Scitech  Divided we stand

How our online communities move us further apart

With Facebook recently registering its billionth member, Twitter reaching 140 million users, and Tumblr hitting 50 million bloggers, it is safe to say that social media has a pivotal role in our lives. You often hear people talk about their self-proclaimed ‘addictions’ to these networks, claiming they cannot function without social media, and don’t know how they did so in the time that preceded Facebook’s, Twitter’s, or Tumblr’s existence.

Besides keeping in touch with friends, being able to Facebook stalk that girl you met in your Biology lab, or tweeting to inform everyone that you just coughed, social media have other, more intellectual applications. They serve as platforms to communicate, to educate, to debate, to inform, and to spread awareness. At the same time, they act as more lighthearted forums to simply express oneself.

Social media has its own place at McGill, where students have unwavering opinions no matter how little they know about the subject. Take Facebook, for example, which has its own McGill network that is further divided by faculty, class, program, et cetera. The “Class of 2015” page has a new debate every few days. Classic debates include the Canadian Blood Service’s blood ban, controversial articles in The Daily, and, of course, last year’s student strikes and anything and everything that had to do with them.

Each with opinions upon opinions, essays upon essays (which I am convinced no one reads – not even the other participants in the argument), people take to Facebook as a forum to express their sentiments on issues they feel strongly about. What’s particularly interesting, however, is how almost every discussion sparks from negativity, from uniting against something. For example, the radical opinions of pieces published in The Daily have been met with more opposition than support on Facebook. Or, when the sixth floor of the James Administration Building was occupied, there were two events on Facebook on which the prevalent atmosphere seemed to be more against the opinions they disparaged than for those they believed in. Such activism and discussion on Facebook, ultimately, perpetuates a divide, yet strengthens an intangible sense of community within the stratified groups.

Another example is that of the seemingly innocuous McGill Memes. While the memes in no way personally offend me, the ‘profile picture’ of the page is interesting. It shows a picture of McGill (the classic picture used for most of its memes) with the text “THAT’S OFFENSIVE” – something that seems to be how every McGill student feels about everything. The memes poke fun at particular groups of people on campus – from privileged students who are disappointed that their platinum cards don’t work at Sinfully Asian, to professors whose classes require expensive textbooks. Again, while this can be flippant, the underlying theme remains that we unite on the basis of negative feelings toward something or someone.

Another newly emerging McGill-specific social media outlet is the Tumblr page, “whatshouldwecallmcgill,” which is a spinoff of “whatshouldwecallme.” The McGill version has become increasingly popular, with GIFs pertaining to life at McGill, and a humorous outlook on them. Popular GIFs poke fun at freshmen, the Milton-Parc neighbourhood, and the way girls may dress on Halloween, among many other topics. Again, while amusing and somewhat true, this tends to perpetuate a sense of divide and reinforce stereotypes that some may not be comfortable with.

I’m not one to get offended easily, nor am I one to oppose harmless jokes, but it’s noteworthy that along with the spread of social media at McGill has come negativity and criticism for everything under the sun. This isn’t unique to McGill, but it’s interesting to see the developing sense of divide and frustration – even alongside unity within these divisions – that is slowly growing in the McGill ‘community.’

Synapses and Systems is a Science+Technology column. S. Azam Mahmood can be reached at