New Media New Challenges

2015-04-26 19:34

There is something in many people that longs for the old days when letters were hand-written and postcards were windows to the world. The fascination of receiving a letter, preferably not a bill, was and still is a course for joy. A time when stamps meant something, when they could be collected because they were stamps designed to commemorate something or someone. There was a time when telegrams were the best tool for passing what was necessary of the message without any sensation.

There is still a longing for the simplicity that characterised the lives of all people; when the house phone or the public phone was the only phone there was and if someone could not reach you – well they just could not reach you.

I know this sounds like the opening lines of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in the musical Les Misérables – there was a time. The shift from the industrial age and the entry into the information age has been enormous. To be able to understand its speed one need not look further than him/herself. Today even those who considered themselves to be in the frontlines of the revolution of technology find themselves at the back when people younger than themselves, in many cases their own children, show them how out of touch they are.

The internet has been driving progress and access to information in a remarkable manner and has also been a great tool for connecting with others. The highest point, at least for now, of the internet’s ability to connect people, places and events is social networking. Social networks have been well received because they appeal to a very important facet in the human condition – to connect with the other. They have opened a window through which families and old friends can know, in great detail, what the other is doing.News also move faster than before without waiting for the radio or television bulletin or the newspaper. They also contribute to the national conversation and are a good gage through which we can assess general views on particular topical issues.

However as we learn to live with new media there are serious questions that emerge from our new and faster lives. Social networks are changing us. Social networks can be aggressively narcissistic and are introducing a change to the notion of boundaries. There were always boundaries or limits to what a person could divulge about their own lives. However in the virtual world every single detail is often displayed from when someone wakes up, to what they eat, to who they are with, where they are and when they go to bed. This is spurred-on by the constant wanting to display perfection by photo-shopping pictures to making claims that cannot not be verified or that no one really cares to verify.

I have met so many people who have the gift of bilocation because they “check-in” at one place while they are in another place.  I am not saying that all these things are not authentic, that would be too hasty a judgement in my part. However there is also the possibility that the underlining reason for this is that social networks create a virtual life which does not even have to be true.   On social networks any person can create an image that is completely different to their real image.

In addition social networks seem to not subscribe to the right to privacy. We need not look any further than the case of Pulane Lenkoe. The fact that someone has the ability to share online nude images of the other without their consent is a direct infringement of the right to privacy and the right to a good name. Such practices are exacerbated by the anonymity that online platforms have.

The online world seems to suggest that it has its own licence that does not apply to the real world. For example in the case of DJ Sbu and Forbes Africa, it cannot be done or even gotten away with that someone can use a brand of the other without permission and find nothing wrong with it. In the online world there are serious copy right infringements every day because any person can take any photograph or artistic expression and change or use it without permission from the one who holds the rights.

Another change which is ushered in by social networks is that they have slowed down productivity. Some people might just pass as workers of the social networks because they are always available to respond to everyone’s posts regardless of the time of day. Employers have the huge task of trying to get people to work and stay off social media during working hours. Companies or organisations that have not set up social media regulations are not attuned to the spirit of the age. This is not just about the amount of time spent on social media instead of working but also how people represent themselves on these networks.

There was a time when people were expected to be descent and dignified on the whole, even if you had the right qualifications, there was an expectation that the person ought to embody the dignity that the company espouses. The disparity is so great that at times the drivers of hate speech, bigotry, cyber bullying and outmost indignity online can be the very people whom you task with helping you to raise your company or even worse to raise your children.

Perhaps the most challenging moral dilemma that I am faced with on social networks is the tension between activism and cooperation. Activism refers to that quality that is charged by social justice, that quality that wants to raise awareness about situations which might be ignored or not known. On social networks there has been the most appalling display of the infringement of human rights. Almost daily a video emerges of someone being assaulted or worse still the images of people being burnt in cages or beheaded by ISIS militants. The activist in us wants to make these human rights violations known so that something can be done to change the situation. However there is also the other tension that if these videos are shared then a person’s account becomes the forum for those who violate others.  This means that, in a rather unfortunate manner, we indirectly become the marketers of such evils. This of course is not intentional on our part but it is a course for tension.  It is a course for tension because we understand that these images are made public because they are to serve to instil fear and to display to the world how unrelenting or unafraid the perpetrators are. This means that the perpetrators of these heinous acts want us to talk and want us to be alarmed. Many people’s social networking accounts are linked with their friends and their children so there will always be a tension on whether or not do we want to introduce and perpetuate such violations thus normalising them to many people.

This problem trickles down to even to those areas that might seem like they are not too big as compared to international problems; for example when on shares a picture of someone who is in a compromised position like nudity. Granted there are those who release their own pictures but there are so many pictures of people we do not even know. There are serious questions about whether these images and pictures that circulate the networks were consented upon or maybe they were used in order to defame someone’s dignity and image. Our participation therefore in sharing such pictures makes us to be accomplices to the violations that those individuals suffer.

There is an urgent need for formation both formal and informal about social networks. In addition there will have to be some legislative contours developed because there are new challenges to face from copy rights to human rights. Social networks are fundamentally a joy but like every good thing they too are prone to abuse. The next time we click share or retweet we ought to remember what it is we are sharing and how does it affect the one who is the subject matter and those who receive it.

See you on the streets of Twitter and Facebook. @NdlovuLawrence

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