Published On: May 18, 2016

A Reply is Waiting for You

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Selfies and Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat and WhatsApp fit perfectly in Brazil. This is a country steeped in the oral tradition, where people view vanity in a positive light, and there is less recognition of personal space or privacy. Social media websites are booming in Brazil. Even Internet shopping is expanding despite a weak economy.

Social media is also popular in the rest of the Internet-connected world. Why? It would appear people want to be seen and heard, eager for attention. We all want to be liked, so the Facebook thumbs-up “like” suits us. We all enjoy having friends, and Facebook feeds that desire, even though most of our “Friends” on Facebook aren’t actual friends.

Using English vocabulary, Facebook Friends would be better named as acquaintances. Some of them we’ve never met in person. In Brazil, it’s not essential to make a distinction between a friend and an acquaintance, which makes social media here all the more integral and vibrant, especially for young people.

Mark Pearson with journalism students trying media law using twitter.

In the study of logic, there is a concept known as a “tautology,” which is a statement that is necessarily true. What is occurring today with social media websites can be seen as a technology tautology: We want attention; Facebook provides it. In business, such websites are a “gold mine.” On the other hand, some technology critics see social media as destructive. They compare it to the mythological symbol of the snake consuming its own tail.

One psychologist puts it this way: “The more ‘Friends’ we have on Facebook, the more we want.” The more Likes we have, the more we want. This leads us to increase our social media presence by expanding to several websites at the same time, like Snapchat or Instagram. For those with an even stronger desire for visibility or fame and who have a streak of creativity, there’s YouTube, where unknowns become celebrities.

Entrepreneurs note that the Internet meets certain needs and desires, and companies like Google and YouTube wouldn’t exist and make money if they didn’t fulfill a role in our lives. However, it’s certain that in the past, before the existence of computers and smartphones and the Internet, people were capable of being happy. Today, however, at least in Internet savvy places like Brazil and the US, it seems people cannot be happy without the Internet. We have grown dependent on it, and in some cases addicted to it. There is a desire and the Internet feeds it, which creates more desire that can only be satisfied by more feeding. How did this happen? Is it a technology tautology – something that must be true? Is it the snake consuming its own tail?

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Another controversial and contradictory aspect of the Internet is how much data it holds. There is so much information available on the Internet, particularly in English – every book, every theory, every map – that the world has gone beyond global to being personal, i.e. the world is literally at our fingertips. The world has shrunk to the size of a keyboard.

A reverse perspective of the same phenomenon is that the entire world is available to anyone who can access the Internet, so the world has gotten bigger. For example, one hundred fifty years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, no one knew what was going on outside his own town. Today, most people live in urban areas (80 percent of Brazilians), so there is constant contact with large numbers of people. People are exposed to different ideas than the ones expressed solely by their own family and friends. Add the Internet into that reality, and we have the whole world on our smartphone, giving us its opinion on everything. Each day we can talk to the entire world – that’s a big home with a lot of friends.

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Whether we view the world as smaller or larger, we are the products of a technology revolution providing us with more information than we know what to do with. We are living in an information overload. If information were cash, we would be so rich we wouldn’t be able to spend all our money no matter how long we lived.

We have become tiny specks in a sea of information, which is why the majority of websites fail as businesses. There are too many websites these days for people to read them all. Doing a Google search on any subject will yield articles, research, and websites devoted to such minuscule topics as “balloon animals” or “the disappearance of bee colonies.”

It’s impossible to read or “digest” all of this information. If we are kind and ethical, we know that everyone is entitled to his opinion, and one opinion isn’t more important than another. So how do we made use of all these opinions?

Of course, there are exceptions. An economist will probably have greater knowledge about Brazil’s economic dilemma than a teenage boy on YouTube. Therefore, if you’re looking for reliable economic forecasting, you’ll pay more attention to the opinion of the economist.

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Where does that leave us as individuals in the world of the Internet? Our own opinions must compete to be heard in a world of 7 billion people. Our voices are lost in an ocean of voices. We can put up a video of ourselves on YouTube, but if only ten people view it, it loses its value. We can start our own blog, but then we want to know how many viewers we have. Simply because we launch our voices onto the Internet, making ourselves public, doesn’t mean the public is listening.

Never have we as individuals been so in touch with so many others in the world. As a result, never have we been so aware of how small we are. When our voices ring out into the void, if only our echo returns, are we being heard?

We need to be recognized; it is a basic desire of human beings like the need for warmth. This is the role that social media provides. The more we learn how big the world is and how small we are, the more we want to reach out to the world. Every time we receive a message on Facebook or WhatsApp, the world has reached out to us. The world is listening. It’s not the echo of our own voice, it’s a reply.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba, Brazil.

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