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Searching for optimism amidst social media’s failed utopia

Perhaps Facebook first comes to mind. Upon its inception, the social, cultural, and political possibilities of Facebook as a vehicle for profound human connection seemed limitless. Both the fledgling company itself and popular discourse seemed assured of the platform’s unparalleled capacity to transform the qualitative nature and quantitative scope of human relations.

Facebook, and social media as a whole, would supposedly usher in a new era of increased information, mutual empathy, and shared understanding. Technology could be collectively benevolent, even if humans can be individually malevolent. Human utopia was near—all we had to do was connect and follow. Friendship was foundational to a better world, both online and off.

Such sweeping optimism has undoubtedly been relegated to the headlines of history. Facebook, rather than facilitating empathetic human understanding at the global scale, more frequently spreads state propaganda, political vitriol, and cat videos.

Instagram, rather than showcasing the beauty and diversity of social life, more frequently spreads self-objectification, digitally-induced imposter syndrome, and an endless anxiety-jealousy complex.

Twitter, while notable for its insufficient anti-hate speech guidelines, at least seems to cultivate reflexivity, humor, and sustained political engagement. Even Venmo, its status as a social media platform hotly disputed by the powers at be, seems to impose a neoliberal framework of valuation and economization upon digitally-ascribed friendships.

LinkedIn, a scourge of modernity I attempt not to remember, smells like a business school conference room, but tastes like a frat house’s basement.

Social media, as a conglomeration of digital platforms, burcreatized corporate structures, and compromised ideological justifications, thus has undoubtedly failed to achieve the lofty promises and aspirational rhetoric of the first decade of the 21st century.

Sorrowful realism has replaced unbridled optimism as the conventional characterization of social media in the common consciousness. Such pragmatism and critique are warranted, as social media increasingly operates in ideological and spatial spheres beyond and apart from the routinized performance of a sole individual. Social media reflects an ultimate paradox of modernity: the structures that most impact each individual assume a normative power that delimits the individual into mere objects.

To borrow from Foucault and Gramsci, social media has perhaps taken on a life of its own, simultaneously reflecting and reproducing toxic discourse and a hegemony of commodified human relations.

And yet, despite such searing (perhaps excessive) criticism, I am likely enmeshed in the digital world of likes, retweets, shares, and pins as much as the average college student. I am embedded in the digital world as much as the digital world is embedded in me.

Why is it that I made a LinkedIn account over the summer? Why is it that I implicitly care about my followers-to-following ratio on Instagram?

While such acknowledgment may expose me to charges of hypocrisy, I contend that the addictive nature of social media and its imposition of expansive, yet subtle conformity constitutes prima facie evidence for its hegemonic existence. We still participate in social media even as we level criticism against its societal purpose.

In the end, does hegemony leave much space for widespread sociopolitical change or active solidarity? What stands in the way of more robust political engagement by and through social media?

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even WeChat are interested in social justice and political mobilization insofar as it aligns with shareholders’ desires. It is not that patterns of social networking or digital connectivity are, in and of themselves, noxious to progressive ambitions. Rather, quite simply, progressive ambitions are rarely profitable. Cheap rhetoric about corporate responsibility fades into the fine print of the bottom line. It seems impossible, or at least impractical, to envision radical transformation within an economic structure that so thoroughly depends on a centrist, market-oriented status quo.

To be sure, the position that capitalism, corporate bureaucracy, or commodification is the root of all social and political ills is too easy and too reductionist. Social media could certainly be reformed while still operating within a neoliberal ideological and economic frame. Meaningful reform and heightened political engagement does not a priori require social democracy or communist utopia. We need to be more pragmatic than that.

Optimism, along with the analog dreams of sociopolitical change and active solidarity, may not have passed yet into a non-earthly realm, but seems immobilized with an enduring bout of the human virus. It is a slowly-mutating, subtle, seemingly-benign virus. Sadly, if we know anything by now, humans are not always so easily convinced to inject necessary vaccines.

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