In the last week, a new trend flew onto Twitter timelines. Users texted a parent the same potentially unflattering image of a man caught mid-speech, claiming it was their “new boyfriend” and then sharing their parent’s response to social media. Sent in the hopes of garnering a reaction, the text often elicited a response from the parent that was either politely supportive or more interestingly disapproving.
Not only did the original image go viral, but the very act of sharing the image with older relatives went viral as well. This is communication in the digital age. Modern communication — most often via blue bubbles — takes place with a new set of intentions and perspectives. This isn’t to say pranks and jokes did not exist before the internet, but the means and scale of sharing humor has grown exponentially. People today have one thing they never had before: the internet. This gives them agency over media production.
Yes, a tweet is media. A screenshot of a hilarious text exchange is media. The communal consumption of 2.5 quintillion gigabytes of data created each day is a novel source of entertainment. Before he was everyone’s fake boyfriend, that single photo of that man was one of 300 million photos posted to the internet each day, but as it circulated and began to create a large impact, it started trending.
Anyone that agrees to the Terms and Conditions not only has the opportunity to produce media, but gains access to a global community to share it with. What is marvelous and widely underappreciated in this new landscape is the new dynamics that are at play.
Social media users are the main producers of content — and, by extension, entertainment — while simultaneously being the viewers of other user-generated content. Not only are social media users privy to more than 2.5 quintillion gigabytes of daily data, but they also engage with what they see. This level of data sharing and community can be a remarkable thing, since for the first time anyone can produce and share original content. It is no longer a privilege reserved for film, television and news outlets; they no longer have sole control over what media is consumed.
It has changed the global culture so dramatically that the notion of free speech has to be defended and debated constantly with regard to internet usage — an argument that would have been more limited in scope when there were merely a handful of television channels 50 years ago. According to research from Keipos, there are roughly 4.65 billion social media users around the world. This number totals more than half the global population, which means there are now more than 4.65 billion channels of media globally.
What a beautiful thing this truly is: the power to create and share literally anything is in the hands of more than half the world’s population. And just like with any new innovation, this unchecked power has major impacts.
The viral “new boyfriend” trend witnessed last week may be forgotten as quickly as the next trend is born, but the matter of its existence is fascinating. What was likely a photo captured from a video or livestream by a single user was shared and used by thousands of people. Trends like these show how the power of the masses can take a piece of media, like a photo, and make it something entirely new.
Not only did the user text it to family members seeking a reaction, but they shared the reaction to their social media. A deep level of nuanced interaction and awareness is at play. The user operates on a level of falsehood with what they interpreted as a harmless prank by texting the image to a relative. Only the circulation of this image didn’t end with this relative, as the exchange was taken to social media and went viral. Other users repeated this trend for their own social media engagement and curiosity.
While the possibility of virality and fame is alluring, what users today fail to recognize are the possibilities embedded into a single post and how a collective unchecked honesty has formed.
This new trend exemplifies how the lines are blurred on a social level. What at first was a user sharing an image to play a joke with a relative became so much larger. The joke truly went global once that interaction was shared. It’s clear that the line between an individual’s real-world social circle and the global internet is becoming less and less defined.
While it’s concerning that the physical appearance of other people is constantly up for public comment, the unchecked honesty from users doesn’t stop at this trend. It is now common practice to take to any social media platform and share events seconds after they occur. Users flock to social media after discovering a film set. Other users proudly share stories from their daily lives. One might include awkward dates, exchanges with strangers or admitting to practically anything. Users often share to the world their late realization that their pants are ripped — and maybe even show the camera for a laugh.
This has even taken the form of informal competition, and users have become their own photographers, producers, videographers, comedians and journalists. These skills have become implemented in daily life in a way that was truly never accessible on a global scale. It’s remarkable, but often wildly alarming what these skills are used for.
It’s clear this generation’s unrestrained honesty is unlikely to be shaken from the collective culture anytime soon, but perhaps it’s a sign of more honest communication shunned by previous generations.