Today is perhaps the greatest era of social commentary, even more so than just yesterday. We live in a world where everyone is a publisher and one-to-many-communication is the easiest it has ever been. Of course I am talking about social media. Any single person has the opportunity to express, document, and publish their view on anything – this restaurant, that movie, what your girlfriend did, how pretty your dog is. Lighthearted, flippant posting is great social fun, but challenging hard issue on social media brings a new level of responsibility to the people of the web.
Before social media it was hard to weigh in on society. The avenues of being heard were slight – newspapers, radio, television, books, etc. Some of the most powerful social commentary, I think, was disguised in fiction. It is the form of social commentary I most respect because it plants an idea without ever fully acknowledging it. Take George Orwell’s 1984 for example. He argued for the conformity of society and living in a policed state by vastly exaggerating current practices and planting them in the future. You read it as fiction, but rarely does a day go by that 1984 isn’t mentioned in political argument.
We need to think about how powerful social media can be. In the Arab Spring, social media in the Middle East gave rise to one of the largest people’s revolts of all time. The spread of ideas and expressions of injustice began on Facebook. It is one of the reasons China bans Facebook and heavily watches their social media – to control social commentary.
Thinking about Orwell and how influential his work was, as fiction, even, the possibilities of strong social commentary open wide. Think about Banksy speaking through his protest art in public places. Think about Rosa Parks, speaking through action. Think about Ghandi who spoke through peace. The avenues of social commentary are open, and in a time where one avenue is easier to access than any other, we as a society need to think about how deep or shallow our messages have become, and what other routes we can take to have our messages heard.
Exploring these alternate paths is important because social media can destroy the weight of a message. People lament on social media daily. The post-and-run strategy during the gay rights movement and the gun control movements made some of the important messages frivolous. Social media glorifies horrendous acts by allowing them to spread virally, which causes mass familiarization and decreases the shock value that often calls people to act.
The UCSB Isla Vista tragedy, Aurora theater shooting, Virginia Tech murders, and Sandy Hook massacre can all serve as examples, because all of these tragedies have morphed together in rants on social media. But the ranting is just that – a rant. As the rants add up without inciting action, the rants become superficial, shallow and irresponsible. It allows the issue to hide in plain sight, so to speak. The issue goes well-noticed but largely untouched.
So, while it is easy to offer commentary today, easier now than ever, I would challenge any person to observe or use social media on a deeper level. To anyone looking for honest action, I challenge you to explore other levels of social commentary. Yes, even something so simple as direct conversation – the art of word-of-mouth, in a literal sense, is still one of the most powerful tools of influence, yet also one that is quickly losing ground as people retreat in argument, contention, and controversy to their screens.