Neo stepped out of The Matrix, into “a world without rules and controls, without borders and boundaries. A world where anything is possible.” It was the birth of a new dawn, also perhaps a new don. Twenty years on, Neo is probably languishing in an old age home in Palo Alto, while the Machines have grown not just stronger but smarter, more astute, almost sentient. They allow us to believe that we hold the master controls, as they watch us descend into the chaos of our own making. Sorry, got a little carried away there. Or did I?

Let’s table some facts: a digital tool built to help us track and reconnect with school and college buddies, grew and morphed before our very own eyes, into the biggest, most powerful living thing on the planet. Yes, it breathes binary code and gigabytes instead of 02, but still. And it has spawned a burgeoning family of spin-offs, with different personalities and traits. It’s omnipresent, lives in every home and in almost every pocket across the corners of the earth. It’s omnipotent, revered by all, from the Pope to POTUS. And omniscient, brimming with information on everything and everyone. Almost errr …God(father)like? All hail the social media family – Facebook, FB Messenger, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and cousins Skype, Google+, TikTok, and Tumblr. This powerful mob has changed not just the way we communicate and interact with each other, but the way we do business, the way we are governed, the way we live in society

Twenty years ago, the mobile phone was a great way to call, check emails and play games. Today, more people own mobile devices across the globe than toothbrushes. The GlobalWebIndex confirms that people are spending way more time on social media than watching television. More than a third of the world’s population lives on Facebook. With over 30 million Facebook messages and half a million tweets and Snapchats shared every minute, the biggest users, i.e., the millennials, have certainly earned the moniker “the WTF generation” (WhatsApp-Twitter-Facebook). The smartphone has become the universal remote for life itself – food and nutrition, bonding and connections, love, work, money, and entertainment.

Not unlike the hierarchy in Maslow’s pyramid of needs, once the basic needs are attended to, the humble phone is helping address some of the macro challenges the world faces today – human rights violations and climate change. Social media, the cerebellum of a smartphone, has created a way for people to connect local challenges and solutions to large scale narratives that affect us as a global community. Think Greta Thunberg. Think Hong Kong protests. Arab Springs. ALS Bucket Challenge. Wikileaks. Crowdfunding. Hashtag BlackLivesMatter. Hashtag Metoo. Think of the recent media blackout in the Kashmir Valley, where connectivity was the life support that was denied to the locals. The nationwide anti-CAA protests.

Every one of these historical events is tethered to social media. Social media platforms have given the average person the wings to fly, and a voice to command attention. The cell tower has replaced the ivory tower that separated and shielded the powerful from the public. Even with perpetual signal drops and patchy networks, the man on the street manages to TikTok his way to millions across the world. No man is an island anymore, even if he wants to be. He is part of a giant global borderless community that is homogenous despite variation in colour, race, gender, culture, ideology and religion. He dialogues online with people that seem “different” from him and gets first-hand insights into their world, an impossible feat offline, for so many reasons.

Some more incredible feats: Seven-and-a-half billion people track astronaut Scott Kelly’s year in space via his regular tweets and social media updates. A French company reaches out to a group of underprivileged women in Boko Haram to manufacture organic products at half the current cost and helps them change the fortunes of their violence-ridden village. A child in Rawalpindi with no financial or geographical access to a school education, is tutored online by a teacher in San Francisco. Rescue teams track down locations of marooned hurricane victims through their Facebook and Twitter updates, when cell networks and electricity have failed. A girl in a fundamentalist Islamic nation takes a bullet in her face for refusing to stay away from school and confined to her home and goes on to become a UN envoy. Stories of benevolence linked to the social media family abound – when all hope is lost, the family swoops in and saves the day. No caped crusader is a match for the don, the head of the social media clan. It’s no wonder that Marvel and DC are feeling the heat and unleashing a swarm of masked heroes. In response, the family sends a single geriatric Irishman to ‘paint some walls’ and show them who’s don. Boom.

Social media has infiltrated our everyday lives. Ironically, the phone pings more often than it rings, alerting us to a new text, tweet, gram, post or tube. We friend, we unfriend, we ghost, we block, we follow, we repost, we emoji, we meme, we heart if we like something and troll if we don’t… we do things that weren’t even verbs 20 years ago. DND is obsolete, replaced by the new kid on the block, FOMO – the fear that the world will keep moving and leave us behind, if we take five. Privacy is the price we pay willingly, for being plugged into the communication grid 24/7. In his defence the don did warn us, “I’m going to make them an offer they can’t refuse”. The ceaseless flow of information empowers us, while the inability to mute it, sometimes even filter it, almost nullifies that power. So, what is the nature of our relationship with the inescapable social media family? To quote a senior member of the family: “it’s complicated”.

For every freedom it’s helped us protect, the family has taken its pound of flesh. Meddling with the world’s most powerful presidential elections, identity heists, motivating citizens to turn into self-appointed moral police, fake news factories, the mindless but lethal forwarding of unverified information, unregulated collection and trade of consumer data and the resulting loss of privacy, the list is endless. And add to this the health downsides – the deterioration of an individual’s overall wellbeing due to symptoms triggered by active social media engagement, i.e., stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, stiff necks and shoulders, poor sleep quality due to melatonin inhibition caused by exposure to blue-light emitting screens, and an overall drop in the body’s circadian rhythms and cognitive functions like attention span and memory.

Like a digital Robin Hood, what social media takes away from realtime relationships and family bonds, it gives back to online tribes and communities, making them cohesive and dynamic. Thereby empowering a fleet of impassioned Star Trek fans as indiscriminately as an incognito network of terrorists. Unwittingly, of course. On the other side, it inadvertently facilitates the victimisation of the vulnerable, enabling cyber-bullying, paedophilia, hate crimes and such. The most active department in any nations’ police force today is probably the Cyber Crime Unit and the Anti-Terrorist Squad, and often one is a subset of the other. Nevertheless, the power wielded by the Social Media Family to manipulate the destinies of currencies, companies, brands, people, presidents, and nations has not waned.

Heart it or not, the Don of digital communication is here to stay. The family is growing with every passing day. As a mother whose primary disciplining technique is changing the WIFI password on her teens and feeding them a daily dose of practise what you post / believe in your selfie type modern-day sermons, I can say with conviction, there’s no going back. You may think we’re returning to ancient hieroglyphical semiotic communication with all those emojis, infographics and pictograms but the swiftness and sophistication with which these modern hieroglyphics are shared today is the mark of a skilful don. What the future holds is hard to predict, but one thing is certain — what happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas; it lives on Google forever. And he who doesn’t take heed, will sleep with the fish. Bada bing, bada boom.