The Problems and Possibilities of Social Media

by Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller via Asia and The Pacific Policy Society.

The term “social media” is applied to networked computers that link people across digital devices. We’re told that the dots (users) connect so effectively that real-life, human media—public libraries, bars, schools, post offices, parks, and coffee shops—have diminished in stature, their origins as facilitators of democracy forgotten. In their place, we have Facebook asserting that it will bring peace on Earth through intercultural understanding and Twitter’s founder modestly proclaiming that his invention is “a triumph of humanity” 1.

The social media have certainly become important tools of personal publicity, for both good and ill. A vital characteristic of contemporary teen identity is making a name for yourself via numbers of “Likes,” “Tweets,” and “selfies.” Adolescent clocks find less time (who has that?) for understanding how marketing research and corporate surveillance profit from all this online activity 2.

The need for self-display and connectedness is so powerful for some that psychologists have a name for the fear of disconnection—nomophobia (as in no-mobile phobia) 3.

Nomophobia (ironically a term invented by consultants to the British postal service) is not only a fear of being disconnected. It can also apply to the anxiety of losing control over how we connect, as two services dedicated to aloofness attest. At, you can get help to “avoid unwanted encounters”;, an “incognito mode for real life” application, empowers you to “avoid exes, co-workers, that guy who likes to stop and chat—anyone you’d rather not run into” by warning you if they’re nearby.

The idea of connectedness resonates as a social necessity, and it works positively if we control when and where it operates. But when more human connectedness is absent, many social media users experience loneliness. According to researchers in Wagga Wagga, pride of Australia’s eastern New South Wales, “more ‘lonely’ people disclosed their Personal Information, Relationship Information, and Address than ‘connected’ people and more ‘connected’ people disclosed their Views and their Wall than ‘lonely’ people” 4. Similar studies in the US report a strong correlation between Facebook use and misery 5. A hedonometer measures Tweets to establish levels of public happiness, with ambivalent results 6.

Clearly, Facebook and Twitter operate with certain assumptions about the desire for connectedness that make the label “social media” a misnomer. We don’t have to “Like” news stories to deem them worth sharing with others. Our “friends” may be professional or activist colleagues rather than intimates.

The lexicon of social media requires revisiting. For the sake of argument, let’s call them possibility-media instead.

In gender terms, for example, it has been possible for Twitter to encourage new forms of male and female solidarity since the terrible killings in Santa Barbara last month, via #notallmen and its more striking counter, #yesallwomen 7. In the past week, #yesallwomen has generated over 1.8 million Tweets as women share their experiences of male violence 8.

And a recent ruling by the European Union’s Court of Justice demonstrates that it is possible to force personal data surveillance giants like Google to recognize a citizen’s “right to be forgotten” and expunge personal records from proprietary databases that monitor searches, Likes, Tweets, bankruptcies, and so on. (Don’t try this at home—US citizens are not covered by the decision) 9.

From an environmental perspective, what are the possibilities of these technologies? Checking the twitter-sphere for posts about “electronic waste” yields a disappointing 3,700 Tweets over the past thirty days. That’s about 0.1 percent of the 3.2 million that Beyoncé got for the same period. Climate change was tweeted about half a million times 10.

Crude numbers of Tweets or trending memes do not tell us very much compared with a random sample and in-depth analysis—not to mention that they are often generated by bots (apps that automatically replicate Tweets) rather than people. Still, possibility-media of all forms enable users to respond to sudden events—via eruptions of feeling linked to shocking moments. Like the drive to watch television during a public emergency, they become quick and important ways of sharing a traumatic experience and its connections to earlier and ongoing forms of stress and pain. For example, Facebook provides the means for people to organize protests or large gatherings, as it claims on its “peace” page, even if its main mode of address emphasizes personal publicity and navel gazing.

Our ecological crisis requires a strong emotional pull. But environmental messages are rarely spectacular. It is difficult to prove, for example, that major, frightening weather events, which gain huge broadcast and social media attention, are necessarily tied to climate change. Climate is the average of weather, so you need a sizeable number of such events that can then be contrasted with earlier norms in order to show things have deteriorated (this is part of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does) 11. In its abstraction, the eco-crisis lacks a sense of immediacy and proximity. Perhaps possibility-media activist creativity can help change that.

Consider the work of Pacific north-west environmental artist Chris Jordan 12. His website currently hosts a startling drawing by Rebecca Clark depicting 183,000 birds in flight, the estimated number of birds killed daily by pesticides in the US.

Earlier this year, Jordan and a bunch of schoolchildren made the world’s biggest e-waste artwork in Australia: a huge cell phone entitled “23” that they built over four hours from seven thousand of these discarded gadgets 13. The number stood for the twenty-three million unused cell phones sitting around Australian buildings: mute testimony to an insatiable culture of built-in obsolescence. It drew significant media coverage 14.

Most uses of social media are not about significant political and scientific issues. Yet their reputation as vital elements of our social world seems to grow, so good is their self-mythologizing. But if we think of them as possibility-media, there is no question that they can do better.


  1. The Economist - A cyber-house divided
  2. - Generation Like
  3. Psychology Today - Mobile Addiction Hastens Environmental and Health Risks
  4. Science Direct - Self-disclosure on Facebook among female users and its relationship to feelings of loneliness
  5. PLOS Journals - Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults
  6. - Average happiness for Twitter
  7. Twitter - #YesAllWomen
  8. Google - Search removal request under data protection law in Europe
  9. IPCC - Fifth Assessment Report
  10. Chris Jordan
  11. Chris Jordan - YouTube video
  12. The Sydney Morning Herald - Thousands of mobile phones as eco-art