Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media have all galvanized crucial movements for change in our contemporary society.
Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements are just a couple of examples of how these platforms have invited the common person to contribute to far-reaching and impactful conversations. Social media has made it increasingly clear that racialized state-sanctioned violence is brutal and widespread. Through social media, many have had to come face to face with the fact that women are sexually assaulted and attacked at painfully high rates.
Technological advancement spawned social media, and the Baha’i teachings allude to the great potential these technological creations have for the empowerment and education of people:
Would the extension of education, the development of useful arts and sciences, the promotion of industry and technology, be harmful things? For such endeavor lifts the individual within the mass and raises him out of the depths of ignorance to the highest reaches of knowledge and human excellence. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 15.
The internet, employed as a tool, allows us to express human agency. For those of us who have consistent access to it, our worlds have expanded to explore reality in places we may never visit. We can discuss the social climate of our global society like never before, be uplifted by art from other parts of the planet, and keep tabs on new scientific advances. The internet provides an outlet for learning.
But, like most human creations, the internet has also become a space wherein flawed human tendencies and power dynamics play out. Materialism seen in the form of advertisements, an increased emphasis on physical beauty, and exclusive divisions based on class are just a few of the many ways our society’s struggles live on through social media.
One of the most prominent struggles, at least within my own circles, reflects the need to gain a following. It becomes a sign of status and power to have a high number of people see and approve of what you post. I work as a model, and in the modeling world an increased number of people who follow might provide companies an extra incentive to hire me—the idea is that when I post work from a collaboration the brand will have extra reach into my personal audience.
In the social justice world celebrities leverage their fame by speaking their minds, investing in programs, or starting organizations to create change. With this trend we have seen how having such a large fan base can be helpful in arousing and inspiring others to think more critically about the world around them.
As we see people grappling with the nuances of social media as a platform for social transformation, it is not surprising that ego sneaks into the equation. Many platforms are set up in a way that shows the intrinsic value our culture has for status, fame, riches, and physical attraction. Likes, on Instagram, for example, set it up so that others can see how many people gave their approval for whatever content you posted. Without even intending to, we may find ourselves posting content for the sake of attracting this attention or support. Our egos, whether consciously or unconsciously, might become inflated if we are not careful with how we interact with these useful tools. The risk of hypocrisy becomes possible, as well, if we become too attached to the approval of our followers. Becoming too wrapped up in creating a certain image of ourselves as being ‘activists’ or ‘woke’ can distract from ensuring that in our lived lives we are truly practicing what we preach.
The Baha’i writings remind us:
What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless.
The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 17.
Much of the work represented and publicized online aligns with what many Baha’is would consider constructive towards a more just and blissful world. While a large fan base, or following, certainly does give a person access to share knowledge with increased numbers of people, is having this access necessary to contribute to large-scale change? Can we not be equally as effective if we work silently? Baha’is believe:
A man who does great good, and talks not of it, is on the way to perfection. The man who has accomplished a small good and magnifies it in his speech is worth very little. – Ibid.
In the many cases where social media becomes a crutch for the ego or simply a place where some spend so much time focused on “talking the talk,” they can forget to “walk the walk”—and social media can become a barrier rather than a useful tool.
We don’t need to have a ton of clout or many people following us to be a part of collective change. We can partner with our neighbors, organize ourselves quietly, and take advantage of the relationships that are a part of our daily lived lives. This is not to say that we completely disregard the amazing tool for education and progress that is social media—but rather that we do not need many people watching us to contribute in a meaningful way.