The Deeper Meaning of Social Media
The winters were getting colder, but they’d had to move further north, though “north” wasn’t something they really knew about. But they needed to stay warm. Sure, fire was good, but freezing toes and shivering just wasn’t any fun. They had blankets from the animal furs, but you couldn’t get much done on chilly days. One morning, Oruka was sitting by the fire and watched a deer nearby, grazing in the cool air. As she watched the deer, she noted they weren’t bothered by the cold. They had hard hoofs and their fur was close to the body. She had a spark of an idea. So she set to work. By evening she had created a sort of vest she could tie and cut some hide and made what might then be called shoes. It was just over 100,000 years ago.
She shared the idea, her tribe loved it. The men could hunt better. The women could gather longer. They ate well that winter. Soon, other tribes they met and traded with picked up on the concept. It traveled around the world over the next few centuries. Some places came up with the idea around the same time. Later, they began to decorate these clothes, but they weren’t just decorations. They were symbols that indicated the tribe, culture and their status within that culture. What does this have to do with social media?
The survival of the human species is based on the communication and transmission of culture. And culture is the knowledge we use to navigate our world. Social media are communications technologies. Unlike other animals, our behaviour is not dictated by biology. Other species evolve over many thousands of years. But human brains are more malleable, we have greater plasticity. We learn and adapt by social sharing (as per anthropologist Ruth Benedict).
We invent and communicate through technologies as well. Early cave drawings told stories and were a form of communication. Throughout human history, we have invented technologies to communicate; African cultures using drums, Greeks and Romans using fire. The papyrus, then velum, then the printing press and books, telegraph, radio, telephone and the internet. Today, social media is the first technology via software, to emerge from the internet (a platform technology) to enable humanity to connect on a global scale.
Social media we might then say, is a tool of cultural transmission. We create communications technologies because as a species, we are constantly evolving. Seeking new knowledge and sharing it is a fundamental adaptation skill for our species.
While we see a lot of negatives with social media; cyber crime, bullying, trolls, disinformation etc., there is something deeper going on. Something at a profound level of human species evolutionary progress. We know today that we shape technology, then it shapes us, then at some point, we figure out where and how that technology should fit within our cultures and societies. With social media, we are in a rough patch, the part where we’re figuring out how we want to use these technologies.
It is harder with social media because of scale. We figured out where smartphones fit in our culture in terms of how we use them. Remember when we all walked around with smartphones hanging on our hips or talking loudly so people could see we had one? Then all those over-the-ear Bluetooth headsets with blue blinking lights? Over time, we evolved a social rule of not wearing those things and being more discreet with where we placed our phones and that it is rude to use your phone while having a meal.
With social media, we are trying to figure this all out. Social media apps like Snap, Instagram and so on, are tools for cultural transmission. We’ve even seen mashups of different cultures like the fusion of Celtic music and reggae, known as Celtic fusion. This is the result of the internet and social media tools to share. It’s a cross-cultural communication and music is a global form of cultural transmission that fosters understanding between cultures.
So the deeper meaning of social media in human society is an ability to communicate and share the wonderful variety of cultures around the world. Think of the Bhangra Boys of Nova Scotia sharing their dance and Gurdeep Phander in the Yukon who’s daily dance videos have inspired millions around the world. And the sharing of Ukrainian cultural elements during the opening of Russia’s brutal war on that country. Native American tribes are increasingly active on social media and non-indigenous, settler cultures are learning more about the rich and wonderful cultural aspects of these societies.
The deeper meaning of social media is that slowly, we are able to learn more about one another. Our cultures and societies. Those who are afraid to learn, who prefer cultural isolation may reject it, but this sharing is inevitable and humans are in the end, more interested in progression rather than regression. While it may seem dark right now, it is and will get better as we learn more about and become less afraid of, one another.