The Dutch queen and the dark side of social media

With our queen abdicating at the end of coming April, it’s hard to avoid the retrospectives of her reign that now dominate the Dutch news. When it comes to social media, however, you might expect there’s not much to look back on; as a 75-year old woman living a highly sheltered life, surely the queen doesn’t engage much with Twitter or Facebook. While there’s an official twitter account managed by the royal press agency and a brilliant spoof account pretending to be the majesty, Beatrix herself still routinely sends her official communications by telegram.

Yet three years ago, in her 2009 Royal Christmas Message, she earnestly told the nation not to put too much faith in modern means of communication, implicitly referring to Twitter and similar social media. Signalling in increase in individualism and loss of sense of community, she warned that “virtual meetings” were no answer to this problem, rather, they “increased the distance between people”.

While it’s easy to discard these opinions as those of someone who “just doesn’t get it” (which is precisely what happened afterwards), such a negative view on social media and its impact on our society is by no means uncommon. One of the more recent is the 2012 “trend report” The Dark Side of Social Media, by Dutch IT firm Sogeti, which made some modest ripples in Dutch media a while ago. In a (methodically questionable) overview of recent publications on social media’s effects, its authors paint a positively apocalyptic picture. Social media allegedly make us stupid, egoistic and even mentally ill; they also stifle creativity, bring down the stock markets and promote acts of terror.

Though it’s easy to find counter-arguments to these claims, our queen and Sogeti are far from alone in their negative portrayal of social media. These views often take shape as a nostalgic view of decades past, when people still talked to their neighbours, showed solidarity in times of hardship and weren’t as focused on themselves. Social media, it is argued, makes us spend more and more time  behind screens and less and less time with other people “in the flesh”, which in the end degrades our quality of life. Often cited in this context is Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, an influential and thorough investigation of how new technologies such as texting and social networks have changed the way we interact with each other.

Turkle’s book is often criticized for taking an overly pessimistic point of view, but to be fair, something’s changed all right; it’s hard to deny that having a limited but direct line of communication to pretty much anyone at our fingertips has transformed social dynamics considerably. These changes are not necessarily improvements, either; especially for younger children, for example, bullying no longer stops when school’s out, but may continue online. Simply arguing for a return to the ways of decades past, however, is not a solution. The change that social media and internet have brought is practically irreversible, having already become so entangled with our everyday lives; simply discarding all of it is neither possible nor desirable, considering the many good things it’s also brought us.

Rather, we should look for ways to improve existing social media and address the shortcomings our current tools for communication do have. In contrast to the old days, where such invention was often the domain of lonely geniuses working in relative geographic isolation, such innovation has nowadays become the domain of globe-spanning collaborative networks, in no small part thanks to new media itself. With open source social media projects like Diaspora or MediaWiki, academic platforms such as Coursera or our very own Unlike Us initiative and myriads of other projects being worked on around the clock, new media users are increasingly often taking matters into their own hands.

It’s easy to complain, especially from the sidelines. It is, in fact, also relatively easy to address these complaints, thanks to precisely the qualities of new media that are just as often seen as a bane to our sociality. The trick is getting the complainers to join in. Here’s hoping we see crown prince Willem-Alexander at Unlike Us #3.