Social Networking Research: Reshaping Culture
EssayChat / May 5, 2018
A Topical Overview
Culture has been described by Walter (2012) as "one of the largest components of how we communicate: not just how we say something but how we choose the tools we use to get a message across" (p. 1). With the preponderance of social networking in the modern human communication paradigm, the sheer popularity of this communication method makes it impacting on a variety of cultural aspects. Social networking has influenced how we communicate, to whom we communicate with, what we purchase to varying degrees and what is regarded as public and private. The advent of the digital age has literally made the world a smaller place. At no time in history has so much information and connectivity between individuals been possible. With a working internet connection, individuals literally separated by oceans can have face to face conversation via social networking or teleconferencing modalities like iChat, Skype or other popular platforms. The digital age has changed how humans do business, how they interact and how products are valued in digital form. Commodities and intellectual property are constantly challenged in this changing paradigm.
Depending on one's personal perspective, the social networking phenomenon can either be a positive or negative dimension. Regardless, however, it is a change that shows no sign of stopping. Arguments that favor its negative impact on culture include but are not limited to elements of cultural imperialism to loss of physical human interaction skills in the digital landscape. Proponents of the influence social media has on culture generally look upon increased connectivity and interactions with different cultures as a modality for pulling once separated human beings together in a common context. Arguing whether or not the impact is positive or negative is a moot point. Like all changes in human society, there are those who fear it and those who embrace it. This work will not champion either position; instead, it will examine the impact in which social networking has on human society from an unbiased informational standpoint. The undisputed variable in the subject remains that social networking is in fact reshaping culture for better or worse.
Propensity of Social Networking
Anything that is used by a large group of human beings will in some way impact that respective culture. At the present time, there are a variety of social networking platforms that individuals use for various reasons. These can include recreational communication, work related communication or direct work related activities. Depending on what reason people use social networking largely impacts which platform they choose. According to eBiz (2012), the top 5 social networking sites in order from largest to smallest are: Facebook. Twitter, Linkedin, Myspace and Google Plus. Each of the aforementioned popular social networks have the following estimated unique monthly visitors: Facebook (750,000,000), Twitter (250,000,000), Linkedin (110,000,000), Myspace (70,5000,000) and Google Plus (65,000,000). These statistics demonstrate that there are great deal of people who use these sites. Within the social networking paradigm, there has been some preference related shifts. Myspace, one of the pioneering and formerly most popular social networking website has been eclipsed by Facebook and Twitter in recent years. According to researchers, Facebook is the most addicting social network with 23% of users checking their account more than 5 times daily. Twitter, however, is the fastest growing social network with 53% of its members having been so for less than a year (Qualman). Overall, 56% of Americans have a profile on a social networking site. This is up from 52% last year and 48% in 2010 (Convince). Some people have questioned how high this number can climb. It seems likely that the numbers will continue to rise, however, realistically there will always be some people who will never create a social networking profile (Convince).
Who Uses Social Networks
When it first began, there was a stigma that social networking was primarily for young people or kids. This notion, however, has changed thereby influencing the cultural perspectives on the practice. The fastest growing social media segment is currently 45-54 year olds. Of this demographic, 55% of them currently have a profile on one or more social networking sites. These are individuals that did not grow up with the internet or any type of social networking. They are embracing the phenomenon because they want to or because they perceive it as being necessary in the modern world. Young people have already embraced the concept that social networking is part of their worldly experience. Significantly more Americans 12 years old and up have a social networking profile than do not. Despite the preponderance of people using social networking, there is very little academic research that tells about why and how these social networking sites are used by various demographics. The amount of time people spend on social networking is also increasing. For example, 22% of Americans use social networking several times a day. On Twitter, 76% of users now post status updates as well (Convince 2012). In this capacity, it is not just something they check on occasion or for fun, it is part of a daily routine. While some people still prefer to check their social networks on lap and desktop computers, more and more people are checking their social networks on the go via smartphones, iPads, Kindles or other mobile devices that can get the internet. Social media is a way for individuals to receive and disseminate information. Though the degrees of this information in terms of reliability vary greatly, social networking does influence decision making and this is also impacting culture.
Social Media and Decision Making
In one recent statistic, it was found that Twitter users were 33% more likely to be Democrats. While on a cursory glance this may seem relatively benign, it is actually more impacting that it appears. If the majority of the fastest growing social networking site are politically favoring a certain perspective, that means more people on the site will be disseminating and trading like minded messages thereby growing that perspective and giving it an advantage. While the actual impact of social media is difficult to access in the recent U.S. Presidential election, it was the Democratic candidate that was successful thus corresponding with the dominant Twitter position. While this correlation is difficult to substantiate as being complimentary of one another, the events known as Arab Spring or the democratic people's movements in the Middle East were heavily fueled by social networking. The same can be said of Occupy Movements in Canada and the United States that were popular in the past year. Social networking has become a political and ideology spreading tool. For repressive governments, this has led to harsh restrictions due to fear of its efficacy. In China for example, many of the most popular social media sites are blocked in favor of government controlled social media sites that censor content. With social networking influencing political thought and behavior, it is having an impact on culture. It is now far more difficult for a governmental regime to keep its people isolated from outside ideas. In addition, it is far more difficult to hide events from the general public. From the military, police forces to the behaviors of leaders, viral content can be disseminated in video, picture and audio form in real time and shared in social networks. Hiding or pretending events or brutality did not occur is far more difficult in the digital age.
With idea dissemination being part of the social networking experience, detractors fear that this will give yet another advantage to more powerful western nations that control entertainment and fashion. By hearing and seeing Western music and styles, people from all over the world can now choose if they would like to emulate them. Larger more powerful media and goods conglomerates have a greater opportunity to put out what they want people to see, think or wear. Smaller nations and goods from those nations are more difficult to get out to the masses with such control. The way in which social networking works is that it is in fact brining more people together of different cultures, however, it is creating a more homogenous way of viewing the world that is tipping in favor of Western democracies. While China's economy may be growing to the point that it will eclipse the US in the next decade, the demand for Western goods and attitudes is also growing as a result of social networking. This is a classic example of hard and soft power perpetuation. Though much of the soft power attributes of social networking is larger unknown to the average user, people do acknowledge that social networking does influence their purchasing habits.
At the present time, Facebook is increasingly influencing purchase behavior. Last year, 68% of people said that social networking did not influence buying decisions. A year later, however, only 36% said that there was no influence of social networking on their purchasing decisions. Now, 47% of individuals surveyed said that Facebook has the greatest impact on purchasing. Despite this phenomenon, people are still more likely to follow a person rather than a brand on Facebook or Twitter. For example, only 33% of Americans have ever followed a brand on a social network. While this may be true, a celebrity or individual associated with a brand can be heavily followed. Actors, musicians and other individuals associated with brands and corporate backing typically have the largest social networks and therefore have immense platforms for getting their perspectives and products out to the masses. On the problematic end of the spectrum, this does increase the perpetuation of celebrity in our culture as it pushes products and brands to even more so embrace celebrity partnerships. In the most rudimentary of terms, when a method of communication can influence the way in which one thinks and what they choose to purchase, it impacts culture.
Looking at one subcultural manifestation, this phenomenon can be illustrated. According to Eysenbach, the web and web related technologies have changed attitudes and culture in health care. This is true of both health care providers and potential recipients of health care. One of the biggest issues pertaining to the field of medicine is privacy. Thomson et al found in one study that students going into the medical profession typically allow anyone to view their online profiles. This would mean that anyone in which they come into contact with professionally would be able to access their personal lives. The line between professionalism and personal can easily be blurred within such a paradigm. While this is an example in health care, the same can be said of virtually any occupation. It is now standard practice in many schools and human resources departments to look up individuals seeking a job, raises or scholarships on social networks to see if their personal life is congruent to what they are presenting to the hiring or awards officials. This is a cultural change that has only come about in recent years.
Social Media and Marketing
As previously demonstrated, businesses are cognizant of social media and its impact on culture. It is also known that the way in which cultures network online and perceive data that in which they are exposed influences their reactions. According to Walter:
There are also cultural factors that go much deeper than how a particular group accesses the web and which social media tools they choose. When you plan a campaign, you need to take as much demographic information into consideration as possible...As you're developing a social media campaign (or even just interacting with someone from a different cultural background online), it's crucial to consider the specific audience you're talking to. (p. 1).
These new considerations have revolutionized the field of marketing. While business intelligence has always included the need for understanding various consumer demographics, social networking has changed the way in which ideas and products can be marketed to a given population. It is no longer enough to know that African American users of a given social network can be found in high concentrations within a specific area or page, it also has to be known how they view information on that page. For example, if an advertisement is viewed on that page as being intrusive by a particular culture or as spam, it could backfire and decrease a brand value. In contrast, if a brand is skillfully connected to another respected element of a social network, it could increase its perceived value to a given demographic. There is variance in how different cultures socially network.
Social Networking and Changing Communication Elements
Social networking has added and changed elements of human vocabulary also demonstrated a cultural shift. "Liking" something in social media is a now a common public way for expressing one's admiration of something. People on social networks can like televisions shows, music, brands, ideas disseminated by other users or virtually any form of social media interaction. When this occurs, it is expressed to all people in that network. No longer are people's opinions and perspectives private, they are public. People can see what their friends and peers like. In addition, people can interact on those elements that people like and agree or express dissatisfaction from the comfort of a computer screen. People can engage in virtual debates in a way that they would likely shy away from if they were in physical proximity to another person. Beyond "liking" is also the phenomenon of "friending." People have "friends" in their social network that they can interact with online. The popularity of a person in a social network can be deduced by the amount of friends he/she has. Facebook, for example, has a 5,000 friend cap for a regular user. After this, the person would have to make a public page to do larger interactions. People can be "friends" with other people on Facebook or they can "follow" people on Twitter that they have never physically met before. Entire relationships can be fostered in these virtual contexts. What is means to "like" or "friend" someone has an entirely changed or evolved meaning since the advent of social networking.
On both Twitter and Facebook, there is also a limit to how much can be stated in a post. On Facebook the amount of words allowed is significantly larger than Twitter. Regardless, when individuals post an idea or a comment, there are limited to how much they can say. This has led to people thinking in less complete terms and forcing them to come up with abbreviations and other ways to quickly get a message across. It has the collective effect of being a form of digital shorthand. A new user to Twitter, for example, could easily be confused with abbreviations like: "LMAFO," "LOL" or the use of "@" and "#" symbols in speech. These are things that would never be found in standard English. Some have considered this the deterioration of formal language and others see it as being an evolution of the written word. What it does have the potential to do, however, is to breed misunderstanding or interpretation of a statement due to ambiguity and lack of ability to provide further clarification of what is meant by a certain term. While there are other ways in which vocabulary has been altered, this serves as an example of how social networking is altering existing schemas.
Considering Potential Negative Impacts
According to Johnson, "Most [social network] users simply enjoy the convenience and the fun that social media sites bring and don't think about potential implications" (p. 1). It can be stated that when people are using social networking sites, they are not thinking about cultural implications or other elements related to the impact of what they are using. Social media, for most users, is like a telephone, radio and television all built into one. It is essentially an innovation that combines multimedia platforms in a connected manner. It takes already popular innovations and merges them into a single element. There should be little surprise as to the reason in which it is being heavily embraced. Privacy, however, has been one of the major setbacks related to the popularity of social media. People now post their entire lives online. People essentially know everything that people choose to reveal about themselves in a way that was not as complete as a typical physical relationship or conventional interaction. Social media in one click can show the following things about an individual: relationship status, age, photographs, family, school history, employment, where a person is, who they were with, where they live, what they are thinking, what they like and how they interact with people around them. This instant snapshot of a person's life could take years to accomplish in a traditional relationship.
The rapid nature of this phenomenon has been labeled by Johnson as being "digital vertigo." This means that personal privacy has been lost in the wake of this mass transmission of information. This also creates what some critics have labeled as being a narcissistic element. Rather than being inspired by other people's ideas: music, movies, books, etc, people seem more preoccupied with broadcasting themselves. Teenagers, in particular, seem more willing to freely give up personal information as a part of joining a social network . Twitter, in particular is a process of posting quick status updates. This form of one way communication is simply telling the world (followers/friends) what a person is doing or thinking. For people with many online friends or followers, this can lead to an increased sense of self importance. For example, a person could believe the fact that they are eating at a given restaurant with a given people is something newsworthy. It can also create unrealistic expectations. Since people can control what content they disseminate, other people could believe that all of the amazing things in which they are positing is reality and therefore feel worse about their own lives. Social networking has a voyeuristic quality when considered within this cultural element. Johnson feels the entire process is "deeply narcissistic and ultimately doesn't reflect well on ourselves as individuals or collectively as a species" (p. 1). Despite these arguments related to negative constructs of cultural influence by social networking, Albrechtslund proposed that online social networking as a surveillance tool can be potentially empowering. The same attribute, depending on the beholder, can be articulated as positive or negative and this is why adding relative labels to the cultural changes that are happening are an oversimplification of issues.
The advent of the digital age has spawned the social networking phenomenon. Based on the current impact and its potential impact that is growing daily, social networking could be properly labeled as being revolutionary. Embraced by a wide cross sectional demographic and being a staple of the modern human experience, there is no legitimate argument that could be raised seeking to downplay the impact that the communications medium has had on human culture. While whether or not the impact in which it has had on culture is good or bad can be debated, this is the only dimension of the phenomenon where debate can manifest. As demonstrated by the selected research, social networking has put cultures into contact with one another without borders, it has served as a tool for marketing ideas and goods, it influences how people make decisions, it impacts the world political theater and it has changed patterns of communications and social interactions. Any one of these elements would be enough to confidently state that social networking has impacted culture. Together, however, the present a nearly infallible case that is likely to continue its influence as more people become involved in the phenomenon.
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