It's now roughly seven years since my first foray into the world of social media — having joined Twitter, Facebook and the now defunct MXit in 2009.
Access to the internet has risen since then. In a 2016 study, growth in social media users was shown to have increased by 25% in Africa over the last year — an added 25.3 million people. 49% of South Africans have access to internet which is 3% above the global average. 75% of all internet use in South Africa is through mobile phones, the same study said. And finally, 30% of all South Africans use Facebook.
... and now more than ever the importance of community building is clear.
Because on another spectrum, suicide rates worldwide are high and growing. The World Health Organisation estimated that 1.5% of deaths in 2012 were suicide-related. That works out to a reported one attempt every 3 seconds, and a successful suicide every 40 seconds. In South Africa, the percentage soars to an unbelievable 8% of all deaths caused by suicide. Worse still, the suicide rate for children 10–14 has doubled over the last fifteen years.
Social media is filtered, yes; what you see is what is presented, not what is there. Indeed, the rise of social media has lead to a toxic desire for likes, comments, hearts, retweets et. al. Take for instance Instagram star Essena O'Neill who at the end of last year famously called out the culture that perpetuates social media being seen as real life. Cyberbullying is a real part of that toxicity.
However, what I do also see is potential and this is where my view on social media starts to drift away from the norm. Where most see rampant self-centered selfie-crazed millennials, I see the future of our society.
When I was in Grade 9, I found myself in the position of wanting to explore my queerness despite my conservative environment. Only two years previously, I had graduated from a small, highly-Christian primary school and moved onto an albeit more diverse, but similarly close-minded high school.
2009 was just as Twitter was making its way into South Africa and I consider myself — at least in my environment — to be one of the earlier adopters of the platform. Although my account went quiet for a couple of years, I found community through dozens of other gay men speaking openly and honestly about their experiences on Twitter. These men would become a sounding board against which I could reverberate my developing sense of self.
Currently on platforms like Facebook and Reddit, there are pages and groups dedicated to helping people who are struggling with identity, mental health, their own personal politics and more. Spaces where one can either read quietly or actively engage at the pace of one's own choosing. A great example of this is transgender youth who are now more empowered than ever due to social media.
If one looks to movements such as #FeesMustFall or the #RUReferenceList, we can see social media being used as a platform by which many find commonality and that commonality not only creates community, but it can help spur on powerful political action. This because not only were these movements started through social media, they were built around it: i.e. they created space in spaces where people felt their very existence was denied and although a lot of this space translated into physical space irl, a lot of the debate took place online.
Take, a less "political" example: #blackout on Tumblr and Instagram. People of Colour using the tag to help promote racial identity, a sense of community and a shift away from Western ideals of beauty. To the untrained eye, this could be construed as a narcissism. Rather: it is an affirmation of a political self. There is even a tag I love off tumblr "selfies as radical praxis" which speaks to selfies as self-love.
Essentially: the idea that because I'm sitting on my phone looking at Twitter or taking a Snapchat does not necessarily mean that I'm not being constructive, or in many respects authentic. The way in which the youth constructs their own narrative is in fact dependent on that authenticity.
I may have just posted a Facebook status about my struggle with mental illness, or tweeted about my how I don't feel that I have the language to deal with a loved one being accused of rape... or I might have been feeling my angles and thought the 'gram needed to see too.
It is perhaps disingenuous to suggest that posts from someone about their baby; or Minion memes,; or about how much they love their boyfriend of 3 seconds... whatever, are not reflective of their own space and their own selves — something to which we are entitled.
It is fair enough to not enjoy the content place out into their digital space, but disdain for the way someone expresses themselves online (or offline, even) really doesn't make it less credible. A racist with a social media account can become a president. However, it does not necessarily follow that social media is a negative.
Rather, social media needs to be seen as what it is: the latest in a long line of coping mechanisms, self-development structures and community building methods. The internet was built from a need to connect. That need is something fundamental within the human race. Thus, the internet is new; the fact that we are using it in the ways we are is not.