Social Media, Part II: The Value of Social Media
Nov 4, 2011

Social Media, Part II: The Value of Social Media

Like it or hate it, social media is now a potent force in society that is legitimately changing the way people interact with information, with news and politics, with each other, and ultimately with the world. In part one of this series, I considered the role of social media relative to conventional media in influencing information flows in our society. In this post, I want to consider the social value - and harm - that social media has.

Democratic reception and transmission of information: 
The Internet is one of the great democratizers and levelers of the playing field in our society. Most of the classic great dividers of people (sex, religion, affluence, ethnicity) can be hidden or ignored when using social media. Everyone is equally able to participate in the exchange and transmission of ideas that occurs on the Internet. As we saw in the previous post, information flows can be influenced by us at both the reception and transmission steps. Traditionally, the reception of information has been fairly egalitarian. Most people can watch the nightly news, take out books from the library, and the like. However those that traditionally broadcast information (polititians, corporations, media, etc.) is a much smaller and very much non-egalitarian group. Social media allows for large swaths of content creation to be taken up democratically by people. Opposed to getting our political opinions from a hierarchical and centralized media system, it comes from a fundamentally more democratic, decentralized and horizontal system via social media. (Previously: A Democratic Internet)

There remain difficulties, of course. Access to the Internet still is excluded to classes of poor people and poorer countries. People with the time and motivation to be engaged in politics over the Internet remain disproportionately wealthier and more educated. For instance, people who write political blogs tend to be educated, affluent, male, middle aged non-religious people. Especially with social media, people tend towards being related to people from similar social groups and there is a limited form of voluntary segregation that occurs. But the Internet has nonetheless come a very long way in leveling the playing field.

Faster, better information: 
One of the major advantages of having the wider set of sources for information that social media gives, and then applying ones own selection filters to this, is that it dramatically increases the efficiency of which relevant and interesting information is conveyed. Often one can get the same amount of relevent information from an hour long TV news broadcast that one can get spending five minutes perusing the articles from the same company online. Moving to social media, however, we can round this information out from a variety of perspectives and differing opinions; in particular, the opinions from sources we have found to be most reputable and interesting and hence we pay attention to them. Being democratically sourced, the most interesting information gets the most prevalence and eliminates biases from the mainstream news systems. We can choose subsets of our social media groups to be highly focused on particular issues which allows us to go very deep into a variety of subjects that are simply not easily possible to achieve using traditional channels.

 ...but not always:
Unfortunately, while it has these advantages, social media is far from perfect. Of course, how one utilizes these tools is very subjective and one can make excellent use of them or very poor use. But as an aggregate, there is a tendency towards superficiality, towards frivolity, towards entertainment over enlightenment, towards brevity and concision. It is often informative, but much less often is it persuasive. It is often much more productive in terms of enlarging your understanding and thinking to spend an hour reading an essay by some expert or analyst than it is to spend that hour reading a barrage of social media comments and links.

By taking an active approach to choosing the information one consumes, we can often consume higher quality information much more effectively and efficiently. We can avoid systemic biases such as that from the mainstream media. However, we also introduce our own biases. Perhaps the greatest danger of the Internet, as I have written about previously, is that it makes it so easy to be continually reinforcing our own biases. Any perspective we might have, we can find people arguing persuasively for that perspective on the Internet and we can even add them to our social media networks. As extreme examples, Anders Brievik apparantly frequented a series of very Islamophobic blogs; Jared Loughner posts some of his views on YouTube. All of us must face this general problem of confirming our own positiions and feelings, and thankfully the Internet also gives us enormous power to be presented with countervailing opinions as well if we seek them out.

Social value of informed societies: 
More than just a personal benefit to being better informed, there is also a large social benefit. Being informed of the problems of society is a necessary first step towards building the movements that fix these problems. To whatever extent that social media helps create an informed society it is good, and to whatever extent it inhibits this it is a bad thing.

An Organizational Tool: 
Social media provides a very effective tool at being able to organize protests and other movements. One can reach a much broader base of people to learn about, say, the time and location of a protest. The speed of transmission of an idea is enormously fast with, say, a new YouTube video of police violence against Occupy protesters making the rounds on the internet in a matter of hours. Things like Twitter campaigns tweeting politicians about various issues can receive the kinds of scale of endorsements never possible before in an age where one only called or snail mailed one's polititians. 

Building Movements: 
Perhaps the greatest value that social media provides is in the way it contributes to building broader communities and expression of solidarity. More than just merely conveying information about movements, more than just being an effective medium for organizing a movement, it actually helps to build the movement itself through a groundswell of attention, support and solidarity. Having more people following a movement or being engaged and interacting with the movement and its ideas is itself building the movement. 

Occupy and Uncut movements: 
This is especially important for building movements across diverse geographic regions. Part of the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that people all around the country and the world could, through Twitter and other media, share a relatively intimate and detailed connection with these people that allows it to spread to an enormous number of cities. The same occurred with the UK and US Uncut movements that in some ways preceded the Occupy movement in that the idea for the movement (which occupied the storefronts of companies like Vodafone in the UK which is an enormous tax dodger) was able to spread and build very quickly through these media. For more on these protests, click here.

Arab Uprising: 
Social media played a significant role in organizing the Arab Uprising being able to bring a large number of diverse people together at the right times to the right places. At the time there was a lot of debate among analysts and observers about the role that social media played in the movement. To recap, the one side suggested that social media was simply the way people these days communicate and that a similar result would have occurred through other more conventional forms of communication; the dominant factor was the various political and socioeconomic realities of the time. The other side suggested that the much wider and broader ability to communicate that social media provides was critical in creating the necessary critical mass and momentum that allowed Tunisia, Egypt, and the rest to build the way they did and that this factor was paramount since previous times many of the same political and socioeconomic factors were the same but the Awakening didnt occur. Personally, I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Much of the reasons for the movement were because of factors on the ground and would have occurred anyways, but social media played an amplifying role creating something that was larger in more countries than it would otherwise have been. 

Limitations and downsides: 
All of this only goes so far. Expressing solidarity for a movement by sharing a comment or link on Twitter is a form of solidarity. But it is a limited and at times superficial one. As an aggregate these small actions can add up to something genuinely powerful and detractors of Twitter et al. should not minimize this. However, each of us should recognize that while something small is better than nothing, what each of us is capable of doing through limited social media interactions doesn't add up to very much and we both can and should do more. This becomes a real problem when an action on the internet is seen as a replacement for more direct and meaningful action. People may, say, share political stories with their friends on Facebook but don't end up even voting let alone doing things like calling their representative, joining a protest, or getting involved in a political movement or charity. To whatever extent social media becomes a replacement for other forms of direct action, or that it normalizes the idea that social media politicking is sufficient, this can be a negative effect. 

One of the most compelling influences of human behavior comes from our interactions with those we have relationships with. The Internet allows us to form relationships with a diverse group of people which is an excellent thing. However, very often the relationships can be transient and superficial. One doesn't form the kind of intimate bonds that compel us to action or even necessarily the more compelling forms of empathy and solidarity. As is the case with Twitter, one often forms more of a relationship with a group (such as #OccupyWallStreet or #p2ca, a hash tag for progressive Canadian news and opinions). One might learn the general patterns and perceptions and ideas of these groups - and that can be meaningful - but it often will lack the more intimate connections with individuals made possible through other forms of communication. Interactions may be brief, disparate, anonymous, and ultimately may not be motivating. 

We thus have a trade off. We can now connect with an enormous and diverse body of fellow humans in a way that was largely unimaginable not too many years ago. We can thus build relationships, spread ideas, organize and support social movements and the like in ways not previously possible. However, the extent of these relationships are always curbed by the brevity, the anonymity, and the superficiality of the connections. We can now join movements, at least some some degree, that we would not have even heard about otherwise. But we may be less compelled to join a movement when prompted on Twitter than we previously would have been by a friend asking us to come and be a part of it directly. 

Ultimately, I think a lot of the value in social media is what one makes of it. It can be used to filter information and provide a broader, more democratic, and more efficient means of acquiring information as long as we are consciously trying to make sure we use it to find, at least partly, information which is in depth, provocative, and really challenges and expands our understanding. It can be used as an invaluable organizing tool that builds movements provided we don't eliminate conventional forms of communication and direct action centered around those we have built strong relationships with.

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