I am developing a rather worrying internet addiction.
Since the liberation (or fall, depending on your perspective) of Aleppo, I have found myself glued to my laptop, engrossed in updates from mainstream news sites around the globe, as well as individual users on the ground in Aleppo who are posting updates and photographs to fill in the gaps not covered by the mainstream press.
In the age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, citizen journalism is booming – anybody with an opinion, a camera and an internet connection can suddenly find themselves in the perfect position to broadcast their perspective to a news-hungry audience around the world. And so I am currently getting updates from Syria not only from the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and RT, but also via the Facebook and Twitter feeds of a few independent journalists who have been in Aleppo over the last few days, as well as individual citizens living in Aleppo and Damascus, and even users in other parts of the world who are sharing information that comes across their various feeds from other sources. Twitter has always encouraged users to ‘follow’ each other but increasing numbers of Facebook users are starting to allow other users to ‘follow’ them on Facebook, too – enabling users around the world to get updates of public posts by anybody who they think has something interesting to say. I’ve turned into a virtual stalker, following users I’ve never met in cities I’ve never been to, and gaining fascinating perspectives into how they see the world.
It’s at once exhausting and exhilarating. Exhausting, because when you’re reading news stories from both the Russia / Assad perspective, and the Saudi / Western viewpoint, it’s hard to know what is outright propaganda and what is simply the natural tendency of each side to highlight its own successes and try to gloss over its failures and atrocities. But also exhilarating, because it makes it so much harder for our political establishment to manipulate the mainstream news by only presenting one side of an argument. The speed and ferocity with which the mainstream narrative that the fall of Aleppo is an unmitigated disaster, has been contradicted by widespread reports on social media of ordinary Syrians celebrating in the streets, has been quite breathtaking. Undoubtedly for members and supporters of the rebel groups, this is indeed a disaster, but it took social media to point out to us just how many Syrians are actually loyal to the Assad regime (or at the very least, prefer it to the alternative) and are therefore delighted to see the rebels defeated.
And it’s not just updates on breaking news for which the internet is so wonderful. I have to admit to having been largely uninformed about the various groups involved in the fighting in Syria – apart from Assad’s forces and ISIS, I really didn’t know much about who the other factions were, and had totally lost track of how the war started or how and why the various parties came to be involved. Over the last few days, with the help of a few incredibly informative YouTube videos, and countless Wikipedia and Google searches, I feel that I at least have a rudimentary understanding of the situation. The fact that you can type a question as basic as “Why does the West want Assad out?” into Google and Google will helpfully return a list of news articles and forum discussions around that very question, is astounding. It does, of course, mean having to trawl through a number of different theories of varying levels of credibility – but it’s surprising how quickly a common theme will appear.
Mostly, though, in all my trawling through the internet, through blogs, YouTube videos, discussion groups, and individual posts on Facebook and Twitter, I am struck by the extent to which people will dedicate their spare time to sharing their knowledge and experiences with the outside world. YouTube, in particular, never ceases to amaze me – the amount of time some people dedicate to passing on their skills in anything from DIY to makeup application to computer skills to music remixes, is surely out of all proportion to the response the average video gets. Yes, there are a small number of users who are making a lot of money out of YouTube but I imagine the majority are a long way from being able to give up their day jobs. And the same goes for many of the blogs, such as this, on the internet – people dedicate an enormous amount of time to blogging on just about every subject imaginable, and while some blogs enjoy enormous support, I suspect the majority are read by only a small number of people. So what compels us to spend so much time at our computers?
For me, the answer is simple. We all have interests and passions that are not shared by the majority within our peer groups and it can feel a bit isolating to not be able to talk about or share those passions. Before I started following random people on Facebook, I found myself sharing articles about Syria and getting no response from my friends, who all clearly have other priorities at the moment (or potentially are just so bewildered, disheartened or otherwise conflicted as to what’s going on that they don’t know how to respond). But now my news feed is flooded with updates about Syria – the fact that these updates are coming from people outside my regular peer group worries me not one bit; it’s enough to know that there are thousands of other people out there who are just as obsessed with what is going on in Syria as I am. The same goes for every other aspect of social media – yes, there is always the downside that time spent on social media is time that we are not spending with our nearest and dearest, but when our nearest and dearest don’t share our interests, anything that enables us to cast our net wider in the search for those who do, has got to be a good thing.