The application of the Sociological theory concepts to social media impacts on individuals and the society helps to understand the implications of social media on the users. In particular, various theories, including the Functionalist theory and the Conflict theory, have different implications considering the effects of social media on users. While evidence shows that social media has both a positive and negative effect on interpersonal interactions and public opinion, it is also arguable that social media has potentially negative effects on conflict resolution. The objective of each individual in using social media is for the realization of self-interest and for contribution to the society, it is clear that social media users adopt an approach bordering on behaviorism, which mediates the relationship between social media and other outcomes such as conflicts, interpersonal interactions, and functionality.
Effects of Social Media on Interpersonal Interactions
The effects of social media on interpersonal interactions are extensive, especially in recent years. These effects occur because besides providing a communication medium, social media acts as an environment in which interpersonal interactions occur. Social media effects can supplement, diminish, or even transform interactions between people in different ways (Lam 78). As an interaction tool or environment, social media can substitute conventional physical interpersonal interactions. Social media has the potential to be a harbinger of a social behaviour and increased individualism in the society due to its separatist impacts as people interact in a virtual more than a physical environment (Lam 79). The individualism effect of social media provides an interaction environment that offers poor substitutes for the non-verbal cues and body language otherwise used in a face-to-face interaction set-up (Lam 84). Moreover, the wide availability of information on social media reduces the perception of recipients about the credibility of information received, thereby reducing their receptivity.
This negative effect of social media is most observable in contemporary homes whereby instead of the face-to-face interactions, people have been shifting towards dependence on social media platforms. This practice has increasingly resulted in poor ability to form functional and effective physical interactions, or to develop effective communication skills. Similarly, the ‘look up’ video clearly explains this effect through the feelings of loneliness in spite of the connection with numerous friends; appearance of happiness in spite of being alone; the difficulty that is seen in entertaining children without using a phone when traditionally, several activities could be used; the desire to tell the public about personal progress when those who really need to know are close by; and the numerous chances at interaction that people miss because they are constantly looking at their phones rather than up to the world.
Social media has also been reported to be capable of providing a positive environment for interaction. The internet, through social media platforms, is capable of linking people to communities that would otherwise be inaccessible (Qi et al. 95). This occurs through information distribution and support for knowledge-sharing. The extant barriers to physical interactions such as geographical and temporal differences have been overcome by social media, making interactions both effective and timely. Hence, it is possible for people to choose their personal communities within social media, in which they communicate based on their individual interests. An example of this positive impact is seen in the interaction transformation and supplementing characteristics of social media, such as the capacity to build professional and family groups via WhatsApp and Facebook. Other social media platforms such as YouTube also present benefits for enhancing interactions among people with similar interests.
The interaction transformation outcome of social media is experienced not only in interpersonal interactions but also in public opinions. The impacts of social media on public opinions are best described through the application of Bourdieu’s Social capital theory, which links social capital to the existence of networks of mutual acquaintances or relationships (Qi et al. 97). The wide availability of information and the non-geographically or temporally-bounded information-sharing practices associated with social media expand access to information, and thus, influence public opinion. Social media networks provide channels for diverse opinions to be shared, which gives the individuals the opportunity to synthesize the information available from different sources to give their public opinions from an informed perspective.
Social Media from the Functionalist Theory Perspective
The Functionalist theory purports that people connect with each other with the objective of attaining self-development and contributing to the society. Functionalism particularly relates to the description of concepts based on behaviourism, utility/gratification, operations, and systems analysis (de Chazournes 952). For social media, therefore, the functionalist perspective would entail describing the concept of social media use within a societal systems’ context based on the behaviours exhibited and the intended gratification or outcomes. From this perspective, social media is considered as a tool that supports the functional connection for self-development and societal contribution. This functionalism is best observed through evidence from people’s behaviours in pursuit of individual gratification and societal contributions. Anderson and Meyer purport that explaining the functionalism of social media from the individual and the communal perspectives is traditionally burdensome (11). Difficulties in explaining the functionalism of social media can be likened to those associated with explaining the functionalism of mass media traditionally.
The first evidence of the functionalism of social media is based on behaviourism, which is described through individual activities on social media and their intended outcomes on self-development and societal contribution. Deaton describes behaviourism in social media as behaviour modification through reinforcement and repetitions, concepts adopted from Skinner’s Operant conditioning theory (2-3). Social media is described as captivating, which implies that people tend to repeat behaviours following positive outcomes to self. Deaton further asserts that a digital reward system defined through analytics such as mobile hits, page views, and click paths, which indicate success (3). Behaviors considered to result in positive improvement on the stated analytics are reinforced, hence benefitting the individual. On the other hand, the society benefits from social media functionality through the cumulative functionalities of the individuals participating on social media interactions. The society in this regard is considered as a system in which the attributes of the whole are characteristics of cumulative attributes of the individual components. Therefore, the interactions and communications benefits to individual participants on social media are transferred to the society, hence realizing social media functionality. For example, an individual who receives likes and shares on their personal posts on a particular news incident would be encouraged to share similar incidences in the future with the gratification of likes and shares. Through sharing such information, other social media users gain from the information, hence realizing societal functionality.
Social Media and the Conflict Theory
In media applications, one of the tenets of the Conflict theory posits that individuals in positions of power use their authority to manipulate the media. This use of power is usually aimed at avoiding criticism (de Chazournes 954). Moreover, the theory points out the inevitability of contrasting behaviours in a social environment, which result in conflicting ideologies. These two ideologies give the impression that in the use of social media, just like in the mainstream media application, conflicting scenarios in which those in power have different opinions from those of the lower hierarchical stratifications have the potential of stimulating criticism. Unlike other mass media communication channels, social media is not constrained by the power of those individuals. Instead, social media is characterized by uncontrolled distribution of information, which supports regimes in which the freedom of speech is extensively enjoyed. Notably, those in the low levels of power hierarchy in the community have an equal chance of expressing both criticism and praise of the regimes in power. For this reason, social media sustains conflict.
The conflict-sustaining effect of social media is felt within the society. Notably, various reports over the years have shown the implications of social media on conflict escalation. The compounding effect is consistently felt because while social media gives an opportunity for independent expression, it does not give the strategies for open discourses on the subjects of concern due to the difficulty involved in obtaining and disseminating consistently-objective information via social media. Individuals who share information via social media also interact amidst temporal and spatial disparities, which limit the possibility of open dialogue, and thus, creating a positive environment for breeding conflict, a situation described as the distraction-conflict phenomenon (Min 15). With challenges in information verification, it is also possible for social media to initiate unwarranted conflicts, unlike mass media, in which information verification is possible. Notably, some individuals and entities are accountable in case the shared information is inaccurate. It is, thus, deductible that social media not only sustains real existing conflicts, but also stimulates the onset of conflicts and escalates conflicts by eliminating opportunities for open discourse on issues of concern.
I believe that social media presents various benefits for the society and individuals despite the associated negative effects. These benefits are associated with the role of social media in transforming and supplementing interactions between individuals and society groups. These benefits span different areas of application and social contexts including families, corporate levels, as well as among close social groupings. Effective use of social media, therefore, results in mostly positive outcomes. These include: overcoming geographical and temporal differences between users; distribution of information for political, corporate and educational application; enhanced access to marketing resources, products and services; and better sharing of public opinions across several communities. The negative effects of social media, on the other hand, are mostly related to overuse and misuse, both of which are unintended.
The utilization of social media over the last few years has resulted in various positive and negative effects. However, there is an increasing concern about the effects of social media in declining interactions. Social media serves as both a tool and an environment for interpersonal interactions, which implies that it can result in both positive and negative outcomes depending on utilization. As an environment for interaction, social media reduces the probability of face-to-face interactions, and subsequently, reduces value for close physical relationships. The same social media as an interaction tool breaks the extant geographical and temporal barriers to interactions, thereby improving the extent of interaction among users. Moreover, the functionalist perspective indicates that social media serves the self-interests of individuals and their objectives for societal contribution. Similarly, the Conflict theory perspective holds that social media can most probably escalate conflict due to the multi-channel communication that is prevalent among members.
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