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Obama: Social media makes us see how messy the world is

Speaking at a Democratic Party fund-raiser, the president says social media lets us see the minute details of the world's hardships.

President Obama: "The world has always been messy. In part, we're just noticing now because of social media." The White House/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

I had always fancied that social media was really social me-dia.

It existed, so it seemed, only as a vehicle for our natural, desperate narcissism.

President Barack Obama, however, believes it performs other roles. Speaking at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Purchase, NY, the president tried to reassure people that the world is now a lot safer than it was 20 years ago.

It's just that digital expansionism has made us feel it isn't.

He said: "The truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we're just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through."

Were we truly oblivious about the world's messiness before Twitter came along? Didn't the regular media present pictures of pain and devastation that are etched into at least one or two memories?

Perhaps social media's instant delivery makes us realize more quickly that Russia is invading the Ukraine and the Taliban continues to be the Taliban.

But does this make us more concerned? Does it even make us care more?

A swift drift down your average Twitter feed might show members of the media, and the more politically inclined, offering their own worry and outrage over the suffering being experienced by people on the other side of the world.

Does it also show ordinary people expressing their horror and the need for action? I'm not so sure. There seems still a greater interest in the personal lives of reality TV stars than in the everyday lives of those in, say, Donetsk or Mosul.

If anything, the proliferation of social media may have acted as a peculiar Xanax. Whatever mood we are in, we've learned how to seek out an area of the Web that will make us feel a little better -- or, if we're twistedly inclined, a little worse.

On Twitter, Facebook and the rest, most of the world's joys, annoyances and worries lurk somewhere. All the world's secrets, despairs, surprises and suggestions have their own little area, waiting to be discovered and participated in.

Does the mere existence of social media make us feel more concerned about people's hardships? On isolated occasions, perhaps. In general, I'm not so sure.

Our anxieties tend to be associated with our own personal sense of our present and future. It would be hard to convince many that Putin's incursion into the Ukraine matters to them in the slightest, however many images they see in social media.

President Obama, though, did touch on another aspect of American life that might contribute a little more to a general sense of malaise.

He said: "Which brings me to the last reason that people are anxious, and that is that Washington doesn't work."

Did we really learn that through social media?