This week, as we went around the table and gave our standard introductions, our esteemed guest Professor Latanya Sweeney asked us each to add whether we view the internet as a friend or a foe. Caught a bit off guard, my first instinct was to say that the internet is our foe. At least, that it already has the capability to be.
Just the day before, I had read an article that a friend on Facebook had circulated about a college freshman named Madison Holleran who, contrary to an outward presentation online of being a happy, successful student-athlete, had battled with depression and ultimately took her own life in 2014 (see this video report by ESPN). Though the focus of the tragedy is definitely not her social media accounts but her clinical depression and the difficulty of transitioning to college, it powerfully demonstrates how curated and untrue our online personas are; Madison’s Instagram presented a content a smiley undergraduate who dreamed of athletic glory out on the track, not one who battled with inner demons. This veil can prevent users from receiving help, as possibly in Madison’s case, because they seem to be thriving on the surface. In addition, these hand-picked, painstakingly assembled images of perfection that serve as our social media presences can be destructive for others.
A couple weeks ago, my parents sent me this video made by a current freshman at Cornell portraying loneliness as a freshman transitioning into college. She describes how even though she knows that “social media is fake and stuff,” the constant stream of videos and pictures from her high school friends having the time of their lives in college only added to the sense of isolation. This sentiment was all too relatable for me, and of course extends beyond the scope of college—in general, people use social media to show the best sides of themselves, and viewers perceive these curations as their daily lives and feel alone in their entirely normal imperfect and bumpy lives.
On the flip side, the internet can do a whole lot of good for people socially. As we read in the article “Trust me, I’m your smartphone,” the internet can serve as a lifeline for minority demographics in particular who find support and comfort through connection with people of similar experiences. And admittedly I haven’t even touched on the purposes the internet serves beyond social connection, such as information collection and distribution, collaboration, business, and more. The internet does a whole lot of good and bad in those fields, as well, but I digress.
The conclusion I came to after our seminar and further reflection is to agree with Hannah—that the internet is neither a friend nor foe, but simply a tool. An incredibly powerful tool, that is, with which we have the capability to reach unimaginable heights… if we don’t destroy ourselves first.