Social media collapse space and time, connecting us, person-to-person, around the globe so that we know, intimately, what others are doing, from what Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is buying at the supermarket to Lady Gaga’s new tattoo. Society-without-walls: it’s the “global village” or “global theatre” Marshall McLuhan was proclaiming back in the 1960’s, a place where we are all spectators, and all actors.
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I looked down at my grocery basket today and couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. I’m still paying my student loans, and while I try to make my own meals; I also quite often will resort to a frozen dinner or take out. These are luxuries I never had growing up, and as I looked down at my basket today, I couldn’t help but think of all the times as a child that I complained about eating rice & beans for what felt then like the 10,000th time. Rice and beans was our staple meal, and we ate it the vast majority of days. As a kid I eventually complained about it. I got tired of eating the same thing all the time, and I wanted to have the elaborate meals I saw children eating on TV. . Now, being an adult with bills and having had to scrimp and calculate everything for years, I feel terrible about it. My parents were young and trying to raise two kids on a dime. Eating rice and beans every day is what allowed me to go on school trips and play soccer. I didn’t get it then – my parents didn’t want me to feel limited – but I really feel guilty for it now. . When I graduated college, my first job paid $45k. It was more than my mother made in her entire life. There is a lot of guilt and strange emotions that comes with that, but now when I think about those moments – those dinners where I whined because I didn’t understand the sacrifice my parents were making – all I can do is try to take that guilt and turn it into everyday gratitude. . I’m thankful. Half the time I don’t feel deserving of how my life has turned out over the last year. It brings a lot of stress and complications, but I’m not afraid for my own survival the way I used to be when I didn’t have insurance or when the restaurant was dead for weeks in a row and I wasn’t making the tips I needed to pay rent. All I can do is be thankful. I thank my creator and every well-wisher, supporter, organizer, family, and friend. And dedicate my life now to working as hard as I can so that everyone in this country can have the opportunities needed to be blessed with a basket like the one I have today. . (Also sorry to be posting pics of food in the middle of Ramadan! ?? When inspiration strikes ya gotta do what ya gotta do)
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are the logical extension – in the McLuhanist sense – of the Short Message Service (SMS) function of mobile phones. SMS already largely obsolesces the social telephone call, breaking it into a series of visual messages (text and images). However, where the SMS is shared with with just one or a few, the audience for the social media ‘post’ is (potentially) everyone, which radically extends the reach of the ‘conversation’.
Conversation itself is a form of symbolic exchange, which – in anthropological terms – is a process designed to limit aggression between individuals or groups, or, you might say, to build trust. With the evolution of social media as an extension of the SMS, which is an extension of the phone call, which is an extension (in space and time) of face-to-face conversation, what we have is a conversation that is barely recognisable as a conversation – where every ‘like’ functions much the same as a nod or ‘mm-hm’ in conversation – not necessarily signifying anything but, importantly, allowing the conversation to continue.
At a time when social media can ‘make or break’ the success of artists, sportspeople, brands, corporations and even governments, it is imperative that we try to understand the dynamics of these new and proliferating forms, so that we can both avoid their pitfalls and harness their powers.
Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt wrote in 1972:
The only method for perceiving process and pattern is by inventory of effects obtained by the comparison and contrast of developing situations.’ (Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, p.8, emphasis in original)
I have taken this as my directive here, so that, as McLuhan did for television and “electronic communications media”, I can start to interpret some of the patterns of change being wrought by social media upon our relationships, our work, and every other aspect of our lives.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment, or to contact me via the ’email’ function on my Facebook page. 🙂
Image of Marshall McLuhan: Afflictor