The Evolving Role of Social Media
The last decade can be characterized by the ever growing role of technology and social media in the lives of individuals across the globe. In many countries, children and adults alike are becoming more and more accustomed to the presence of smart devices in all facets of life. While this aspect of our modern world played an important role in our lives before the spread of Coronavirus began early last year, this pandemic has ultimately changed the way we interact with technology and fundamentally altered the role social media plays in our lives.
Before the pandemic began last spring, Social Media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat were apps that cultivated idealized versions of life. Pictures were extremely manicured, content was superficial, and the numbers meant everything. While some aspects of pre-pandemic media remain today, it’s important to recognize how our global climate created a new demand amongst technology users and social media platforms rose to meet those demands.
In prior years, social media was an escape from real life. It provided the ability to put up a facade and create a digitally perfected image of what life should be. When one has the ability to know someone, in person, each and every day at school or work, there’s less motivation to be vulnerable and real online. When real human connection through close contact is viable and a normal aspect of everyday life, there’s no pressure to exude that same vibrancy for social media followers to experience. Social media does not easily reveal the subtleties of daily life, and that aspect of these platforms can create a culture where people are labeled by their loudest traits. An online presence has the ability to mark you as a soccer player or class president based on a series of photos, but being around someone in real life and witnessing their persona firsthand creates a different type of understanding about an individual's true nature.
The pandemic stole those daily interactions from most people, and with it came the many relationships and friendships outside of our closest circles. The girls I used to pass in the hall at school or familiar faces I noticed frequently on the trail near my house disappeared from my daily routine. Those individuals simply became their social media profiles, and I don’t believe that my experience was an individual one. Collectively, when this illness took away our sense of normalcy, the world turned to social media to fill the void that a lack of everyday interaction created in our lives. Social media provided and continues to provide the most direct link to the sense of normalcy and human interaction that the pandemic stole. Social media and technology essentially became the only link to our friends, family, and acquaintances. This shift can be seen easily through the rise of Tik Tok and changing content style that has emerged in the past year.
Tik Tok has quickly become one of the most popular apps in the world, ranking first in entertainment on the app store. Videos can be posted on the app by any user, and the content ranges from recipe sharing to choreographed dances and even story times or acting challenges. The app is unique in that there are celebrities and public figures of all ages with large followings, but also regular teenagers who might have gotten famous for simply posting a dance they created with a friend. At a time when “normal” seems unattainable, Tik Tok attempts to provide those interactions. During the first lockdown, my sister and I turned to Tik Tok most often when hit with bouts of boredom because it gave us the sense that we weren’t alone in our lockdown experience and it did so without the use of various filters and trivial captions so common in apps like Instagram. The shorter length--less then a minute--also helped differentiate the app from YouTube, where videos are typically much longer.
Since the pandemic began, other popular media platforms have sought to create features that emulate Tik Tok’s style, such as Instagram’s release of “Reels” in August of last year. While this update to the Instagram interface can be cited as an immense change to the variety of content offered by the app, many users of Instagram noticed a change within their feed not necessarily caused by an update by the developer. After a summer of civil unrest and protesting in the United States following the murder of George Floyd, I noticed an influx of posts being shared on my feed related to racial injustices and social reform. I slowly started to see less superficial photos and more meaningful posts focused on education and bringing about awareness on issues like systemic racism and climate change.
As the type of content being shared shifted, it ultimately allowed the app to become a platform where important information could be shared and in turn that allowed for virtual conversations and healing to take place. At a time when talking face-to-face and showing support through a physical presence in a group is challenging, users of the app sound a way to virtually stand in solidarity and make real change by reposting informational posts, sharing and amplifying the stories of oppressed groups and individuals, and offering resources for education and healing.
One year into this pandemic, I’m realizing that instead of Instagram and other social media platforms being a superficial escape from reality, it has become my link to real life: real people, real stories, and real issues. At a time when human interaction and connection is hard to come by, social media has allowed its role and culture to evolve from one of overedited and idealized images to a more meaningful and real experience.
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