SOCIAL MEDIA – CULTURAL REFLECTION OR REFRACTION?

There’s been plenty of talk over the years about the ups and downs of social media. In the early days we used to envisage a dawning utopia, where everyone met each other, shared, bonded and grew together. Reality has been quite different.

These days, despite enormous successes in proliferating important information and connecting individuals far and wide, networks can be quite insular, information is routinely compartmentalized and so called communities can be intensely parochial.

But is this a problem innate to social media? Or is it something we bring with us? Initial investigation into existing research on these questions have made it clear that they remain largely unanswered.

It should come as no surprise that social media platforms, like any creation, are often used in ways unintended or even unforeseen by their creators. Very often, it comes down to who uses it first and the new culture of use that is built around and by those early adopters. The platform might have hard coded rules, but there is still plenty of open space for content and practice. What follows is a two way recursive relationship between those groups, so critical to growth and success, and the developers or businesses building and modifying the platform. Some of these tools may have, in their earliest infancy, set out to be platforms for the parading of our more narcissistic tendencies, while others may have had other ambitions. Nevertheless their creators would rapidly have come to the realization that if they wanted to succeed, that’s exactly the kind of culture they need to facilitate and appeal to if that’s the way people immediately around them are preferring to use it. So too would each successive generation of entrepreneurs come to the same conclusion, as the apparent evidentiary layer, now rooted in big data, becomes thicker and thicker.

But this data may well be grossly misleading. A cascade emerging from the culture of early use, neither reflective of broader cultural realities nor any innate issues with social media itself. If so, we may have allowed it to convince us of two particularly unhelpful fallacies; that social media is bad and so are we.

Zooming out a little bit, culture itself is infinitely diverse; within and between communities, generations, gender, race, nationality, religion and even minute social groupings like a group of friends or a family. To what degree have we let minute segments of culture define both how we use the internet and our own self reflections? Would criticisms of certain platforms evaporate if the people who set the standards of use en mass and in those critical early periods came at it with far more utilitarian, communitarian or genuinely pro-social objectives. What would Facebook or Instagram look like if the first users were people living in densely populated, highly integrated communities in Cairo or Mumbai with a more intense need for community organization, as opposed to more individualised, isolated suburban communities in silicone valley? What does their usage look like now, compared to the ‘common’ usage we see reflected in the general media.

Perhaps the point is moot and a large enough platform takes all kinds, so whatever is dominant on the platform is genuinely a reflection of dominant attitudes in society at large. But if not, perhaps we should consider the implications of those first use cases and societies dominated by social media platforms designed, developed and delivered to the world by a less-than-representative demographic.

It may be that social media, as we know it, is a reflection of the few and a warped image of the many. If so, we might have the first step towards realizing it’s greater and more promising potential.

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