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Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. My name is Shamir Gabriel Reuben, I’m 22 years old. On most days I’m a writer, but today I’m just REALLY nervous.
When I was invited to speak at this event, I didn’t hesitate to choose a topic that I knew would resonate with the age group I am currently addressing. This aspect has in the past decade, not just become a vital part of our lives, but has become a powerful extension of how we project ourselves in the online space. Social media isn’t just an app or a network anymore; it is a parallel universe where a variety of elements co-exist to conceptualize, share and execute ideas.
To understand just how deeply we’re entrenched in this phenomenon, let me give you a few examples. The world’s population currently stands at 7.2 billion people. A little less than half that number, 3.01 billion are active internet users. 1.4 billion are on Facebook. Remember, that’s 1.4 billion despite China banning Facebook. Also, two new people are joining LinkedIn for every second that I take up on stage, which tells me I should finish early or there’s a good chance I won’t find a job. Singer Katy Perry has more Twitter followers than Spain has people. These figures are mind-numbing as they are, but we haven’t even taken into consideration the myriad of thoughts, ideas, expressions and beliefs that one individual is capable of, let alone seven billion of them. In the digital space, which is a democratic medium with minimal gatekeeping, people have the freedom and the motivation to vent. This has brought on something we call the age of hyper-information. Allow me to elaborate.
Every day, the world generates 70 million pictures on Instagram. Considering most of it is food that’s a lot of hungry people on the Internet. Also, every single day the world churns out an incredible 500 million tweets. That is enough to fill a notebook with roughly 10 million pages, every single day.
With the sheer volume of information disseminated on a day-to-day basis, one of the most genuinely intimidating questions that come to mind is – In the midst of all this mess, how do I get my voice heard? What if I have something to share, but the world won’t listen because there are a billion other people who are voicing opinions simultaneously? Intriguing thought. Before I try and answer that, I want to show everyone here how social media decides whether you’re worth listening to.
In one word, could I hear from the audience a common thread to both pictures? A common link that stands out for you? Take a close look at the first picture, it’s a screen grab from one of the world’s largest social networking site – Reddit. If you look to the left hand side of the picture, you’ll see a row of numbers next to each headline. These are called “upvotes”, which are basically Reddit’s version of likes. The more likes a particular story has, the better its chance of being read. The same is the case with Twitter, Facebook, Imgur and any other social networking website that comes to mind. Let’s not lie to ourselves and say that the number of likes on a picture or the number of retweets have never swayed us.
So the answer I was looking for? That’s right, numbers. Just like the real world, social media follows a hierarchy. The better your numbers, the more likely you are to be read, watched or heard. The more numbers you are able to sustain frequently, the more influence you wield in the digital space.
Sadly, it is because of this obsession with numbers, that we’re losing the true essence, purpose and strength of what social media is or can do. While the number of people on social media is rapidly going up, we’re starting to see trends that suggest that we’re not just growing, but we’re also growing apart. A study revealed that 1 in 3 people feels dissatisfied with their lives every time they visit Facebook. Multiple studies link social networking to depression, because of envy, social isolation, competitive exclusion, poor numbers and a malformed image of social standing. In fact, researchers have considered this trend to be serious enough to be given its own unique definition, called “Facebook Depression.”
These trends suggest a partial realization of everything wrong with the online world- insensitivity, the dangers of online disinhibition, a society with which is reckless with its freedom and constantly grappling with its own self-esteem. We’re losing ourselves to the numbers and the chaos that we’ve made social media to be.
So when I started off with social media, I promised myself that numbers would never govern the way I use my profiles. I told myself that I was going to use my social media to go beyond numbers and make a difference where it matters. Here’s how the results turned out for me.
The WordPress Chronicles
I’m going to start with the one thing closest to my heart, but for that I need to turn back time. When I was 7 years old, my Dad, who is an ex-fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, crashed his plane during the Kargil war and was gravely injured. He broke his spine and had other serious injuries, some of which have been causing him immense discomfort for the past 15 years. When I was 18, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer. For the next year and a half, I saw my favourite thing in the world fight valiantly in a desperate cause. When she passed away, everything changed. The only thing that kept me going through these times was my love for writing. I couldn’t really vent to anyone about these emotional predicaments, so I just started writing on things that had changed me, most notably, cancer. As I grew more able at dealing with the emotional repercussions, I started putting all of this publicly on my blog, called thedevastatedreamer. In a year or so, I realized that my personal experiences were doing far more than I first envisioned.
This pretty lady you see behind me is Maryam Azaz Khan. Our friendship began around six months back, when she randomly messaged me on Facebook. She said she was going through my blog, and loved a post called “Happy Birthday, Mom,” a small letter I had written to my Mom on her birthday after she had passed away from cancer. She said it moved her, and she related to it strongly. She told me, that her Mom was undergoing treatment for cancer and that my letter made her realize just how much she cherishes her mother. Since then, we have kept in touch and we talk regularly about things like cancer, about coping with stress, academics and what not. We have never spoken over the phone because Maryam is from Pakistan, and well international calls are a bomb. Our friendship is kept alive by WordPress, Whatsapp and Facebook; basically the three musketeers of social media.
A few months later, I was messaged by another girl who read the same post. She said she that she loved the letter I had written, and that it gave her strength. It was almost déjà vu in terms of what had happened with Maryam. My heart violently skipped a few beats as I asked her, why it gave her strength. She then told me, that she was suffering from bone cancer. She also told me that she was just 14.
Just like in Maryam’s case, I did my best to be there for someone who was to me before that day, just another number. I couldn’t change the physical effects of cancer, but I sure could at least try and take care of the ones that tend to cause elusive damage. She is 15 now, and thankfully she’s recovered from the cancer too. If it weren’t for social media, I would surely have missed out on an incredible person, one who inspires me even today.
Thanks to such wonderful experiences, I went on writing and on Father’s Day, I decided to write something I had wanted to say for a long time. Tired of seeing my Dad’s habit of smoking, I wrote him this little note called “Lethal Addictions.” The very same day, he promised me he would kick the habit altogether. It didn’t stop at that, a few people made their fathers read the post, and two of them told me that their Dads stopped smoking too.
And to think it all started with me writing down my fears, inhibitions and insecurities. Now that I know that being on these social media platforms does humanity some good, it only serves to motivate me to write more, and help those who’re going through what I had to endure. Thanks to social media and the tremendous reach it provides, I have a platform which is slowly but steadily altering people’s thought processes.
The Ask.fm story
What the website is basically, it is a networking site where users can send each other questions anonymously. The users have described the website as a boon for teenagers, who need a place where they can express their views without being judged, harassed or publicly embarrassed. So yeah, even I was fascinated with the entire concept, so I joined the bandwagon a year and a half ago. It started off with very innocuous questions, things ranging from “What’s your favourite colour?” to “What are your thoughts on true love.” Sometimes the questions are plain ridiculous saying “Hi I’m 13 years old, and my boyfriend left me. I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love again. Could you please help me?” I know, ridiculous! But then, at times, I end up getting questions like these.
I remember multiple occasions that I was anonymously told that they were suicidal and needed help. Just to give you a bigger picture, Ask.fm has caused more than nine teen suicides due to cyber-bullying since its inception. And when someone sends you a message like this at midnight, you really can’t think straight. But I managed to talk to her for a while, and convinced her not to do so. During the course of my stay on Ask, I have talked to more than a 1000 people. It’s almost become like an Agony Aunt column now, and people on the website call me old man, because the site is a rave with teenagers and at 22 years old, I’m a relative grandpa. There have been six different people who have confessed to being suicidal, and I’m really relieved to say I convinced all six of them not to take the drastic step. The girl who wrote this message was one of them, and she’s doing better than we spoke the other night. So what began as an exercise in random human curiosity, has led me to a place where I am changing, if not saving lives.
To put it all into perspective, I firmly believe that as a society, we aren’t utilizing the true power of social media and its infinite possibilities. History tells us that societies and civilizations have started revolutions to find a land where everybody has a voice, but now that we have a realm where everyone can speak, we’re all caught in a hysterical scramble where everyone is trying to shout the loudest. Stop looking at social media as a bunch of numbers to massage your egos. We need to look beyond the obvious and start making a difference where it truly matters. In a world moving too fast for its own good, be someone’s constant; give something to the world that they can hold on to. You can’t be God, but you can definitely be the answer to someone’s prayers. So take control of what you have, and make a difference because you can.