It’s high time to reclaim our lives

I USED to have a Twitter account. I don’t have a Facebook or Instagram account. I use Google and spend time on YouTube. The only social media platform I am using now is WhatsApp and even that is limited to family members and friends. I am a member of 10 WhatsApp groups.

Malaysia ranks in the top five globally in social media penetration, the highest in the region. Out of a population of 31.8 million, there are 25.08 million Internet users, or 79% of the population. There are 24 million active social media users in the country, or 75% of the population.

I have nothing against the Internet or social media. In fact, I was one of the first board members of the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDC) appointed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he mooted the idea of a Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) in the early ‘90s.

The truth was, the 14 member-strong board of the MDC chaired by the late Tan Sri Dr Mohd Othman Yob Abdullah was grappling with the new realities of the Internet, which was still in its infancy at the time.

Dr Mahathir believed the Internet would change everything. The goal of the MSC was to unlock multimedia’s full potential. It was to integrate groundbreaking cyberlaws and prepare the right ecosystem to attract potential players of the industry.

We were looking at telecommunications services as a key supporting industry for the future. Dr Mahathir’s vision was to move from the Industrial Age to the new, bold, unchartered Information Age.

I now have reservations about how advancements in telecommunications technology have evolved and impacted us. Social media, the most celebrated outcome of the Information Age, is a creation that has changed humankind forever, for better or for worse.

The world is different now. Social media is defining us. There is no escape from its onslaught. And it is only the beginning. We are not sure what the future will hold or what kind of further advancements will rewrite humanity.

But one thing is for sure – we are creating digital zombies. Humans are spending outrageously long hours on social media. Just look at us.

According to a report by YouGov, social media users spend an average of five hours and 47 minutes a day across various platforms. One in six (or 17%) users spend more than nine hours a day on social media platforms. Only 7% spend less than an hour online.

When I quit Twitter, which I signed up for in June 2012, I had 37,600 followers and followed 237 others. My four years on Twitter taught me many valuable lessons. I joined the platform because I believed in sharing, but many of the postings and responses shocked me.

Today, there are simply too many irresponsible people using their social media accounts as a weapon of mass destruction. Nothing is sacrosanct anymore.

What is worse is that many people believe what they read and forward damning materials without remorse. Some care little about the impact of their posting on others. Social media is seen as a licence to insult, slander and humiliate.

It takes one person to post something vicious which goes viral in no time. No one, no institution, no company, is spared.

The rule of the game is to just join the bandwagon on any issue without any need to understand anything. Even cowboys had rules in the old days.

A former vice-president of a major tech company famously argued that social media is ripping apart the fabric of society. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works, he said.No amount of monitoring by any government apparatuses will save this society intoxicated with its new toys. People can be charged for distributing fake news or worse. Post and be damned! The irresponsible usage of social media will go on. We are not a disciplined lot, some would argue.

Perhaps we have yet to become mature users of technological platforms. Unless and until the benefits outweigh the negatives, Digital Malaysia, social media-wise, is a dangerous world to be in. It is time to take stock.

The idea that Dr Mahathir and his band of visionary pioneers had at MSC during its formulative years was to catapult the country to a developed-nation status. Sadly, one of its by products, social media, is fast becoming a cesspool of nonsense and a harbinger of hatred.

Perhaps we need more than just digital detoxification. It is about time that we reclaim our lives.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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