Are social media replacing books?
How many of you have heard about the lawsuit between Elon Musk and Twitter, or Instagram’s desire to look like TikTok, and how many of you have read a good book in the same amount of time?
The installation you can see in the cover image of this article is entitled ‘Time to read’ and was designed by Tahaab Rais, Chief Strategy Officer Publicis Group, to show people how many books they would be able to read in a year if they spent the same amount of time on social media reading.
Twitter and Facebook account for 22 and 35 books respectively, while Instagram, YouTube and TikTok account for 42 to 43 books. Quite a figure, especially when you consider the time spent doing an activity we are all very familiar with by now: flipping pages? No, scrolling.
An article in Il Post investigates precisely the causes and effects of this addiction. The infinite scroll, i.e. the constant and obsessive scrolling down with the thumb of content on the smartphone (especially visual content, such as that offered by Instagram, YouTube and TikTok), has become the new yardstick for measuring our time. We search for information in the form of a continuous stream, but all this comes at a price, and it is, paradoxically, precisely that time that we are desperately trying to preserve.
According to IDC research reported by Il Sole 24 Ore, the amount of knowledge that is produced is far greater than our ability to absorb it, rendering a good portion of the time we spend scrolling through information effectively useless.
Social media apps fully espouse the concept of cognitive surplus and are specifically designed to provide content that gratifies our desire to be inside the world, but always from the comfort of our couch. This function was once fulfilled by books, which, however, despite being containers of (fictitious or real) information par excellence, do not seem to satisfy those automatisms that we seek when discovering new content.
eBook vs. smartphone
In this, not even the eBook has succeeded in bridging the gap between social and printed books. This is because the eBook is ultimately just a medium, which a person may or may not prefer to paper, but it does not actually present content that is different from what we would find in a paper book. Despite this, it has a multitude of detractors because of its digital format, its being anything but ‘authentic’, the loss of the tradition of ‘smelling’ paper, and so on.
But it is not just a support factor. The smartphone has entered our lives in a big way and has managed to be universally accepted, yet books are not read on the smartphone either. The difference lies in the content or the way it is presented: when we scroll through social media and look obsessively at a screen for hours, we don’t worry about the lack of smell of the popcorn we used to eat at the cinema. We don’t complain about the writing being too small or the light being too bright. We don’t get annoyed by the flood of notifications constantly crashing through the screen.
Although it might be improper to compare social media to books, it is fair to note that both aim to offer the user an experience. If we choose to scroll through the endless stream of TikTok instead of reading a book, it means not only that we do not contemplate both activities in our time, but also that we give a marked preference (and precedence) to one of the two.
The flip side of the coin
All medals, however, have a reverse side. While it is true that social media have partly replaced everyday experiences such as reading a book or watching a movie, they have done so at a great price. They have lost their main function: connecting people. They now only connect content, the same content that, by the way, any person could find at the cinema or in a bookshop. Between quotations, film clips, book presentations and extracts from television programmes, they have become the new container of knowledge that also and above all exists outside them, if one knows how to take the time to select and find it.
And this is precisely because of the very people who populate them, who over time have dismantled their essence and transformed it into something completely different. Something that even social media might not be able to sustain for long, and which, on the other hand, has never failed in books: the magic of being transported to a place where time does not seem to weigh us down as it does in real life.