Social media and social isolation

Posted by in Activism, Culture, Economics, Feminism

Today, everybody is joking about how much more disconnected we are in our increasingly digital world; less talking, more staring at screens and sharing links. Unfortunately this has serious consequences. It’s well established that real-world social networks have measurable health benefits.

The rising time spent in digital communication has serious political consequences too. Real, deep cultural connections are one the fundamental forces behind movements for social equity.

With another global crisis approaching, should we be worried? No-one knows for sure, but I’m going to suggest no. Today, rich countries are still enjoying relative comfort thanks to the temporary support of central bank money-printing. When the economy gets real again, that fog should lift. Staring at Facebook won’t change the world and it won’t get you a job either.

That aside, we also needed to break from the old cultures of revolt. I’m nearly 60, and when I was young the marxist tradition still provided a lot of the behind-the-scenes cohesion in worker’s movements. That tradition was and still is mired in male bias and blind belief in socialism. In the future we’ll need a new approach, driven by youth of both sexes.

It’s tempting to argue that the real economy, where real products are now produced, has shifted offshore and into developing nations, so they have taken over as the focus for worker-led struggles towards a fairer distribution of wealth.

True up to a point, but the monopolisation of coporate ownership in a few rich countries means rebuilding a movement there with power to reshape government and regulation remains critically important for the whole world. People still have the power to shut down whole cities in protest when they’re angry enough. New forms to achieve that will develop when the need is there.

What does worry me about cultural change today is this generation’s super-rich. Again, at age 60 I’m old enough to have seen a few economic cycles of excessive wealth and visible excess, followed by crisis and rebuilding. But this time is different. As Picketty’s book showed, the rich got much much richer this time.

So what happen’s if they all walk away in a crisis? Take their money out of productive investment and just relax in luxury for the rest of their lives? Leave the rest of us to pay the debts and rebuild industry by working more for less?

Because unfortunately, this feels like a real possibility.

One of the most critical issues in the next crisis could be rapid education and agitation to ensure investors have to take their overdue losses, and funds pulled out just before the crash are forcibly repaid.

The current focus on income and tax transparency after the Panama Papers is a great start. There must be plenty more disgruntled IT workers in Ireland and the British Cayman Islands to spill more secrets on the tax avoidance of the rich and unscrupulous…

PS while I’m talking about being old, in the context of social media I can’t help reminiscing a little about how the internet used to be, before the rise and rise of e-commerce, for those too young to have experienced it:

I first learned to program with hand-punched cards, moving on to computers with a floppy disk to load the operating system before they started. What I remember with nostalgia and regret is the great value of the early Usenet culture – and there was a group for every interest, and suddenly the latest specialist knowledge was visible and free!

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the rise and fall of Usenet here. In short, pornographers and software crackers began putting large files on Usenet in the late 1990s, Usenet disk space and traffic increased correspondingly, and internet service providers responded by progressively closing off access, adding to the speed issues. Microsoft announced the end of support for public newsgroups in 2010 and Google bought out the company which had maintained archived newsgroups.


After Usenet came free email without advertising, then Google. Now I remember Google when it gave you what you wanted, not what their advertisers wanted – and I tell you now, the results today are very different.

Plus the integration of advertising and sales in everything – it’s only just begun, and it’s so powerful. I’m really worried about the pervasiveness of advertising and purchasing in modern internet tools, and hence in young people’s lives.

Have a look at the top 50 sites here on Wikpedia – 16 are nominally Search sites but really advertising sites, 10 are Social sites but only a trivialised version of social contact, 8 are Sales, 4 are Email, 4 are Information, 3 Images, 2 Video, 1 each for work networks, software and security. And of the four providing Information, we have Wikipedia providing information too slow to engage in a crisis; Reddit and StackOverflow for the geeks; and China’s Guanming News ignoring the Panama papers. No serious news site makes the top 50.

Sad, isn’t it?