and family. Which raises another problem.
This narcissistic attitude can also make us lose the ability to communicate effectively. Turunen argued that narcissists tend to lash out when provoked and do not have the ability to take criticism well. He argued that we see this in a lot of populist politicians – a prime example of which is Donald Trump. I can see what he is getting at. The more self-focused and infallible we think that we are, the less likely we are to take advice or criticism in the manner in which it is intended.
However, I don’t believe that this is a problem solely connected to social media. It’s something that has always been a part of our society. There have always been people who are more prone to that sort of thing, social media just happens to offer a platform for these people to court their desired attention and place where their voices can be heard by a larger percentage of the world’s population than they might have accessed in the past. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are ways that we can use this reach to promote good changes and causes that can span the globe and bring attention to important issues – like the #MeToo movement.
Causes like this move us away from a narcissistic attitude and the arrogance that Turunen talked about. However these weren’t the only concerns voiced over social media. The lecture I attended by Andrew Keen also voiced concerns in relation to social media. Keen is the author of four books: three of which voice concerns and skepticism over the rise and growth of the large web-based corporations that dominate Silicon Valley and one that tries to offer potential ways to combat this.
Keen ended his lecture on a more hopeful note when discussing what he referred to as the "digital natives" or the generation that has grown up with this sort of technology and social media sites. He argued that this generation is more used to these sites and are therefore able to use them in a more discerning manner than the generations who have had to adapt to the technology of the modern age. Personally, I would tend to identify more with the "digital natives" portion of the population. I feel that people in my generation are beginning to stick to primarily using one or two sites. And while we don’t necessarily escape the emphasis on the more self-focused attitude that is perpetuated on these sites, I do believe that it is toned down significantly.
I have a hopeful look on the future of technology. One of these opportunities lies in the realm of books and literature. The rise in technology has led to new methods of reading material through the rise in e-books as well as new ways for authors to publish their work as websites have been created for aspiring authors to get their drafts read by a wider community and has made self-publication significantly easier. This too has negatives – we can question the quality of what is published; the e-book market has cut into the print sales – but it has also given us a lot of new stories and subject matter for both fiction and non-fiction books, like those written by Ari Turunen and Andrew Keen. And, as much as I love the convenience of e-books, I still prefer and love the books that I own to be in hard copy.
It is important for us to look at the problems that exist with technology and social media sites. It is important for us to look at the ways in which they are changing the culture of the world. It is also important for us to recognize the new opportunities and avenues that have been opened to us through these sites. There have always been difficulties in the years surrounding advances in technology and in this day and age those advances are happening very quickly. However, once the initial difficulties and concerns are worked through, I believe that we will be able to move away from a self-focused popularity contest and fears toward a realm of new possibilities. We won’t end up like Narcissus whose life slips away as he stares at his own reflection.