It’s in the way that you use it …

Spoiler alert – I’ve tried to be careful with what I’ve posted here, but if you haven’t seen or read The Circle and you think you might like to, I’d strongly recommend that you look away now.

This week in one of my classes, we were tasked with thinking about the portrayal of social media in film and TV. My mind immediately went to The Circle – the film adaptation of the Dave Eggers novel of the same name.

If you’ve skipped the trailer, the titular Circle is a tech/social media company driven by the ideology that ‘sharing is caring’ and that while ‘knowing is good; knowing everything is better’ (my emphasis). Driven by this belief, the company develops ‘SeeChange’, an initiative that uses a huge number of small cameras to deliver real-time video feeds.

Following a kayaking incident and subsequent rescue thanks to SeeChange, employee Mae is convinced of the value the initiative can bring decides to go ‘completely transparent’ by wearing a body camera whenever she is awake.

It’s been a while now since I’ve seen the film, but there are a couple of things that have stayed with me.  

This first is the (unintended) impact of Mae’s decision to go transparent on those closest to her. For example, we see her relationship with her parents breakdown as some of their most intimate moments are inadvertently broadcast to the world. We also see – together with the rest of the world – the real-time death of her friend.

This raises the idea of ‘exposure by association’. While not limited to the ‘social’ media, the speed at which ‘social’ media – as opposed to traditional media – is able to reach a large audience means that social media activity / engagement has more potential to impact those around the individual engaging. In class, one of the other students noted that because of their unusual surname, any social media activity under their own name would effectively ‘out’ their family as well. So, while social media provides an unparalleled opportunity for one to virtually engage with people you’ll never meet, it brings with it the potential for real-world consequences.

The second thing that stuck with me is that neither of the most senior executives at the Circle use or intend to use SeeChange themselves (I’m thinking there were two senior execs but there may have been others – as I said, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film. Apologies to any fans). As far as they are concerned, the technology is great as long as it is not their life you are talking about (ring any bells from the Netflix doco The Social Dilemma in which employee after employee notes that they don’t allow their children to use the social media platforms they’ve been involved in developing?).

To be fair, the film also presented potential positive implications from the SeeChange initiative, such as the ability to track / find criminals anywhere in the world in under 20 minutes. That being said, I only recalled this after reading it in a synopsis. I’m not sure if that reflects the proportion of air-time the film gave to the good v bad implications of Seechange or my own personal biases when I was watching the film.

So to be clear, despite the negative tone of my comments above, I’m not suggesting that all social media is bad. Like any tool, it’s how it’s used that determines its value.

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