A click on social media

When Wael Ghonim founded a Facebook page in honor of a young Egyptian who was tortured to death by the police, he had no idea that he was about to cause a revolution.  The uprising he sparked gave him the confidence to anonymously collaborate with activists, outsource ideas from the common people and organize peaceful protests against the then Egyptian Government. All of this, through a social media page, which he had no idea would change his life. Social media can be a monumental tool, but at what price? Today, in his fascinating and a little chilling Ted Talk, Wael describes how social media is shaping our lives, our decisions, our emotions and even, our freedom. “To liberate society” he says, and I quote, “people say we need the internet. But I think to liberate society, we need to liberate the internet.”

Today, the internet is held hostage in a nasty and noisy media landscape which is ruthless, and takes pleasure in humiliation.’Followers’ are gained by rumor mongering. These followers feed on gossip, which, worst of all is permanently accessible. The easiest way to get a million views on your post is to throw out sentences brimming with anger and through exchange of heated words . Accusations hurled across this media landscape may even be baseless, but people strongly stand behind it due to their emotional appeal. This leads to more comments and posts as thousands others hop on the bandwagon, jumping to conclusions.  We increasingly see this trend as shallow comments have replaced deep conversations, discussions have turned into angry mobs and polarization of societies. Rumors and selling of privacy have made people’s lives a living hell.

Invasion of privacy, cruel jokes and public humiliation haven’t spared anyone from a commoner like the smart, 18-year-old young man Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the Washington bridge after an intimate video of him went viral, to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, whose icloud account was hacked to publicize her nude,private photos . Monica Lewinsky, in her breathtakingly personal and courageous talk reveals how she almost lost her life to shame, only because the digital media wouldn’t show her any empathy. Shaming, as a blood sport needs to stop, she says as she describes how such stories gain momentum and a huge fan-following, simply because people are naturally attracted to juicy stories and angry, emotion-filled condemnations. We, as a society have become numb to the feelings of the actual people behind this line of fire. We can’t let the internet become a one-stop shop for such stories and cyber-bullying, simply because we have the ability and freedom to do so. Even though we may not realize it, we ARE indeed the social media. We are not passive entities of the society anymore. Every click we make, every page we visit, every ‘Like’ we do is shaping the social media today.

Websites and other forms of media are making money out of these stories, because this is what gets traffic to their sites and makes gripping TV. The internet has also been blatantly misused to sell illicit drugs, through websites that are a string of meaningless numbers and characters. Personal and sensitive information is clinched from people without their knowledge as we are entering a phase where secrets aren’t secrets anymore. Recently, there was news about a famous retail chain being able to tell that a woman was pregnant before she even told her parents about it and could recommend buying options to her based on the vitamins she bought. The mysterious God sitting in the internet can now infer our desires before we even have them and buy products for us before we even need them.

However, we have known social media to be a channel to connect people, reunite lost relatives and to save lives. It has caused a lot of positive change in homes, cities and countries. Social media is shaping our landscape, our culture and our lifestyle and we can put it to best use by tackling problems in diversity, eliminating bias across the board and helping people recreate and restructure our world. An initiative taken by peoplemaps.org shows how we can create a map of San Francisco based on how people with different interests are dispersed across the city. While Hip Hop took to the far South corner, ‘Twitter users’ represent the North. Well, atleast now we know Twitter isn’t into Hip Hop!

Can we actually liberate the internet? Can we free it from the tyranny of unsympathetic and foolish social media? Instead of blindly hooking on to rumors and angry abuses fired at people, we can help gain better access to facts and deeper discussions. Before posting hateful posts on Facebook and rejoicing at the sight of 10,000 similar opinion-based comments, we can think about who the post is actually impacting and if it is reaching the right audience. We can show users how visiting a page or hitting the ‘Like’ button could impact her and how her information can be gleaned through this. We need to realize the massive impact of a single click and stop adding to the traffic and ratings of websites that thrive on public humiliation and gossip. We can help free the internet, lest the tool we built for the very purpose of enhancing our freedom enslave us and encroach upon our lives. Let us try to make the the world with the internet a better place, better than the one described in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”




The Evergreen State Jaunt

Late one Saturday afternoon, I found myself scampering up a narrow path up a lush green forest, following the  murmur of a stream in downstate Washington. The weekend getaway to Seattle was indeed turning into an exploration of the evergreen state with all her mountains and lakes proudly up for display.

Mt Teneriffe trailhead was on top of our list that morning as we trained our eyes on catching glimpses of the Snoqualmie region. After  a hike up to the waterfall, we decided to drive down the winding roads along the valleys dotted with innumerable blue lakes, in search of one in particular- the Rachel Lake. The best on the ‘Thrill-List” outside Seattle couldn’t be missed.

The lake as it turned out was a solitary one. As we parked by the shoulder of the road and headed down to the beach, the only humans in sight were already in the middle of the lake, in their fishing boat. What’s better than experiencing the pleasure of discovering a lake that stretches as far as the naked eye can see, only to find that you have it all to yourself? Well I did feel like Captain Cook when he just landed on the shores of Hawaii. No maddening crowds, no tourists, no annoying ‘Do Not Pass Beyond this Point’ signs..Was this Rachel Lake? I guess we would never know. But we hardly cared.

A long drive back the same scenic route took us back to the hustle and bustle of a city now alive with the sounds of nightlife as we watched miniature cars and trucks from 500 ft above the ground. The observation deck on the Space Needle, the most iconic structure in downtown Seattle was brimming with people that night as we hitched our bandwagon to the line of enthusiastic tourists who faithfully read the displayed history of the tower as they waited in the queue. The black waters of the bay to the north reflected the shimmering lights of the city with its brilliantly lit skyscrapers. A giant wheel rotated constantly and a silver cruise made its way slowly across the channel. We crowded on the deck with the cool summer sir in or hair to get the mandatory picture clicked by the camera overhead like the thousands of others before us that day.

After the simply-can’t-miss visit to the space needle, and the Airbnb guest cat’s visit to our home, we hit the sack.

The next day, I found myself standing on a balcony in the world’s largest building by volume- the Boeing factory, staring awe-struck at the world’s longest Boeing 747 plane. The tour guide rendered his clearly overused speech about the host of machines that manufactured the nose, the tail and the wings pointing to the assembly of tools and workers that moved at the rate of 2 inches/hr, moving from one gigantic part to the other, servicing them as they went. It was truly a monumental feat, it seemed, for a tiny human to control the giant beast that stood before us from one end of its 250 ft long body.

Later that day, the urge to drive up to a place not frequented by tourists got the better of us as we headed North towards Snohomish County’s Crystal Lake. The highway turned into a 12 ft wide road as we drove at 50mph. We drove, already planning our next trip, talking about work, memories of school and so much more. Google maps remained our reassuring companion. And then, it threw a huge curve-ball at us. It went dead. The road turned into a dirt path it was 7 pm and we could only see faint glows through the dense forest all around. We suddenly realized that we hadn’t spotted a single car in miles.

As we drove along the narrow road, always on the lookout for cars racing toward us from the other side, the forest got denser, and darker.There was just that one road (or highway as it was called) to Crystal Lake and GPS showed that it abruptly ended in the middle of the forest.  Our gas tank was still half full and I was thankful for that, if not anything else! A car passed us by, the sliding door wide open.

2 girls driving through the path that weaved through the black forest in the dead of the night didn’t seem like a wise decision. We turned around and headed back. Instinct told us to stop by the side of the road again to walk up to the river to make up for the lost Crystal Lake. Walking on the side of the highway which had no shoulder – check! Drivers were taken aback as they suddenly spotted us walking by at the road-bend. They even violated the lane rule to keep a safe 15 ft distance from us 😀

A quiet dinner at the Mediterranean fast food joint, served by an angry little man ended a perfect day filled with surprises, awe, unease and mirth. This experience definitely merits another trip to Washington state, a trip that is isn’t tied down by a pre-planned itinerary,  a trip that leads to whatever place that strikes our fancy, a trip to “sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails and Explore, Discover,Dream”, in the words of H.Jackson Brown.