By Chris Anyokwu
Walter Benjamin, once famously declared in his work, On the Concept of History, that: “There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism”. Man in his restless search for solutions to life’s many imponderables and impedimenta has been able to conquer and harness nature thereby creating culture. Culture in this context designates the sum of humans’ ways of conducting their day-to-day affairs in their relentless pursuit of felicity and happiness. Even so, it has not always been rosy and smooth-sailing with regard to man’s inventions and discoveries. Just like in everything else, there are always “unintended consequences”.
Take, for instance, motor vehicle technology. The production of vehicles such as cars, lorries, vans and buses has made movement a lot less irksome and has helped in shrinking long distances separating towns and cities, communities and peoples. But the sad obverse is that this modern technological invention has also led to the great loss of life, a curse-blessing which the ancient Greek call pharmakos and a paradoxical quagmire poetised by Wole Soyinka in his mytho-poem, “Idanre”. Paradisiacal as the carapace cruising on the road might feel, it is often involved in road mishaps due largely to mechanical, electrical or human errors/defects.
Among causes of road accidents include burst tyres, overheating, over-speeding, uneven road surfaces, road craters, freak mal-functioning of auto parts while the vehicle is in motion, etc. Ditto for airplanes, ocean-going vessels, among others. We can make the same argument for social media. Perhaps, it’s reasonable for us to begin our reflection today by briefly taking a look at how it all started and how we got to where we are today. To that extent, therefore, it is useful to remind ourselves that social media sites such as Facebook are the natural consequence of many centuries of social media development. We are reliably informed that the earliest methods of communicating across great distances used written correspondence delivered by hand from one person to another. We are talking specifically about letters (C.550 B.C.). In 1792, the telegraph was invented which invariably meant the conveyance of information encapsulated in short messages. The telegraphic “capsules” were a revolutionary way to convey news and information back in the day. Then followed what was referred to as the pneumatic post, developed in 1865. This had created another way for letters to be delivered quickly between recipients. A pneumatic post was said to utilise underground pressurised air tubes to carry capsules from one area to another.
The telephone was invented in 1890 and the radio in 1891, both helped mankind to communicate across great distances instantaneously. Technology, to be sure, changed rapidly in the 20th century. After the first supercomputers were created in the 1940s, scientists and engineers began to develop ways to create networks between those computers, and this would lead as time went by to the birth of the internet.
The first recognisable social media site, “Six Degrees”, was created in 1997. In 1999, the first blogging sites became popular, creating a social media sensation that’s still popular today. These blogging sites include myspace, LinkedIn, Photobucket, and Flickr and they all facilitated online photo sharing. Youtube came out in 2005, creating an entirely new way for people to communicate and share with one another across great distances. By 2006, Facebook and twitter became available to users throughout the world and other sites such as Tumblr, Spotify, Foursquare and Pinterest began popping up to fill in social media niches. “Today, there is a tremendous variety of social networking sites, and many of them can be linked to allow cross-posting. This creates an atmosphere where users can reach the maximum number of people without sacrificing the intimacy of person-to-person communication” (see Google.com).
The case of “person-to-person communication” delivered via social media has been achieved at a stiff price, namely our nakedness. And “nakedness” must be understood in the broadest sense possible. I’m certain the invocation of the word “nakedness” instinctively brings to mind man’s primal Act of Shame at Genesis. According to Scripture, Adam and Eve, our progenitors were both originally naked “but they were not ashamed”. But after they ate of the Tree of Knowledge, we are told that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Genesis Chapter 2). The consequence of the “Original Sin” of Disobedience, for the primal pair, was grievous and shameful knowledge of their essential abjection, their nakedness, body and soul. Even we, their latter-day progeny, have inherited their nakedness, the so-called Adamic nature of sin and corruption. Thus, our inheritance of nakedness is comeuppance for our default mode of disobedience. Contextualised and framed within the tramlines of contemporary experience, our “nakedness” at present is the fall-out of our idolatrous and obsessive reification of social media.
In the world of social media, content is king, but we ask: what kinds of content are on display for all to see and consume? Without filibustering, let us concede straightaway that social media, as posited above, has revolutionised social discourse, speech acts, communicative events and the all-important act/art of communication. We shall come to that in some detail much later. But our concern, for now, are the harmful effects or functions of social media. Take sex, for example. Growing up, the whole thing about sex was carefully and ritualistically shrouded in vague, coded idioms and para-verbal signs and signals. Never was sex spoken of or practised in plain sight as it is done nowadays. It was (and still is!) sacred and must be contemplated and consummated within elaborate rituals of secrecy, gravity and definite purpose. Is it so now? Have you seen children, aged 4 – 8, gyrating raunchily in the name of dancing at parties? Christmas is upon us, so you will see such belly-aching sights aplenty. Woe betide that parent who does not fall in line by buying his/her primary or secondary school child a smartphone. Are these cell phones for making and receiving calls only? Never, not on your life! Simply put, every schoolboy and girl wants a phone in order to surf the so-called Super-Highway, the internet. What do these tiny tots seek on the internet? Research material? Never! For them, social media is a veritable detour to fabulous worlds of phantasmagoria, fantasy and nirvana. It is a world of escape – that is, escape from our humdrum world of objective reality marked as it is by storm and stress and escape into a meretricious and illusory dimension of dubious bliss. The enchantment and the spell of alternate utopias only bring lasting regrets, sometimes, beyond the grave. Pornography, bullying, body-shaming, stalking, anti-social brain-washing and indoctrination and other deleterious acts are some of the negative effects of social media.
On a daily basis, we are assaulted and assailed by the downright execrable, the incredibly creepy and weird, the heart-stoppingly unprintable on social media as folks put on display the very worst in human deviancy and depravity. The idea is that the more creepy, the more forbidden, the more unprintable the better for social media ventilation. The scandalous is the oxygen of social media – “Father rapes pre-teen daughter”; “Mom and son tie the knot”, “Parents eat their children”, etc. Things along those lines.The banal equally trend online: “How I share my panties with my mother”. “How my Dad and I measure our manhood”, “My Boobs are bigger than yours!” In vain do we seek to capture and comprehend the scope and scale of profanity, pejorism, the bizarre that constitute the content of social media. Traditionally, the family, the school, church/mosque, the media (print and electronic) and peer group are considered the main agents of socialisation. But these agents of socialisation have now paled into insignificance compared to the overwhelming influence of social media today. What weight does parental control carry in the face of SM? Doesn’t the Man of God sound and look old-fashioned in the eyes of these young ones? Hasn’t SM taken away the ethical element from our media, leaving it emptied of meaning and drained of relevance? In this Social Media Age, the youth are a demographic time-bomb waiting to blast civilisation as we know it to smithereens. They have abandoned the terrestrial world to us, old-school types, and have smartly relocated onto virtual space. They are no longer citizens, but netizens! And in their world, vices such as rebellion, subversiveness, violence, vandalism, arson, cannibalism, mischief, fake news, pranking, and radicalism are the currency of conversation. Cultism and the occult also thrive therein.
Also, in this parallel world, mentorship and role-modelling revolve around trolls, spooks, online masters/mistresses, doppelgangers, gods and goddesses. And since language is the vector of culture, netizens have also devised their own unique lingo. Ever heard of the word encryption? That is the essence of their language in their ecosystem. Encryption is the method by which information is converted into secret code that hides the information’s true meaning. In computing, unencrypted data is also known as plaintext, and encrypted data is called ciphertext. The formulae used to encode and decode messages are called encryption algorithms or ciphers. In the essay entitled “Social Media and the English Language”, Reuben Abati inimitably and brilliantly explores the use of digital slang by Nigerian youth. He writes: “Texting and tweeting is producing a generation of users of English […] who cannot write grammatically successful sentences.” Abati notes further that these youths cannot tell the difference between “a comma and a colon. They have no regard for punctuation. They mix up pronouns, cannibalise verbs and adverbs, ignore punctuation; and violate all rules of lexis and syntax. They seem to rely more on sound rather than formal meaning”. Abati tells us that the domains of choice for our netizens are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He vouchsafes and furnishes a few examples of their digital sociolect as follows: “For” , “forget” [4get] or [4git]; “see” [c], “straight”[“str8”], “first”[“fess”], “will” [“wee”], “help” [“epp”], etc. Abati adds thus: “Oftentimes, this special prose arrives amidst a number of other confusing symbols, emoticons, memes, acronyms and abbreviations, looking like a photographic combination of English and hieroglyphics.” New words such as “bae”, “boo”, “finz”, “famzing”, “Yaaay”, “420” (marijuana) “143”(“I love you”) “182”(“I hate you”) “Idaful” (wonderful) “53x” (sex) “PAW”(parents are watching”), ADIDAS (“All Day I Dream About Sex”) litter the discursive topography of our netizens. Whilst this unorthodox orthography, according to Abati, implies a fascination with speed, secrecy, and privacy, it equally highlights the disturbing fact that users are increasingly socialised into not knowing the difference between correct and incorrect English grammar and usage. It exemplifies the lack of rigour and propriety and organisation. The point really is: think clearly, write clearly. In this regard, the role of critical thinking and logic cannot be overstated. Netizens spend a lot of time on websites, on apps, giving rise to a rash of pathological issues, some we are already familiar with, others waiting to be discovered to our dismay. Digitally savvy children are, by the same token, moral liabilities to their parents and society. The interface between man and technology has been beneficial to a degree as argued earlier on but its negative effects far outweigh the positive ones. Yes, neologisms such as textspeak, texting, sextexting, twitter troll, tweeps, emoticons, emojis, tweeterati, blogging, tweet, re-tweet, hashtag tend to keep lexicographers happy, but, the fact of the matter is that social media if left unchecked or unregulated will yet set the world on fire.
*Chris Anyokwu writes from the University of Lagos