The democratization of speech brought on by the advent of social media is in theory (and sometimes, in practice) a beautiful result of technologies' ability to create a more egalitarian society.
The effects of growing up in a world where everyone's voice matters equally, and can be shared at their whim, is clear in the overall values of my generation of fellow millennials. We believe in rebuilding the contentious Welfare State; we've created movements like Black Lives Matter; we're fighting to combat the racialized effects of our prison system, and education system, and police system; and demanding reform on campaign finance in order to equalize our voices in the face of our politicians and our own government.
Social media has been used in hugely positive ways by individuals who categorically have been silenced and oppressed by corporate media, rewriting the narrative around who holds the power of production. Seizing new technology to increase representation on social media provides a direct and necessary counter-narrative to the failings of corporate media in Hollywood, advertising, modeling, etc. There have been numerous articles written about the empowering nature of selfies in a world that has told women of color, women of different sizes, and just most everyday women that they are not beautiful or sexy, not worthy enough to be imaged. Selfies are a reclamation of this, letting any woman who feels beautiful in a moment to express that on social media, and receive waves of support and affirmations from other people, strangers even.
Social media has been used to organize rallies and protests, to express political stances and even dialogue with peers about theirs. It is in these moments of interaction and discussion with our fellow humans that we are able to sway opinions, change and open minds, and get to know our neighbors, globally and locally. It's how we produce change, coming together to talk and enacting ensuing revolutions together. The power of the people can be realized digitally.
But there is another less intended consequence of the democratization of speech that we've seen play out this week in a number of petty celebrity feuds: the obfuscating of the truth. As much as the corporate oversight that turned our mass media culture into an elite display of wealth and power is hurtful (and has since morphed into the capitalist behemoth of my nightmares), it stems from an understandable desire to control the aforementioned narrative. Oversight exists in many situations, politically--through actually oversight committees and independent review bodies--and socially--in people such as therapists and counselors. Such mediators exist to take all of these disparate opinions and help decide on the basic agreement of some fundamental truths to move forward in conversation. But without any such body existing on the Internet, which I would argue is a body that should necessarily not be created for our online realm of free speech, the truth is not consensus and often never will be. There are no moral standards to prevent the blurring of reality and fiction, truth and lies.
In the two feuds I saw this past week (Kim & Kanye vs. Taylor Swift and Jeffree Star vs. Kat Von D) fans and followers seemed to just take the side of their favorite star, but as someone with no particular vested interest on either side it seems that two individual truths are being told and somehow they do not overlap. As a removed onlooker who is not a particularly devoted fan of either party, I feel completely unable to make a full assumption of who is telling the truth and who isn't, or what the truth that may lie in the middle would even be.
If we're all writing the online media narrative in which pop culture exists, that narrative will have an ever-shifting center. And some things may get lost in those shifts, while others are stoked. In other words, some definable truths may be lost in the pursuit of democratic free speech. This is important because no one person or group of people has complete control of this contemporary story, but has interesting implications in our day-to-day happenings online where our media is now crafted and lives.