How addictive is social media? Is it responsible for anxiety and mental illness? Is it a happy democracy or an evil dictatorship? These were but some of the issues raised in a lively discussion on Digital Narcissism at the Alliance Francaise (AF) Ahmedabad on Wednesday. The audience actively participated in the proceedings from the onset, telling personal stories and debating the issues with gusto.
Opening the discussion, AF director Emannuelle Bottiau pointed out that social media sites charge no fee, but they come at a cost to the user. “ We pay in the form of our time, energy, cultural data, our self-esteem. For companies, the data we provide is a gold mine,” he said.
Should we, then, look upon social media with suspicion? Veteran French photo journalist Frederic Noy feels it’s a game to be played and we can win if we understand the rules. “If you consciously use it as a tool, social media is good. But if you get addicted and spend all your time scrolling the sites with no purpose, it is bad,” he said.
Frederic, 58, who is now based in Ahmedabad and working on several projects (including one on India’s LGBTQ community) said age plays a role on how you use social media. “My brain is wired differently from the new generation. I grew up before social media, so I learned to interact with people face-to-face. Today, social media is important to what I do, I can’t live without it. But I can maintain some distance and objectivity.”
Is the social media debate just based on a generational divide? For a while, it did seem like it was only the 35-plus set in the audience who were critical of social media, while the younger set are perfectly comfortable with it. One 38 year old mother in the audience talked of how her 14 year old daughter had told her that spending quality face-time is an archaic social construct. “When I ask her what she does on the Net, she asks me why I want to know,” she said.
But then, one young member of the audience spoke out on how she feels a sense of anxiety whenever she is on social media. Another young man said that though he interacts easily on social media, he feels uncomfortable talking with people face-to-face. One person pointed to a recent study by Yale University that shows how social media adversely affects the mental health of young adults, especially women.
Panelist Renu Pokharna countered by saying her 72-year-old father spends more time on the Net than she does, so it isn’t so much a matter of age as of mind-set. “Social media is democratic, and in any democracy people will choose who they want to follow, who they like. On the bright side, social media has given a voice to the most marginalised communities,” she said.
Stand-up comedian Preeti Das, who was also on the panel, pointed to the humour in this kind of dicing: “On the Net, I can join a group for dark skinned women, or buck-tooth women or women who have had their uterus removed. But there’s enormous pressure on performers like me when people measure my worth based on the number of followers I have. I get gigs based on this. I have a Blue Tick on Instagram, but that comes with its own pressures.”
Several panelists felt social media content is “mediocre,” catering to the lowest common denominator. But that is the nature of democracy. “I would get 100s of likes if I put a picture of myself in a pretty dress like the one I’m wearing today. But if I put up something on the causes I work for, the number of likes would be less than five,” said Renu.
But then again, is social media really democratic? AF’s Emannuelle Bottiau thinks not. “Social media is a dictatorship,” he says. “The dictator is the technology, the algorithm. It dictates how we should behave, so we may get the most likes or stars. In time, every social interaction will be rated, like we rate the Uber driver or the Uber driver rates us.”
The panel discussion was a part of the AF’s world-wide Night of Ideas series that Emannuelle says will become a regular activity at AF Ahmedabad. Judging by the success of the discussion on “Digital Narcissism” it will be a series that Ahmedabad’s denizens can look forward to.