Tom Sainsbury: in defence of social media
7 November 2023
Opinion: Comedian Tom Sainsbury is an Arts alumnus. He has forged a successful career in comedy, with many of his characters born on social media.
I read Alex Casey’s previous guest column for Ingenio about the pure evil that is social media. I agreed with the bulk of it. We can talk about Instagram-induced social distancing and Twitter-X-fuelled brain rot until the cows come home. I, however, want to take a little opportunity to talk about a few pleasures that come from social media.
Obviously, I am biased on the topic. I have made a whole career out of the social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. I have, however, also been privy to the joy it brings others. By having a strong presence online, I have been able to have sell-out comedy performances around Aotearoa. As I write this, I am flying back from a show for 209 Invercargill residents. And it was such a darn beautiful experience! Having followed me online, the Invercargillians knew what comedy to expect and I knew exactly what to deliver.
We laughed about Raro-drink-staining Tupperware jugs, we all chortled when I read some uncensored comments from the Invercargill City Council’s Facebook page and we all guffawed about the time I sweated onto Katy Perry’s face. Afterwards, audience members came up and had selfies with me and told me their favourites of the characters/skits I have shared online. There’s no way around it; it was a glorious communal experience.
And it was all thanks to social media.
In terms of my own viewing habits, I have definitely been plunged into body self-hatred when I fell into an algorithm of male model ‘Reels’, but the amount of joy I’ve experienced from comedians’ pages, cats-being-mental pages, dogs-doing-zoomies pages, interesting art pages, international cooking pages and people-experiencing-exotic-fruits pages far outweigh the negatives. I have learnt so much about Renaissance art, what snake fruit looks like and how it tastes, how cucumbers are prepared around the world, how emus run, and the history of Iceland in one minute. My curiosity is fed; I laugh; I learn so much.
And it’s all thanks to social media.
I have learnt so much about Renaissance art, what snake
fruit looks like and how it tastes, how cucumbers are prepared around the
world, how emus run, and the history of Iceland in one minute.
Social media, of course, completely divides us. It will be our great undoing. But I have to say I feel I’ve grown more compassionate as well. I follow an American ‘disability mom’ called Anna. She’s a devout Christian with four children. Her youngest has a physical disability where her skull is too small for her brain and needs to be surgically enlarged throughout her growing years.
On paper, this Tennessee-living, anti-choice, gun-toting Republican would make my eyes roll and blood boil. But I now feel like I know this woman; I’ve seen her struggles so intimately. And I love her. And if I were to meet someone similar in real life, I would be much less quick to judge. I’m also so much more clued up on people living with disability (and those who care for them) that I’ll interact with them with much greater understanding.
And that’s all thanks to social media.
I also follow an ethereal Chinese woman who shows you how to make traditional Chinese food. I follow a Middle Eastern man and his friendship with his manic chihuahua. I follow an African-American woman and her addictive content about how to style and wear very convincing wigs. None of these people could ever have their own television show, but they’re sharing their fascinating skills and stories on the only platform accessible to them, and I’m lucky enough to be their audience.
And we can thank social media for that.
Social media, of course, completely divides us. It will be
our great undoing.
And then, of course, there are your friends creating personal posts. It’s sad to me that barely anyone I know does it any more. I still have a few friends who post about their lives, though. And … I love it. We all lead such busy lives that having a physical meet-up can be nigh on impossible. But I feel I still have a wee link to these people where I enjoy their embarrassing confessionals, celebrate their successes and help them when they’re ‘looking for someone to sublease my room while I travel around Europe’. And I’m curious. I get real joy out of seeing how my old schoolfriends are living their lives.
So yes, social media sucks. Teenage girls suffer terribly because of it. Bullying is rife. But it isn’t so black and white. There are so many aspects of it I absolutely love. Doom-scrolling from 3am to 7am isn’t part of that, but watching a 50-second video about how to grow and prepare pink pineapples in the Philippines is.
Guest columnist for Ingenio Tom Sainsbury has a BA in Media, Film and Television Studies from the University of Auckland. His new book is called New Zealanders: The Field Guide, HarperCollins NZ, $37.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and is not necessarily that of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.
This piece appears in the Spring 2023 edition of Ingenio.