The word “freedom” in its most common iterations has been and will likely remain such a romantic and bourgeois concept. I could say the same for terms like “self-care” and “solidarity” given how social media has advanced. In this day and age, the prospect of this commodification seems like a Black Mirror episode. I don’t say that because of some dystopian, authoritarian regime. I say it as an old millennial who’s lived through various social media startups; and who’s watched technologies breed toxic, viral online cults of the individual. When the internet took off—back when dial-up was a novelty, long before high speed—I was too young to process the implications of an open access world stage, but I was old enough to appreciate and beaters in tandem with the pulse of globalized connectivity.
I related to profiles and trends on the other side of world. I published my first stories and poems through a number of fandom sites, and I received critical feedback. I also encountered forum moderators on power trips and profiles whose popularity insulated them from accountability, if not reality. There were also targeted harassments and death threats hurled close to home. The worldwide web and its hubs had pros and cons which I barely managed to navigate. All in all, I was incredibly lucky—literally. Luck is the only thing I can liken it to: I managed to surf the web relatively unscathed despite torrents of online predators, burgeoning Mean Girls and stalkers, on top of miscellaneous cyberbullies, some of whom would go on to instrumentalize -bait message boards and revenge porn.
Maybe I was just lucky to be apart of a generation that came of age around the tail end of the early IMs, MySpace, and LiveJournal; the latter two which I never really got into. Few of us seemed to register the very hard and real consequences of our glamorous, invincible online personae: personalities which can now bleed into offline violences evidenced by the organized hate campaigns and fatalities which prompted today’s rampant cyber-safety initiatives.
When these platforms hit, it was under the guise of affording users a unique and ideal way to articulate their narratives. Personalization was the lure. It wasn’t just a colour scheme change or avatar. It was an entire profile which offered an individual composite that interlocked with other profiles. You could be unique to last detail, but simultaneously apart of something. It started off as basic, then the gravity hit once people were exposed or locked out. The old school technologies were somewhat innocuous in that their limitations beguiled their users and observers. Things becoming more personal and capable didn’t enable solidarity or connectivity. They inclined users to critically consider that there were real people behind the profiles.
Real people who could suffer real consequences.
Which seems harmless when it comes to particularly deplorable subjects; like that lawyer whose rant against Spanish speakers went viral, the Yale student who saw fit to call the police on a fellow student asleep in the campus lounge, and the like.
Except these [many] cases don’t account for the bigger picture: the plethora of users—everyday people, many marginalized peoples—who are antagonized at large. The onslaught of one’s personal information—hometown, relatives, high school, college, employment, etc.—coupled with unchecked, poorly moderated usage ceases to reinforce ties rather than sever them.
At large, the social media conglomerates we know now meant that Big Brother wasn’t watching anymore because people simply (perhaps unwittingly) volunteered all their information. For all the good plugging in seemed to yield back when I was younger, the bad has since profoundly evolved. There isn’t an expiry or vast scrubbing option. Regardless of how far back they stretch, our highs and lows have been immortalized and are able to nullify how far we’ve come. Our meltdowns and milestones can be gleaned in a matter of clicks or mutuals, just as our hangouts and hobbies. It takes little, if anything for people to poke holes real-time.
Unhealthy online habits have also transcended cyberspace as particular users don’t take kindly to intervention. This makes for two polarizing extremes: users whose IRL is demoralized and therein overshadowed by virtual anguish, and users divorced from reality as they’re insulated en masse by positive reinforcement. Both scenarios correlate to a world whose connective modes have become increasingly callow: a world where values aren’t earned as much as they’re amassed. Everything has always been for sale, but a new currency was introduced through contemporary social media technologies. These platforms enriched everyday people who grew loved and/or hated beyond their wildest dreams, which cultivated a new breed of celebrity whose merits are defined by cliques and compatibility. Consequently, merit is defined less [if at all] by talent.
The charisma boils down to nostalgia for a paradise lost which in reality, is a world that never was; or a paradise promised which is a world that will never be. The appeal is less about substance than projection. All of the personalized nodes on social media optimize sharing with incentives for oversharing, which enable user audiences to live vicariously as well as intimately through personae. Which ironically desensitizes users to reality. The immersive, often ignoble insights bred online see users emulate caricatures and luxuriate despite their absence of privilege. Identification subverts the reality that one is just another number because they comprise the base of a higher power in numbers. This is why cyber-safety personnel strive to drive home not only the dangers of hypervisibility, but also anecdotes of profiles who’ve yet to reconcile their virtual esteem with real-time losses such as firings, assaults, bans, amongst other quandaries.
Quite simply, the charge gleaned from plugging in doesn’t cover other disconnects.
Life offline isn’t as uncomplicated because our identities and settings are multifactorial and not so much compartmentalized. Tumult in real time can’t be blocked, muted, or filtered away. Our lives are largely defined by our adversities and adversaries: whether or not we overcome them, and how we identify them. Only they can get distorted. Networking technologies ushered users onto a world stage tailored to their own scripts—only to enact faulty Community Guidelines and algorithms which mismanaged curtain calls. They then leave users to their own devices when real life steals through their intermissions.
I say all this to preface a new series I came across this week on Netflix: On Children. It’s a Taiwanese anthology series which has drawn comparisons to Black Mirror and The Girl from Nowhere given its dystopian read on technology, connectivity, and coming of age. But what sets On Children apart is how and why it drives home the impacts of social media and school as determinants (not mere accessories) of fate. Modern technologies and academia have altered our sense of self and identity in addition to concepts of home and happiness. Our conceptualization of success is a value system obliged in the scheme of colonization and white supremacy. Attempts to use race, class, gender, and the like to assign (or rescind) rank are exclusionary; and moreover, subjective as these characteristics are not impartial or ontological. On Children conveys how individualism—particularly as an aspect of neoliberalism and through the lens of childhood—is a paradox.
From youth, people are conditioned to believe that assimilation and accumulation are the means to happiness and success; and despite their efforts, they are inevitably damaged and disillusioned. Parents and guardians are keen to encourage conformity as much as reverence for the imperialism and capitalism which comprise the world as we know it. They espouse principles of discipline and abstinence; they claim these principles lead to a payoff of wealth and acceptance. No sooner would they contest, if not acknowledge the historical and present socioeconomic violences marginalized peoples (including themselves) face. The legacy of colonialism informs our ancestry as much as current praxis. By that same token, technology magnifies this in its impersonal, bureaucratic nodes; especially in grading systems. Social media platforms and communications technologies are also crucial in fashioning mass responses—which takes on an even direr meaning when we consider the significance of payola and propaganda.
The children at the heart of On Children speak to this in their narratives. The horror is how these tales are not far off in terms of life understood. What’s thematic of this series is the integration of virtual reality and uncompromising authority in discerning how children develop their sense of self (or lack thereof) in accordance to society, parenting, and identification. They don’t simply choose to go forward. They must. There is no alternative. There are no heroes or silver linings. And, there are no distinctions to be made since ultimately no customization or personal detail sets them apart. They agonize to achieve stellar grades only to discover that they are unremarkable. Scholarship is denoted by exhaustion and isolation which foreshadows failure in the grand scheme of life. After graduation, people are essentially small fish in a big pond because the real world is not contingent upon A’s or good character references. With the hyperlinked globalism of technology, the pond then becomes an ocean where students are bound to fail even further as they’ve yet scale amongst the school they swim within.
For me, On Children also hit close to home in my own studies and upbringing. The older I grow, the more I learn how much scholarship truly exists beyond the books and grade point averages. No amount of micromanagement [parental or otherwise] or academic integrity can thwart life’s course; just as no respectability politics will save us. Nothing really prepares you for the hard lessons in store. And, regardless of how hard you’ve worked, how far you’ve come, how “good” of a person you think you are, how much you’ve suffered: you aren’t guaranteed a happy ending.