Individualism in the Digital Age

It's everywhere now, and a proliferation of affected generations succumb to its allure. You get direct, front row access to anyone and anything from your phone, and it’s been scattering the streets since the 1990's. I’ll give you a hint: you’re probably a culprit. That’s right, Social Media. I’m not calling you out or anything, I’m guilty to the daily use of Instagram just as much as the next guy. In fact, in this article, I want to break down a brief history behind social media, but also address the various pros and cons to the effects it's had on our society and culture.

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Prior to social media, we had chat rooms and forums, which have been around since the 1970's, mostly used through bulletin board services (BBSes) or exclusively by university campuses. Beginning in the late '90s, the first recognizable and public social media website, Six Degrees, was introduced. It had basic features including a bio and the ability to follow or “friend” other users. In 1999, blogging sites were popularized. This then gave birth to sites like MySpace and Facebook and, later, Twitter. In the early 2000s, photo sharing sites such as Photobucket and Flickr would kick-start arguably the most popular one today – Instagram. Originally, the creators wanted to recreate the look of Polaroids, which was what the first version had the posts resemble. Not to add any unnecessary bias but, personally, I miss those days. I also miss not seeing accounts where every post is a selfie (what’s the deal with that anyway?) or a clip of frat bros running into a tree... although, I do love a good cat meme. Online individualism would inevitably come to this as showcased in shows like Ridiculousness and Tosh.0. Those types of silly videos were continued through an app called Vine, launched in 2013 and acquired by Twitter. In essence, it gave humanity six seconds to prove how moronic we can be, albeit very entertaining. YouTube was the big boom of 2005, introducing a video platform for artists, musicians, and comedians like Bo Burnham, Ariana Grande, Karmin, and, yes, Justin Bieber, as well as many others to share their individual talent and further their careers. There is hope that the internet is used for good and not evil, but no promises. All this highlights both a pro and, naturally, a con.

Social media has made fame come easily. Got a special talent? Post it online and earn money for each individual skill – good. However, a decade later of this and we might as well be encouraging narcissism and, inevitably, trolling or harassment. Art provokes thought and opinion, but it may also provoke attack, resulting in“trolls”. Web Comic Penny Arcade created the “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory”: “normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad.” Living behind a screen offers a heightened sense of freedom that can turn you into an asshole, a narcissist, or if you’re lucky, an activist. Mike Godwin proposed a natural law of online behavior: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. In short, the more you talk online, the more likely you’ll be nasty; talk long enough and it’s a certainty.” After all this, we have to ask ourselves if the internet has done more harm than good. Anonymity is both a pro and con in the way that privacy is good but what one may do in private may not be. It’s a battle between individual rights and the rights of the people.

There is no cure-all solution, this completely depends on us; how each of us chooses to act online. Behind these screens, we are granted the right of choice. We can choose to display ourselves however we want, regardless of how we truly are in the real world. Despite our usually-fiendish nature, never before have we been able to meet and explore people from the other side of the world so easily. Can we just pause and acknowledge what an incredible gift that is? Ignoring the obvious possibility of being “catfished” or, my personal favorite, taken. When everyone is good to each other, social media thrives. The choice is yours, as an anonymous individual.

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Written By FULCRUM Contributor

Sonya Bernhagen