Cyberbole, or the extensions of biases within the domain of media wherein social media or technology is described as unquestionably evil or effortlessly and endlessly helpful to the society it becomes a part of, is a symptomatic aspect of our increasing reliance and usage of technology on a faster and faster pace. (Briggs et. all) One could easily attribute this aversion or attraction to technology being related to the dangers that rapid technological advancement has had on societies or the benefits that technologies have given to these same societies; however, this does not wholly consider the legitimacy of these fearmongering or optimistic claims that are attributed to social media and technology. To say that social media is without fault or lacking in dangerous qualities is to be wholly irresponsible regarding both the historical context of the media we discuss but also to be ignorant of the real dangers that social media or technology can pose towards any individual or collective aspects of our society. I will be looking at two cases of Cyberbole and relating them back to various aspects of social media analysis and study. The first example will be the film The Circle (2017) regarding the simplistic but varied means in which social media integrations can be dangerous on a seemingly benign level while remaining optimistic regarding social media. The second example will be Orwell (2016), a video game where analysis and surveillance of social media integration plays the primary means of interaction that the player has within the given game space. With these two examples, we can begin examining the aspects of Cyberbole that can be considered reasonably probable or demonstrably dangerous while acknowledging the ridiculousness of the hyperbole which Cyberbole gains its namesake from.
First and foremost, we will need to define some terms within the sphere of our examination: Actor-Network Theory or ANT regards human actors and the networks/technologies they interact with as fundamentally inseparable, allowing them to influence and interact with each other on a consistent basis (Chandler et. all); Hacktivism, the use of digital technology to subvert or undermine ideologies or institutions which are opposed by the social movement or individuals who employ the technology, normally to achieve political ends. (Humphreys); Online Disinhibition, the effect wherein individuals are less affected by their inhibitions and are more willing to share otherwise secretive aspects of themselves due to the affordances provided by the online media. (Lindgren). These terms will be the primary focus on the examination of the two examples, however other terms will be brought up as the are introduced, with similarly laid out explanation of their definition with the addition of their relevance to the examples given.
The first example: The Circle (2017) involves the main character of the film gradually being integrated into the social network within the titular company, noticing the various aspects which contribute to the company’s culture as well as to its philosophies regarding transparency and openness. To give context, the first introduction to the titular company we as the viewers are introduced to is given as a wide berth of the sheer quantity of leisure activities and facilities that the company’s main campus has at its disposable for the employees working and living there. A core principle of the company is Self-Disclosure, revealing information of oneself to others, the company takes the concept of Self-Disclosure rather seriously, seeing transparency among employees and employers as being paramount to a conducive working environment. (Humphreys) This however plays a significant part in the conflict and issues brought up by The Circle (2017). Self-Disclosure to be most effective to a transparent environment should be self imposed, willing Self-Disclosure, this is not the case within the titular company’s paradigm, which enforces Self-Disclosure and Sharing culture on its campus and among its employees. The enforcement of this, alongside with the more insidious aspects of its company policies and products (such as SeeChange, the primary product that is introduced to the audience through a company presentation) creates a clear sense of unease with the audience when viewing this film. Why is that? What does it mean? All the aspects regarding Privacy and the blatant abusive levels of surveillance and analytics used regarding Metadata, or data about data, all work to instill a clear initial feeling of aversion and caution regarding these social media technologies and techniques. Privacy and the underlying affordances it provides us as individuals are in many ways regarded as fundamental within our society, and while advocacy for one view of Privacy as being essential while another being obtrusive to justice and progress is a commonality in the discourse on this subject, it should not be discounted that the complete loss of Privacy, the enforced loss of Privacy can be especially jarring to any individual in our given society. So, this unease and aversion to the loss of our perceived Privacy through the vector of association with the main character causes individuals to view the content and use of social media with weariness and caution, which is not entirely unwarranted given the context of the film. However, this seems to contrast with the apparent ending in the film itself, which sees transparency and the loss Privacy of the primary human antagonists as being a supposedly positive ending, seeing as social media is heralded as a progressive means towards a more open society free of corruption. An interesting view can be elaborated on due to my previous wording: “human antagonists”, as much as the film on a surface level works to give the audience a sense of satisfaction given the unscrupulous tactics employed by the human antagonists being used on them to oust them from safety, it easily side steps one of its own underlying themes: the protagonists and antagonists of the film itself are individuals, but rather they are society and social media. Society is both the protagonist and the antagonist, and social media is given much the same treatment, being used as the protagonist and the antagonist. This brings me back to my first term: ANT. The conflict and the resolution of this film relies on ANT, wherein the actions and reactions of the actors and the network influence each other towards a positive or seemingly positive outcome. The outcome itself however is up for significant debate as we as an audience aren’t entirely sure what’s become of the antagonist “social media”, in fact, nothing is done to stem the potentially adverse affects of social media within the context of the film. This aversion to social media is tempered by commonalities within our society that, at present, would disallow this engagement of such activities from occurring, such as pervasive invasions of Privacy. With that said, The Circle (2017) has some interesting underlying aspects regarding its take on the exchange between networks and actors given that the plot elements hinge on social media intrusions.
The second example: Orwell (2016) involves the main character being given the job of overseeing and testing out a new surveillance program of the same name. The course of the game sees the player interacting with various elements of social media, from blogs, forums, and corporate information websites, in an effort to understand and identify evidence that individuals are criminal or not, the primary case in the first act being an explosion in a mall. In this manner, the player is forced to pry into different individual’s social media accounts and ascertain whether they are involved in the crime and whether they are “problem” individuals. A key element of the game is that the player themselves do not directly interact with any characters other then the player’s supervisor, instead playing an observatory role and using judgement of patterns and actions to determine outcomes, calling for arrests of individuals or worse. One key element of this observatory role therefore is Anonymity, which weeds itself into the narrative of the game, with the actions and individuals at the heart of the conspiracy of the game being the most dangerous because they have little to no digital trace to form Psychographics on. Orwell, the program which the player uses to analyze and observe individuals, relies on collecting vast quantities of user information, which then player then tags as either potentially dangerous or harmless actions on the part of the individual; this is done through rigorous examination of the various trends and actions the character the player is analysing has done in the past given their digital footprint. While I won’t go into spoilers of the game itself (I highly recommend it), I will place the emphasis on what about the game is dangerous or laughable. The premise of a singular pervasive program that can track and tag individual actions across all media, including information that is not in the public eye, is in and of itself laughable, as it relies on the assumption that all media is directly under control or influenced by a single entity, the user/owner of this program. However, the concept that willing Self-Disclosure can negatively affect one’s Anonymity and therefore can affect any Psychographics that analysis you is in fact a rather scary premise, and one which has a very real world applicability. Ultimately the real dangers presented in Orwell (2016) are based around the very real, self inflicted harm that comes about from Online Disinhibition, wherein our proclivity to share and disclose leaves us vulnerable to those who would take that open information to understand us and manipulate us.
Briggs, Asa, and Peter Burke. “Introduction”. A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet. Polity. 2009. 1-13.
Chandler, Daniel, and Rod Munday. A Dictionary of Social Media. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Humphreys, Ashlee. Social Media: Enduring Principles. New York, NY, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Lindgren, Simon. Digital Media & Society. Los Angeles, SAGE Publications Ltd, 2017.