Sociology and Technology
Current statistics on internet usage and website usage indicate that social media sites top in the list of the most popular sites in the world. Aside from Google’s search engine, YouTube and Facebook are the next most popular websites in the world both of which are social media sites (Gray). Today, with the proliferation of smartphones and other internet connected devices such as tablets, internet usage has increased exponentially, with social media taking up most of the online screen time. The high level of online engagement, particularly on social media, many argue has had a positive impact on the society. Opponents on the other hand, however, are of the contrary opinion, terming the high engagement as the genesis of many social ills in the society. The truth, however, is that social media has and continues to have a great impact on the society, these impacts naturally have great social implications.
Social media has impact some of the most important aspects of human life including politics, business and socialization. Today, social media sites including Facebook and Twitter have become among the most popular platforms for political engagement. Many, including the young are actively engaging in political discussions through social media, even as politicians continually rally their supporter through different social media platforms. The 2008 elections, for instance, which saw Obama win the presidential elections, is an attestation to the power of social media in political engagement, as it (social media) played a pivotal role in rallying voters to engage in the political process (Hargittai and Shaw 115).
Political engagement in this case goes beyond just rallying voters into the political process to government engagement with the citizens through dissemination of information, as well as citizens disseminating information and rallying others for a cause. With many more people having internet-enabled and social media applications installed on the phones, social media essentially become the default to-go source of information, and through which many, especially the young, engage in different matters affecting them (Hargittai and Shaw 115).
Yet politics and political engagements are not the only areas impacted by social media; social media has also greatly impacted business. Tech savvy business are actively engaging their customers on social media, using the platforms to advertise and build customer loyalty. Through the interactions and feedback from customers, business have been able to not only understand the market, but also adjust their products and strategies to meet the customers’ demands and stay relevant in the increasing competitive business environment respectively. The low cost in using social media as an advertising platform has enabled businesses to not only save a lot in advertising costs, but also develop and close relationship with customers as well as build customer loyalty.
Perhaps the greatest impact of social media is on socialization. At the core of social media sites such as Facebook is reconnection of people, particularly friends and acquaintances, making new friends, sharing audio-visual content and ideas. The growth of social media has made it even more relevant in keeping abreast with events in the global scene, participation in local and international events and scenes, even as professionals use social media to enhance and advance their careers and business prospects (LinkedIn). Further, social media platforms such as Tinder have been instrumental in enabling people find their soul mates. So popular have such platforms become that 29 million Americans have accounts on online dating sites and social media platforms (Ellison 416).
While the aforementioned are among the greatest impacts of social media on society, these have had immensely controversial social implications. For its impact on political engagement, social media proponents have lauded its ability to increase the citizenry’s engagement in politics, particular the young. Studies had previously indicated a declining involvement of the young in political engagement in the years prior to widespread use of the internet and social media sites. However, following the proliferation of the internet and social media sites, studies have found out that the internet, “and especially the use of social network sites (SNS), associates strongly with more diverse networks, enhanced community engagement, and heightened public activity overall” (Hargittai and Shaw 119). With more news media outlets having social media pages and accounts, they have not only increased the level of political news consumption, but political engagement among the young as well.
While many may laud the new found democratic space for political engagement, opponents see such engagement as recipe for trouble where social media sites and the internet become platforms on which politicians and individuals spread hate and bigotry. Donald Trump, one of the most avid Twitter users is on record spreading hate and false information, especially during the campaign period. Trumps had called Hillary Clinton “crooked” and even used a racial slur on Senator Elizabeth Warren, calling her “Pocahontas” (Jenkins).
Further, while many social media proponents would laud the use of social media as a platform for political engagement and its role in Moldovan, Iranian, Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, all of which were organized on social media and brought political change in the countries, opponents would disagree. Opponents see the role of social media in the revolutions as wayward and only as a cause of death following deaths during the protests that saw toppling of legitimately elected governments. For the opponents, social media is not a panacea, but only a source of trouble and a platform for hatemongers.
Proponents of social media use for business laud the use of social media for reaching and engaging with customers. Moreover, companies continually use social media as a cheap medium of advertisement in addition to using some social media sites such as LinkedIn for recruitment. Opponents on the other hand, see its negative impact on the society, particularly on business. Many companies have blocked social media at work premises given their (social media sites) negative impact on productivity. A growing number of employees are continually distracted, spending most of their time on social media sites instead of focusing on the work at hand. Companies therefore lose billions due to compromised employee productivity. Even more worrying is the addictive nature of social media, essentially rendering employees unproductive, or operating below their optimal levels.
Many friendships and reconnections have become possible thanks to social media. Moreover, families and friends have been able to keep in touch regardless of distance facilitated by social media. Even more people have been able to find love (Ellison 416), engage in causes close to their hearts and grow their networks, positively impacting the society through social networks. On the other hand, opponents argue that social media has negatively impacted the society by propagating vices. Cyberbullying, catfishing, identity theft, and fraud are all lurking dangers propagated by social media. Furthermore, just like the introduction of phones allowed children to stray from their families undetected (Draper 222), social media puts children at risk of being recruited into cults, hate groups or terrorist groups without their knowledge or the parents’ knowledge, essentially threatening the social fabric.
Social media and virtual communities have become increasingly popular phenomenon. Today, Facebook alone has more than a billion active monthly users, making it the most popular social networking site. Most of these are mobile users who access the platform on their mobile phones through either the native mobile application or mobile web browsers. Virtual communities including discussion boards and art communities, on the other hand provide a platform for people with common interests to meet, advance and share knowledge, ideas and information despite the difference in physical location. The popularity and ubiquity of the two have over time changed the nature of physical spaces and face-to-face interactions. While some may argue against the statement, the argument is defeating given the evidential attestations to the fact that indeed in the current age of virtual communities and social media, physical spaces and face-to-face interactions have undergone tremendous changes.
The invention of the phone and its consequential synergy with other technologies has transformed communication tremendously. The ability of the phone and computer technologies, particularly coupling it with the web, along with their ubiquity have affected human interactions socially, culturally and biologically. The physical presentation of self to other both in the physical and virtual worlds continue to change thanks to the new communication technologies, especially social media and virtual communities (Ellison 417). Ellison further argues that with a constant use of social media and engagement in virtual communities, the boundary between the physical and virtual worlds is continually thinning. The author posits that “pressures to highlight one’s positive attributes are experienced in tandem with the need to present one’s true (or authentic) self to others, especially in significant relationships” (Ellison 417). While the author’s argument largely focuses on online dating, many continue to feel the pressure to live the lives they purport in the virtual world, given their physical proximity to some of the online social media and virtual communities’ users.
The thinning line between the virtual world and the physical world, and the effect of the virtual world on face-to-face interaction is especially visible through a review of the quality of conversation between friends in the presence of a mobile device. In the current connected world, social media and virtual communities are at the palm of the hand, this precedence has decreased the quality of face-to-face communication, given constant interruptions. A study into the effect of mobile devices, and by extension social media and virtual communities given their synonymy with mobile devices, showed that the quality of human face-to-face communication in the presence of a smartphone was significantly low (Misra et al. 275). The study indicates that even among close friends, the quality of interaction was low. The compromise in the quality of communication is wholly because of the distraction during the interaction, resulting from interruptions to check new messages, status updates, like or comment on a photo, reply to a discussion board question or pick calls.
Phones, additionally, as windows to the virtual world, have become a hindrance to human-human communication. Many, especially the young, have become so engulfed in the virtual world in online games, social media and virtual communities to a point that they treat their virtual friends more positively in comparison to their in-person friends. Studies into the impact of the virtual world on face-to-face communication found out that while having conversations in the virtual world, students (and by extension individuals obsessed with the virtual world) easily ignore in-person friends with a preference for those in the virtual world (Drago 17). The preoccupation and fixation with the virtual world is so powerful, that some users have out-and-out interactions with their mobile devices when not necessarily having video calls or taking calls (Drago 17).
Even as studies point to the continually thinning distinction between the virtual and physical worlds, opponents of the thinning argue that social media and virtual communities have not affected physical spaces and face-to-face interactions. They argue that the human brain is perceptive and intelligent enough to differentiate between the real and virtual worlds. Their argument is that any representation of the physical world in the virtual world as is the case of games is only to provide the users with a more familiar environment within the virtual world. Such representation, they argue, does not necessarily change the physical world.
Adding to their argument is the fact that geographical location takes precedence in referencing in the social media services such as Twitter. Retweets, they argue are more consistence and more likely when the person referenced is within the city or proximity of the individual retweeting. The opponents therefore argue that the feeling of closeness through the proximity indeed shows the unchanging nature of the physical spaces.
However, it is important to note that the fact that the virtual worlds use physical locations within the virtual is indeed a pointer of the changing nature of physical spaces. The location aware mobile media, which gives users opportunity to add and access layers of physical spaces essentially changes the physical spaces. Having knowledge of the physical space, without necessarily visiting the space is essentially a change in the space. Additionally, even as the social networks give an opportunity for friends to know the physical location of their friends, as well as those open to a meeting within the location, more often than not, the individuals end up having the conversations in the virtual world rather than at the physical location.
In changing the nature of human interaction/communication, social media continues to have a great impact. While governments traditionally used press conferences to address issues, in the recent years, the use of Twitter has been on the increase in passing real time official information streams and directives (Leetaru et al.). Further, while opponents of the effect of social media and virtual communities on physical spaces and face-to-face interaction laud physical location as an important factor in refencing, Twitter indeed thrives on weak global links. 47 percent of references were within 300 miles while 46 percent more than 600 miles away, proving that indeed the virtual worlds and social media transcend physical locations.
Thus, while geography is still relevant, it is not a hindrance to current human interaction as proven by more local and global connections. Additionally, the presence of new technologies (social media and virtual communities) has completely changed the quality of human face-to-face interactions. While the new technologies may have opened the world to greater local and global communication, people are more inward than outward looking especially in the presence of the new technologies which provide a window to the virtual world.
Drago, Emily. “The Effect of Technology on Face-to-Face Communication.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 13-19.
Draper, Nora, R. A. “Is Your Teen at Risk? Discourses of Adolescent Sexting in United States Television News.” Journal of Children and Media, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 221-236
Ellison, Nicole. Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Processes in the Online Dating Environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol. 11, pp. 415-441.
Gray, Alex. These are the World’s most Popular Websites. World Economic Forum, 2017, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/most-popular-websites-google-youtube-baidu/.
Hargittai, Eszter and Shaw, Aaron. “Digitally Savvy Citizenship: The Role of Internet Skills and Engagement in Young Adults’ Political Participation around the 2008 Presidential Election.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 57, no. 2, pp. 115-134.
Jenkins, Aric. “President Trump Calls Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ at Event Honoring Native American Veterans.” Time, 2017, http://time.com/5038410/donald-trump-elizabeth-warren-pocahontas-2/.
Leetaru, Kalev, H. et al. “Mapping the global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter.” First Monday, vol. 18, no. 5, 2013.
Misra, Shalini. et al. “The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices.” Environment and Behavior, vol. 48, no. 2, 2016, pp. 275 – 298.