As most of you know who read this blog, I started NoTimeFor10 for a graduate course. As the course comes to a close, I am finally able to reflect on all of the readings (yes, there were many). The final project assigned was an incredibly open assignment with only a couple of conditions such as that it must be shareable, incorporate several of our readings and a couple of new theories. I knew I wanted to continue with my Top Five theme so I decided to present my opinion on how social media is changing our lives, for better or worse.
The first four points analyze how society is benefiting from social media by changing the news cycle and creating a participatory culture; eliminating self-identity barriers; raising awareness for good causes; and reshaping political activism. My last point is how social media is taking away from face to face communication, leaving us isolated but yet more connected than we ever have been. I have provided a mix of short interviews with three friends that represent a different age group: 20s, 30s, and 40s.
1. Social Media is Changing the News Cycle. Below is an a short interview from “Bob” (fake name of course) who currently works at a trade association as the Website and Digital Manager and previously spent over five years at The Washington Post. Watch this clip to see how social media is changing the way he is receiving the news.
Bob is a participant in what Yochai Benkler would call a networked public sphere. The fundamental difference between the traditional public sphere as described by Jurgen Habermas and Benkler’s networked public sphere is the transition of the audience from an observer to a participant. The public sphere, once held in coffee houses and salons has now been transformed into a networked public sphere where all a participant needs is a phone or a computer. In Benkler’s networked public sphere it is easier for anyone to join the conversation because of new technology, its speed and how internet users can link to other sites. This idea of linkage is critical in the world of social media (I’ll discuss how it helps with fundraising later). In Twitter, users frequently link to the original news article. This creates a participatory culture, which Henry Jenkins notes as fundamental to his idea of convergence. Audiences are no longer passive observants. Social media has provided users with the ability to create a two-way communication between the news outlets and its audience.
The audience is not the only one benefiting from this new two-way communication. CNN has a section on its site called iReport where anyone can “share their story.” This is an effective way for CNN to receive free news, videos and updates from its audience. Social media is creating a symbiotic relationship between the audience and news organization. Only time will tell if this will continue to be an added benefit.
2. Barriers Removed.
Herbert Simon argues that human behavior is generally rational, and that it cannot be understood without finding the connections between its actions and its goals. Unlike neoclassical or public choice theory, Simon believes that human rationality is much more complex. One crux of his theory rests on the notion that, “People often identify their economic (or other) welfare with the welfare of one or more of the groups to which they belong: the nation, for example, and most obviously today, ethnic groups, defined in terms of race, language, religion, and shared history. To these we must add (at least) social and economic class and gender.”
The internet and its tools such as social media are defying these boundaries. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, argues that “Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone.” Her book explores the relationships people have cultivated on the web and specifically looks at the avatar world in Second Life. One example that Turkle provides is of a man named Joel, who in real life runs a software design team at an elite biotechnology firm. If he were abiding by Simon’s theory, Joel would most likely choose an upper-middle class American as his avatar in Second Life. However, this does not happen. Joel chooses to build a fantasy version of how he seems himself, warts and all. He makes his avatar a pint-sized elephant named Rashi, a mix of floppy-eared sweetness and down to earth practicality (Turkle 213).
On the internet and various social media sites, the user can choose his/her identity. This capability gives social media a chilling power. It removes barriers that could not be ignored in real life (for example, I’m Asian so obviously I would not pass for as an Anglo-Saxon). But in the avatar world, I could create my own identity. By having the ability to create a separate identity from the one you have in reality, negates Simon’s theory. Online users do not have to chose to align themselves with a specific group. Thus, the user’s online identity has no bearing on the user’s real-life identity, which means the ethnic, geographic or economic ties no longer matter.
This could create a significant problem when trying to conduct accurate research on an online community. Twitter experienced this problem during the Arab Spring when Twitter users changed their country to distract oppressive governments from other Twitter users. Governments, corporations and businesses must understand that identities now are two-fold: an online and real-life. While these identities may be the same for most people, others may not abide by that standard.
3. Dollar Dollar Bills & Raising Awareness.
When I asked “Linda” how she is using social media, I was surprised by her answer. While I’m very aware that social media has helped raise money for various charities, I have not personally done it. Linda’s short explanation of how she uses social media to gain awareness of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is inspiring. Linda has raised over thousands of dollars by utilizing her Fundraising Page. She keeps the page updated by posting pictures of the races and providing a detailed account of her training.
Linda can share her site with anyone: a friend, a colleague or an acquaintance. She is participating in Benkler’s networked public sphere when she shares her webpage with others. Her sharing of this profile page could look like this image after it’s been linked to a variety of social media accounts and then shared with others in and out of her network. Here’s a good link for tips on how to use social media for fundraising (see, I’m participating in the networked public sphere now but linking).
4. Reshaping Political Activism.
Introduced by Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones originally in 1993, the punctuated equilibrium theory argues that the course of public policy in the United States is not gradual and incremental, but rather is disjointed and episodic. According to Baumgartner and Jones, issues have a way of grabbing headlines and dominating the schedules of public officials when they were virtually ignored only weeks or months before. Never was this quote more prescient than in the case of the Stop Online Protection Act and Protect IP Act legislation, which also served to reinforce part of Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory. However, what this theory does not account for is the impact of social media on grassroots activism and its uncanny ability to help influence and shape public policy.
Dubbed as “the most important bill in Congress you may never heard of” by Chris Hayes of MSNBC.com, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was introduced by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary on October 26, 2011. According to The Hill newspaper, both bills were designed to go after foreign websites that offer illegal copies of music, movies and TV shows with impunity. The bills would empower the Justice Department and copyright holders to demand that search engine delete links to sites dedicated to copyright infringement. Ad networks and payment processors would be prohibited from doing business with the sites.
Influential technology companies such as Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Reddit and Twitter became the unified opposition and used the internet to disseminate their message. On January 18, the major tech companies coordinated a “blackout” resulting in the largest online protest in history. Wikipedia and Reddit went dark for one day, while Google highlighted the issue on its homepage. A Google spokesperson said, “Like many businesses, entrepreneurs and web users, we oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet.”
Tech companies weren’t the only ones taking their voice via the web. Many celebrities, including actors, singers and sport professions decried the legislation. Actor Aziz Ansari, along with 20 additional artists and athletes, sent an open letter to Washington expressing their serious concerns regarding SOPA and PIPA. The letter stated, “We, along with the rest of society, have benefited immensely from a free and open Internet. We fear that the broad new enforcement powers provided under SOPA and PIPA could easily be abused against legitimate services like those upon which we depend.” Other famous celebrities including Justin Beiber and Ashton Kutcher voiced their concern of the bills on Twitter.
The rise of social media must be included in the study of the punctuated equilibrium model. Henry Jenkins, author of Convergence Culture, discusses at length how media is not only affecting our relationships, but is also shaping policy. “Convergence culture represents a shift in the ways we [Americans] think about our relations to media, that we are making that shift through our relations with popular culture, but that the skills we acquire through play may have implications for how we learn, work, participate in the political process, and connect with other people around the world” (Jenkins).
Jenkins is right. Social media played a significant role in this debate. Benkler would commend those who participated in the grassroots efforts. A Congressional Hill Staffer (who works for an important House Member but I can’t disclose the name) noted, “The groups supporting SOPA failed to mobilize effectively on social media – whether by touting the legislation or defending it. The lesson of SOPA is that lobbying organizations need to be cognizant of the power of social mobilization, use the resources of social media to effectively communicate their message to their supporters, and help generate organic support for their cause.” An analysis of the rise of new media and how it is helping shape and spread a message must be accounted for when explaining how utilizing today’s communication tools can mobilize a large audience. We are entering a new wave of political activism and it is better to jump aboard now.
5. Social Media is Taking Away Face to Face Communication.
Turkle provides a sad account of Adam, a forty-three year old who has lost touch with reality because he is consumed by the virtual world. In this case, his simulation of choice is the game Quake and Civilization. In the real world, Adam is an aspiring singer and songwriter but works odd jobs to make ends meet. In the virtual world, Adam is a warrior who fights with virtual weapons and is tasked with building a new civilization. He even managed to meet others who played the game as religiously as he did. They would play nine or ten hours at time without a break while sitting in the same room together. The game consumed his life and Adam began to lose touch with reality. His real-life friends were replaced by bots (artificial intelligence subjects). Because of the time spent playing Quake and Civilization, he fears that he will be out of real-life work soon. He hasn’t paid his taxes, written any songs or a screenplay.
In the last four posts, I have written on how social media is changing the way we communicate, receive news, increase political activism and raise awareness for good causes. However, there are several pitfalls of social media. As described above, social media can alienate people if they become consumed by the virtual world. There was an interesting article published recently in The Atlantic titled, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” One particular statement from this article resonated with me. “We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible.” I couldn’t agree more. A short video below is an explanation of how social media is affecting the relationships of “Andrew.” While he doesn’t necessarily say that social media is hurting his relationships, it is changing the way he communicates with his friends.
Social media sites like Facebook make it easier for a user to keep up to date with hundreds of people. This eliminates the need to actually pick up the phone or geez, even grab a cup of coffee with the person. Like Andrew noted in the video, if you already know about a friend’s pregnancy, why talk about it when you see them? In a world where the Millennial Generation (Andrew is in his 20s) grew up with using new technology, this will continue to be a struggle for them.
I believe my Top Five Ways Social Media Is Changing Our Lives touches on several areas that will be of interest to my readers. Most of us use some form of social media. We are now receiving news across different mediums. We are living in a networked public sphere where we can be an active participant. But while we have these incredible tools available that enable us to connect with people all over the world, we must remember that not all relationships can function via only the internet. This class helped deepen my understanding of the history of the web and opened my eyes to a variety of online communities I never knew existed such as Second Life. Now, I ask for your input.
How is Social Media Affecting the Way You Communicate?