Social media was the single most important cultural change in the noughties, creating an explosion in connectivity. The most important change began with the birth of Twitter in 2006. Prior to this, the largest social networks were Myspace and Facebook, both centred on the user. Both encouraged the creation of informative personal user accounts and status updates were largely limited to a commentary on a user’s personal life.
With the adoption of Twitter, the focus of social networks radically changed, becoming more centred on opinion and debate. Of course, this shift was inevitable as companies began to understand that the monetary opportunities existed around building marketing profiles of users. And this required more information than a list of what music and movies a user had added to their profile. It required a window into the thoughts of individuals and groups of individuals. Fortunately, users were more than happy to oblige, finding the idea of being given a voice to be heard by the masses, empowering.
This model of sharing an opinion from behind the safety of the internet, and getting feedback instantly fitted in with the model of instant gratification that the dot com generation had grown up to know and crave. From quick profits in the corporate world to intense demand for the latest smartphone in the consumer one, society demanded that the only things worth having are those that can be obtained easily, quickly and now.
Science backs up the idea of instant gratification too. The limbic system is a group of structures in the forebrain responsible in part for motivation, emotion and learning, and evolved when day to day survival was the main focus for the human species. Therefore, this part of the brain responds well to short term gratification – important when day to day survival is at stake. The advanced cortex which allows us to grasp long term consequences evolved millions of years after.
This manifests itself in how we respond to big societal issues in the modern world. Consider now, when society is outraged at an event or political decision, people are now likely to log online and vent their frustration in a series of 140 character passages of text. These will get liked, disliked, shared, and replied to – all increasing the value of the post in the eyes of the commenter. This releases the dopamine, the brain’s reward hormone, which instantly washes the commenter with a feeling of satisfaction. This signals to the brain that the issue has been raised, we’ve taken action and the release of dopamine as a reward tells the brain that no further action is necessary. The effect of this hormone is clearly demonstrated after sex when it is released, giving rise to a lethargic state of mind.
Ultimately the effect of this is that as a species, our outrage, reasoning and action is increasingly being confined to the instant gratification of the internet. As the threat of real world action reduces, so does the real accountability that people in power can be held to.
At this stage it may be pointed out that in December 2010 the internet facilitated major regime change in the Middle East (or more accurately and most notably, Egypt) in what is now known as the Arab Spring. The power of the internet and instant messaging in mobilising people in this situation was undeniable but also indicative of a government who didn’t realise the power of such a network at the time. Since then, governments around the world have woken up to the power of this threat, and increasingly are passing laws enabling the containment of such movements on the internet, should they spring up. This is line with the general movement of greater control on the internet, as we have seen recently with the EU passing laws allowing people to erase themselves from sensitive Google searches.
The bottom line is instant gratification is leading us down a path of self-induced political pacifism throttling all passion, outrage and feeling for a cause into a forum that can be easily contained by any interests that may well want certain opinions suppressed.
So in conclusion and rather ironically, the way to become more politically engaged where it matters most is to become less vocal where it matters least.