Since the beginning of its existence, the human race has been a social one, marked by its desires for companionship and emotional connection. What sets people apart from other social creatures is that these desires are fulfilled with complex relationships which harbor the warmth of human contact.  The latest addition to humanity’s arsenal for creating such connections is social media. But whether this creation has unanticipated effects is yet to be determined decisively.  The broad definition of ‘social media’ has allowed for a variety of informal arguments, some of which claim that social media serves to distance people from genuine interaction while others argue that it enables the widening of social circles. The support for such assertions, however, is often anecdotal, making them open to questioning. But these cliché arguments may provide a basis for deeper, more nuanced interpretations of possible future effects of social media. The paradoxical distancing of people caused by social media, for example, can be assessed through Hegel’s Theory of Alienation, while the potential increase in number of social interactions through Richard Dawkins’ Meme Theory.

Stemming as far back as Aristotle himself, the concept of human nature and what is beneficial or detrimental for it has been debated. This notion is further articulated by the hugely influential German philosopher Hegel.  His concept of alienation, or the idea of actions that deviate from what is inherently natural in humans, can be applied to the effects of social media today and in the future by helping to explain the relationship between social media and people’s inherent predispositions with regards to social interactions. More specifically, extensive use of social media in place of actual face-to-face human interaction is an example of such ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement’ because it is safe to say that communicating through text on a screen is antithetical to ‘natural’ social interaction in person through speech, gesticulation, and facial expressions. Admittedly, applications such as Skype and FaceTime attempt to create a more proximal social media interface as opposed to distal messaging and texting; however, an image of an individual is still once removed from physically seeing and hearing someone since the visual and auditory information is transferred into electronic signals and then recreated, effectively creating an illusion of an individual through the manipulation of pixels on a screen. Despite this illusionary effect, usage of such programs is becoming more frequent especially by today’s youth as a result of external pressures such as advertising and peer pressure, since the lack thereof would result in doing what is in line with human nature. This subconscious direction of alienating acts helps to explain why individuals often choose to voluntarily dilute possible real social situations with meager substitutes such as Facebook and Skype. That is not to say that the use of social media is always unjustified because even such substitutes are preferable to total lack of interaction in cases when forces beyond one’s control prevent physical proximity. Loved ones, for example, can still maintain contact despite the increasing tendency for families to diffuse geographically, and familial ties are justified in taking priority over doing what is natural.  The true danger arises if people start to view interactions through social media as real ones, therefore tricking themselves into thinking that such interactions are satisfactory replacements for the true emotional bonds only attainable by physically being with others. 

Shifting from the reasons of increased social media use, Richard Dawkins’ Meme Theory (from which internet memes derive their name) provides insight into social media’s effects as it facilitates a constantly growing number of social interactions, many of which would have been impossible only 20 years ago. In essence, Dawkins uses Meme Theory to parallel genetic evolution with cultural change and transmission. The meme, or the unit of such ‘cultural evolution’ is an idea of any type that can be passed on from one individual to the next, and that changes or ‘evolves’ much like a gene might as a result of this constant transfer, albeit at a much faster rate. Additionally, some memes penetrate further than others based on variable appeal between competing memes. In the ancient world, for example, a meme capable of creating a more effective crossbow than another would propagate further than a competing one for creating a less effective crossbow. With regards to social media, memes are able to progress from host to host at rates that were previously unimaginable. The end result of this rapid transfer between people that are often geographically removed from one another is the dramatic hastening of cultural evolution. While a new linguistic phenomenon may have taken months or even years to gain a foothold 100 years ago, it can now proliferate itself through the internet, and especially through social media in a matter of days or hours. In short, ideas are able to ‘infect’ individuals at tremendous rates largely because of social media, hence causing an increased rate of cultural intermingling. The end product of this effect, which social media facilitates to a large extent, will most likely be progression into a state of global cultural uniformity, as memes will no longer be limited geographically.

While Hegel, the father of the Theory of Alienation, died long before the advent of the computer, let alone social media, and Richard Dawkins proposed Meme Theory to explain cultural evolution in general, there is a clear link between their respective theories and the ways in which social media is altering the world.  A Hegelian analysis of social media seems pessimistic at first, but if people use social media without losing sight of its limitations, geographic barriers that once kept loved ones apart will be demolished without a debasement of the human experience. Moreover, the global ‘superulture’ that Dawkins’ memes will create with the help of social media will provide a bridge between countries of varying quality of life, which could expedite the exchange of memes pertaining to medicine, housing, and food that could improve the lives of millions of people, thus resulting in a uniformly prosperous world.    

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...