Fresh Look: The Role of Youth in Nation Building
Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines
August 29, 2012, 1:00-4:00PM
NTTC-HP Auditorium
University of the Philippines Manila

On Youth and Social Media: A Deck of Practical LOLcats

[SLIDE 1] Members and officers of the Public Relations Student Society of the Philippines, fellow speakers, students, teachers, and friends, good afternoon.

I’m from The Pro Pinoy Project, and we run a commentary web site that we envision to be a kind of global community center for all things Pinoy. I’ve been asked to speak a bit about “how the youth is utilizing social media […] in nation-building and how it is used as a medium to promote nation-building in social youth”. As the title of my presentation indicates, I’ve decided to structure my talk today around a series of image macros that are called LOLcats, which ought to be familiar to you. For the benefit of those who might not be, a LOLcat [SLIDE 2] is a picture of a cat accompanied by text that is usually wrong in terms of grammar and spelling—at least in standard English. In kitty English, which has its own rules too, the caption is perfectly correct.

Lest you be tempted to not take any of this seriously, LOLcats have already become the subject of critical academic attention in the form of a dissertation submitted to the London School of Economics. Media planner Kate Miltner, who wrote the study as part of the requirements for a Master of Science degree in Media and Communications, says, “Even if LOLCats were just a collection of silly cat pictures, they would have value simply because they, as [one of my study participants] said, make life easier. [SLIDE 3] But, as this study has shown, LOLCats are much more than that. They are a venue through which people express their emotions, connect to their loved ones, and define group identity. This not only gives them value; it makes them important.”

According to Miltner, the LOLcat is widely considered to be the “archetypal Internet meme”, and its enduring appeal, if nothing else, makes it remarkable, considering how short-lived its siblings tend to be. The LOLcat has been around for nearly a decade, and its origin can be traced at least as far back to the 2005 tradition of “Caturday” that was propagated by users of the imageboard 4Chan, the source of numerous other Internet memes. The main idea that I would like to put across with my use of LOLcats today is that the Internet functions as both a condition and a limit for human ingenuity, especially when we consider the Philippine social media situation—an idea that I will build on over the course of this presentation by making six key points. I don’t imagine that any of them will be especially original or surprising, but there is value to be had in reminding ourselves from time to time about what we already know—even, perhaps especially, the patently obvious.

[SLIDE 4]

1.    The social mediascape is still a small world.

One of the more exciting and disturbing effects of social media is how it has flattened the world. Politicians, bureaucrats, civil society leaders, advocates, journalists, celebrities, and organizations are now all as easy to reach as one’s friends and relatives, if not easier. The potential significance of social media conversations lies precisely in this unprecedented level of access to highly influential and powerful people. After all, if you manage to catch the attention of enough of them, you can speed up the dissemination of crucial information to the right parties, which could then have the effect of ensuring that said information will be acted upon. An example would be the coordination of rescue and relief operations during the recent flooding brought about by the monsoon rains—the nameless weather phenomenon that brought such devastation to several parts of the country earlier this month. If you were on Twitter or Facebook during this time, then you probably noticed a sort of purposive frenzy in the sharing of hotline numbers, the use of unified hashtags, the classification of calls for help into topical databases, and the creation of specialized maps, all made possible through the efforts of both public figures and ordinary citizens.

We must not be misled, however: Internet users in the Philippines make up less than a third of the entire population, are mostly young and concentrated in urban centers, and tend to be from the middle and upper classes. A majority of these users don’t even have private access to the Internet—the Internet café is still the place from which they are able to enter cyberspace. The circumstances are evolving, of course, but there are structural limitations. The costs of electricity, of computer hardware and software, and of computer literacy, among others, mean that, insofar as social media are concerned, there are at least 63 million Filipinos whose needs and dreams, which may be vastly different from ours, are not being heard, much less considered. Philippine society in general is seamed and raddled with various inequities, and this includes what has been referred to as the digital divide.

[SLIDE 5]

2.    Social networking sites and blogs, compared to other forms of media, do not enjoy high levels of public trust.

Because few have access to the Internet, the low levels of public trust accorded to social networking sites and blogs shouldn’t be unexpected. It’s worth adding that it’s through these two channels that a lot of misleading data tends to spread. While social media may be democratized media, the absence of a central authority and the lack of a system—not to mention the will—for verification, fosters an information ecology that is particularly hospitable to misquotations, distortions, rumors, and downright false claims. For instance, during the same week or so of monsoon rains that I mentioned earlier, a number of people spread around photographs of the destruction caused by Ondoy in 2009 without identifying them as such. There are also a number of bloggers who are attempting to practice what is called “citizen journalism”, but, as with mainstream media, clear editorial guidelines and a basic sense of responsibility for the sorts of stories that are published are fundamental to credibility.

[SLIDE 6]

3.    The majority of people online are there to seek out entertainment.

Music, videos, and images are the types of content that are preferred by most Internet users—they’re not thinking so much about nation-building as about how cute, or funny, or weird, this cat is. (The sheer preponderance of pictures and clips featuring adorable animals on the Internet—I’m partial to pandas myself—sometimes makes me wish that such materials had some sort of miraculous, cancer-curing, poverty-eliminating, world-saving power.) Factor in the whole kit and caboodle of content designed chiefly to amuse, such as remixes, covers, parodies, and yes, memes, and it’s not hard to conclude that human beings have way too much time on their hands than they know how to spend productively—some of them, anyway. Further militating against the creation and popularization of serious, finely nuanced, and well-researched content are the difficulty of reading on a computer and a seeming aversion among Internet users to posts that can’t easily be skimmed over or summed up in a glance, especially long texts.

[SLIDE 7]

4.    The use of social media may tend to hamper empathy and critical thought.

Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter can give rise to the impression that one is the center of a thoroughly customizable universe, made up of mechanisms and populated by beings that have no other purpose than to bend to one’s will. After all, it’s a ridiculously simple matter to make or unmake relationships, especially ones begun online. These same platforms also induce many to perform their lives with a degree of constancy and self-consciousness never before seen in the human story. A few psychological studies have suggested that there could be a connection between the use of social media and increased self-absorption, exhibitionism, and narcissism, and there is at least anecdotal evidence to support such a view: consider, for example, the recent outpouring of idiotic, savage, and violent hatred against Robert Blair Carabuena, the motorist who slapped MMDA traffic enforcer Saturnino Fabros over the course of a heated argument. Carabuena was clearly in the wrong, but that doesn’t justify the calls for his death that certain netizens made and, sadly, continue to make.

[SLIDE 8]

5.    A social media conversation doesn’t just need voices—it needs value.

Because social media platforms perpetually invite us to broadcast to the world at large what we’re thinking and doing, we may feel compelled or entitled—perhaps both—to crank out opinions on every possible topic and issue as quickly as we can. That doesn’t mean we should give in to the impulse. As exhilarating as rapid-fire exchanges might be, a good number of social media conversations—assuming they can even be called that—are about as useless as a floppy disk at a file-sharing party, if not more, because the participants are poorly informed or insufficiently open-minded, particularly when the discussions revolve around public affairs. Just because we enjoy freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should weigh in on absolutely everything, as doing so could merely contribute to the propagation of ignorance and the lowering of the level of discourse. The debate over the Reproductive Health Bill, for instance, is not helped by the extreme positions taken by certain factions within the groups that are for and against the controversial piece of legislation—in lots of places online, what debate there may be comes in the form of shouting matches in which the opponents regularly trade barbs and taunts.

[SLIDE 9]

6.    We cannot change a world that we do not live in.

While social media could eventually become indispensable to disaster response here at home, and have proven beneficial to diverse movements for change all over the planet, whatever information we’re able to access as a result of these tools is worthless unless we act upon it in the much larger realm beyond the screen. It is helpful to look back at the lives of our national heroes, whom we paid tribute to last Monday, or that of recently departed Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Jesse Robredo, whose tragic death we still mourn, and bear in mind that they were able to accomplish great things without the technologies that we are privileged to enjoy today.

I would also like to emphasize that we are human beings, not bits of data, and that we should strenuously resist any and all attempts to reduce our selves and our relationships to crude arrangements of bios and profiles, likes and favorites, followers and friends. “Only connect” is the famous epigraph with which the British writer E. M. Forster opens his masterful novel Howards End, but of course he did not mean “Only add friend” or “Only follow”. If we are interested in transforming lives for the better, in remaking society in the image of our highest ideals, in building a nation upon a bedrock of freedom, justice, and peace, then we must learn to connect with, which is to say live in, the world, which brims with more difficulty, complexity, and mystery than can ever be domesticated and mediated by any device, no matter how wondrous, sophisticated, or advanced.

Thank you.