Six Theses on Connectivity and the Social Media. 1: The Overview
Introduction: In the next set of blog posts I shall explore six ‘theses’ about connectivity and the social media (hereafter CSM). Getting a handle on this area is important because in the last 20 years or so, there has been an explosion in ‘digital’ technologies in everyday life. In the West, in the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and many other—but not all—countries, ‘connectivity’ is a central feature of how people organise their lives. Modern communications hardware, software and platforms have come together in familiar assemblies. The ‘smartphone’, for example, is near ubiquitous: a small, versatile, easily accessed device which is decreasingly being used for its nominal purpose: ‘phoning’. Calling people (or receiving their calls) is a shrinking proportion of all use.
This trend is most strongly seen in the youngest generation of adults, sometimes called “Generation Next”. Pew Research Center, in their major report in 2010, MILLENNIALS: A PORTRAIT OF GENERATION NEXT, characterises these folk as ‘confident, connected and open to change’.
They are history’s first “always connected” generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part – for better and worse. [Emphasis added.] More than eight-in-ten say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed, poised to disgorge texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, videos, games and wake-up jingles. But sometimes convenience yields to temptation. Nearly two-thirds admit to texting while driving.
They embrace multiple modes of self-expression. Three-quarters have created a profile on a social networking site. One-in-five have posted a video of themselves online. http://bit.ly/17rPPqF
Further Pew research published in March indicates that:
Fully 95% of teens are online, a percentage that has been consistent since 2006. Yet, the nature of teens’ internet use has transformed dramatically during that time — from stationary connections tied to desktops in the home to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day. In many ways, teens represent the leading edge of mobile connectivity, and the patterns of their technology use often signal future changes in the adult population. Teens are just as likely to have a cell phone as they are to have a desktop or laptop computer. And increasingly these phones are affording teens always-on, mobile access to the internet — in some cases, serving as their primary point of access. Smartphone ownership among teens has grown substantially since 2011; 37% of American youth ages 12-17 now have a smartphone, up from 23% in 2011. Tablets are also taking hold, as close to one in four teens say they have one of these devices. Taken together, teens have more ways than ever to stay connected throughout the day — and night.
Turning to social media, Pew (see both bit.ly/Y7lRFI and http://bit.ly/15SUPa0) gives a good sense of how social media usage is distributed in the US, reflected (or exceeded) in similar countries such as Australia (always a fast adopter of new technology). For example, Facebook remains way ahead of most of the other common sites and its use is highest—but not restricted to—the younger groups. In the 18-29 age group studied by Pew, 67& have a Facebook profile (with twitter a long way behind in second place at 16%.)
So, if this really is a mushrooming feature of our epoch, what should we make of it? People have no hesitation offering answers but many of those answers are one-dimensional. I think it is time to take stock and have a more comprehensive overview. So, let’s to look at the ‘six theses’.
Six Theses: a First Statement: As will become apparent below, the six theses emerge by combining two ‘dimensions. The first dimension is ‘time’: I’ll explore;
- The Past: ways in which CSM might ‘take us back’ to ways of being and interacting that seem ‘pre-modern’’
- The Present: how CSM impacts on routine activities and interactions which are part of the current epoch;
- The Future: emerging trends related to CSM that appear to create new possibilities, new ways of being and new interactions.
A reasonable effort to read across commentaries on CSM indicates that all three of these threads can be found in various writers and studies. Between them, they point to a wide range of possibilities, issues and challenges.
At right angles to time, as it were, I will explore a second dimension of ‘desirability’. Of course, how desirable things are lies in the eye of the beholder but without being too precious about this, I’ll look at ideas that seem to indicate that CSM can be positive, helpful and constructive and contrast this with another set of ideas that are darker and more negative.
Research literature in the social sciences, media studies, etc. as well as some of the more complex blogs, certainly indicates a wide variety of views on the impact of the internet and internet technologies on daily life and here the positive and negative versions abound. Doom laden accounts of internet users starving or collapsing into psychosis in dark and smelly bedrooms while they make last-gasp mouse moves on their game site are paralleled by arguments that we are being dumbed down into a mere froth of superficiality and appearance instead of real, authentic relationships. On the other hand, hyped up stories appear of a future of ‘pure relationships’ unfettered by corporeality, of instant communications, communities of interest and widespread democracy. Much is made, for example of the idea that the ‘Arab Spring’ was organised and catalysed by SMS, Facebook, Twitter, etc. ( a view that seems less popular now that the Spring seems to have delivered less change and liberation that it promised.)
This duality is far from unprecedented. Most major changes in communication modalities (etc.), from the advent of printing on (and perhaps even in Sumerian times when writing was developed!) have shown the same two themes—doom and gloom on the one hand, fervid images of nirvana on the other.
This duality, then, will offer us the second dimension. Since both positive and negative alternatives exist for each of the time frames, we can generate six theses:
In a highly connected world with increasing use and penetration of social media we can see:
- 1. A re-emergence of pre-modern phenomena that are positive and to be encouraged;
- 2. A re-emergence of pre-modern phenomena that are negative, we need to be aware of and perhaps mitigate these;
- 3. An impact on how people already live their lives that is positive and to be encouraged;
- 4. An impact on how people already live their lives that is negative, we need to be aware of and perhaps mitigate these;
- 5. The emergence of new possibilities, norms and routines that are positive and to be encouraged; and
- 6. The emergence of new possibilities, norms and routines that are negative, we need to be aware of and perhaps mitigate these.
In my next series of posts, therefore, I will look at each of these six theses in turn and say something about them before coming back to a synthesis.