One of the landmark sociological analyses of the effects of the mass media was conducted by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton in 1948. My favorite (and perhaps the most troubling) theory from Mass communication, popular taste, and organized social action (link) is “Narcotizing Dysfunction”. Lazarsfeld and Merton argue that
“…outpourings of the media presumably enable the twentieth-century American to “keep abreast of the world.” Yet, it is suggested, this vast supply of communications may elicit only a superficial concern with the problems of society, and this superficiality often cloaks mass apathy.
Exposure to this flood of information may serve to narcotize rather than to energize the average reader or listener. As an increasing meed of time is devoted to reading and listening, a decreasing share is available for organized action. The individual reads accounts of issues and problems and may even discuss alternative lines of action. But this rather intellectualized, rather remote connection with organized social action is not activated. The interested and informed citizen can congratulate himself on his lofty state of interest and information and neglect to see that he has abstained from decision and action.”
Essentially, the more information we have at our fingertips, and the more time we spend consuming, the less likely we are to actually take real world action to address an issue. Rather, we confuse merely being informed with taking actual action. “The interested and informed citizen can congratulate himself on his lofty state of interest and information and neglect to see that he has abstained from decision and action”. We’re all “superficially concerned” with the problems of society but this is merely “cloak[ing] mass apathy”.
Of course Lazarsfeld and Merton were writing long before the advent of the internet and social media. Even they couldn’t imagine the “narcotizing” effects of the massive amounts of information that confronts the average person on a daily basis.
Millions and millions of us watch and share and like and comment on videos of black men being murdered by police officers, articles about privileged white rapists receiving egregiously lenient sentences, videos of presidential candidates mocking a reporter’s disability, and on and on and on. And millions and millions of us stop right there.
We’ve become completely comfortable (satiated? “narcotized”?) feeling as if we’ve had an impact on the real world by participating in a virtual one. We rant and argue and at the end of the day we’re satisfied that we’ve made a difference. Yet, at the end of the day, society has changed none — the social issues remain (perhaps even worse).
Black lives do matter. But, no hashtag is going to result in true social change. Brock Turner is a rapist and deserves a more severe punishment. But, no amount of likes or shares or rants in a comment thread are going to put him behind bars for a longer period. Donald Trump legitimately should not be the next President of the United States (c’mon, seriously?). But, no facebook argument is going to change someone’s vote (don’t get me started on the value of a vote is in the first place).
Social Media’s Role in Social Change
Social media isn’t totally pointless in inspiring social change. If we familiarize ourselves with the four stages of social movements, it’s clear that social media can be crucial in the first stage: emergence— also described ‘social ferment’ or widespread discontent. This can result from of interactions and consumptions in a virtual world. Though, the danger remains: if Narcotizing Dysfunction is a valid theory, the social movement never progresses to the next, most crucial, stage (coalescence). We consider discontent and being informed as good enough — job well done. No real action is ever taken.
Once a movement advances to a stage requiring organization of people, social media can once again play a crucial role (where and when are we protesting? Who’s bringing the food?, Who has a camera?, etc…). But it must remain clear: social media will never take a movement through its entire life cycle.
Every Time we hear of a “Twitter Revolution” the phrase is always closely followed by “mass protest”. There’s no such thing as a social media revolution. Social media may spark discontent and aid in coalescence (through organization). But, no matter how technologically advanced society becomes, social media will never be more than a minute part of any social change.
So What do We Do?
If we truly want society to change we must be willing to take real action. We must be willing to step out from behind our screens and interact with other people in the real world. We must be willing to take real world risks. No “like”, no “share”, no virtual comment, no hashtag, no tweet or post, no meme, will ever change the world. People change the world — people interacting and joining forces with other people in the real world. Stop posting and start moving. Start organizing.
Postscript: I fully understand the irony, and perhaps futility, of posting on the internet about the futility of posting on the internet. C’est la vie. Also, this is more of a free-flowing work than I’d like it to be. But I couldn’t go on and on and on on this topic. Instead of having you read that, I’d much rather you go do something real. Stop liking and sharing and go and make change.