Social Media as a Living Being
Between utopia and inferno, there is a space from which social media emerged.
A space where humanity’s deplorable narcissism and its beautiful, enduring need for connection and expression had an wild orgy, thus birthing Myspace, Facebook, Youtube, and a whole new breed of beasts.
The Social Organism, a book written by Oliver Luckett, attempts to codify this new species using biological mechanics. In many ways, he’s pretty damn accurate.
The premise is simple: memes are the cultural genes that make up our social DNA. By understanding how the Social Organism feeds and grows, we can hopefully learn to master its behavior.
Accompanied by Michael J. Casey, Luckett writes from a wide breadth of experience- half activist, half advertiser, but fully human. Experts in science may cringe at his use of academic terminology to explain social phenomena, but isn’t meant to draw strict categorical lines. It is a creative look at the ever-evolving architecture of social media through the lens of biology.
He depicts a world where online profiles are autonomous cells in the greater Social Organism. The wide reach of social media has thrown a cornucopia of perspectives into the mix, providing a diverse gene pool to draw from.
What keeps the Organism healthy? Inclusivity and creativity. Luckett puts forth a warning to corporations and governments looking to stifle the free flow of the internet, stating that the Organism will not thrive in such an environment.
Ideas need to be free to meet and make love. That is what has made the internet so monumental. According to Luckett, the growing nervous system of digital communications has enabled cultural evolution to transpire much more rapidly.
In one chapter, Luckett uses the events surrounding the Charleston massacre to demonstrate how the Social Organism functions in real time. For decades, Luckett watched his father, a Mississippi lawyer and politician, publicly battle the to ban the Confederate flag alongside his friend and business partner, Morgan Freeman.
The most Luckett’s father accomplished was removing the flag from the local town house of the majority black town in which he lived- but that was only after he became mayor. However, thanks to social media, it took three words to make mega-corporations like Walmart and Amazon ban the racist regalia over night: #TakeItDown.
The hashtag was “born of a mutation of #BlackLivesMatter,” and inspired a BLM activist, Bree Newsome, to climb up the South Carolina statehouse’s flagpole to to take down the flag herself. Videos of her spread quickly, and soon enough the movement cross-pollinated with #JeSuisCharlie- a statement of solidarity that was adopted after the Paris terror attacks- to create #JeSuisBree.
Luckett recognizes the power of social media as a catalyst for political revolution- exemplified in the Arab Spring- and even proposes that we can “design strategies that turn social media into a constructive democratic forum.”
That’s a pretty bold statement for the technology that brought us cat memes and Gangnam Style. But considering the fact that our current president is a legit Twitter troll, is Luckett really understating the political power of social media?
He also sheds light on the sicknesses that can spread virally and addresses the cancerous tumors that accumulate in the echo chambers of the internet. Luckett urges us to pop bubbles and expose people to diverse perspectives.
There are always irritants, like reactionary alt-right trolls, that just want to see the Organism burn. On the other hand, there are always sensitive inflammatory responses, like social justice warriors, who are hyper-allergic to everything. But the Social Organism has an immune system, and in order to inoculate ourselves against harmful ideas, we must be exposed to them.
Luckett implores that freedom of speech take precedence over safe spaces. I would even go so far as to attribute Trump’s to draconian moral policing cause. During the Obama administration, liberal idealism created its own feedback loop and ostracized anyone who didn’t agree. Just like in the biology, when you ignore disease, it doesn’t go away; it festers under the surface.
Now, the Social Organism is in a state of purging. We are immunizing ourselves to outdated ideas of white supremacy and creating lasting change within the Organism and the culture from which it sprang. The #TakeItDown movement shows how quickly we can adapt when the collective is connected.
Luckett’s look at the social media landscape through the frame of biology fits in many ways. Although, no analogy is perfect when trying to make sense of the weird and wonderful digital world.
But one question lingers regarding the Social Organism: if the Internet is an organism, is Reddit the anus? Just some food for thought.