Sometimes I can’t help wonder why there is so much discussion about ‘social media’ these days, as if it was invented just recently. We all agree that social media has existed since time immemorial – the communal gathering in the villages since the beginning of history, the itinerant bards, storytellers and singers who went from one place to another and served as the medium for exchanging news and gossip, the criers who were the precursors of the talking heads breaking news today... social media is therefore not a late 20th century invention. So why has social media become so important to the human society today?

In order to understand this phenomenon, I think that it is necessary to delve a little bit into the origin and history of social media. ‘Media’ is the plural form of a word borrowed directly from Latin. The singular, medium, early developed the meaning “an intervening agency, means, or instrument” and was first applied to newspapers two centuries ago, and then subsequently to radio and television. The word “mass media” was coined in the 1920s to represent any means of communication that reach a large number of people. The word ‘social media’ did not come into existence till 2001, and in my opinion, does not have much to do with the popularization of internet per se, but with a change of paradigm amongst users that started with SixDegrees.com, a social networking site that was very popular between 1997 and 2001. SixDegrees.com used the concept of the famous six degrees of separation - that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. So a chain of "a friend of a friend" statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. Although the website closed down in 2002, the concept of an interacting community using internet was largely validated, and there was a quick succession of other platforms on the Internet, some of which have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Friendster was created in 2002 with a slightly different idea that a rich online community can exist only between people who truly have common bonds. The website ensured there were plenty of ways to discover those bonds. It was also used for dating and discovering new events, bands and hobbies. Users could share videos, photos, messages and comments with other members via profiles and networks. It is considered to be the "grandfather" of social networks as we know them today. Friendster has now become a social gaming site, focusing essentially on entertainment and interactions between the gaming communities.

2003 saw the birth LinkedIn - a social networking service with a very specific orientation that remains the same today. Rather than being a mere playground for former classmates, teenagers, and cyberspace Don Juans, LinkedIn was, and still is, a networking resource for business people who want to connect with other professionals. In fact, LinkedIn contacts are referred to as “connections.” Today, LinkedIn boasts more than 297 million members spanning the globe.

Soon MySpace, also launched in 2003, became the perennial favorite of user communities. MySpace targeted the young adult demographic with music, music videos, and a funky, feature-filled environment. From 2005 to 2008, MySpace was the largest social networking site in the world, and in June 2006 surpassed Google as the most visited website in the United States. In April 2008, it was overtaken by Facebook in the number of unique worldwide visitors.

Facebook was founded, like many social networking sites, by university students who initially sold their product to other university students. It was launched in 2004 as a Harvard-only exercise and remained a campus-oriented site for two full years before finally opening to the general public in 2006. Even in those early days, Facebook was considered big business. So much so that, by 2009, Silicon Valley bigwigs such as Paypal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel invested tens of millions of dollars just to see it flourish.

By this time, the Smartphone was becoming increasingly popular, especially in Japan and in the US but also in Europe, especially in the business and professional milieus. The popularity of text messaging or SMS inspired Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, Noah Glass and Evan Williams to create Twitter in 2006 - a service that had the unique distinction of allowing users to send “tweets” of 140 characters or less. Today, Twitter has over 500 million users. Soon a host of mobile based applications took the users by storm – Instagram for public sharing of images, Snapchat for the private sharing of images, Foursquare for augmented reality, Tinder for location-based matchmaking, Pinterest that acts as a personalized media platform, Spotify for music streaming, podcast and video service to name a few. Google created its Hangout and then Google+ to get a share of this massive market.

So, as we see from the brief description above, social media is not a totally new concept. What is relatively new, I think, is the reach of social media today, thanks to the different platforms they have embraced over the years. Internet and GSM is ubiquitous today, available almost everywhere in the world, and accessible to everyone. Gone are the days when internet was the property of geeks and gamers and computer engineers – it has been claimed by the common man. And it has been claimed with a vengeance – the proliferation of all sorts of blogs, formal and informal groups, communities, and webzines – not to talk about the commercial websites that often make our virtual lives intolerable. But what attracts us about social media? Why has a large part of the world population, irrespective of religion, culture, language and social mores become regular users of social media – or to put it in a different way, why have social media become part of their daily lives? Is it just a passing fad, or does the reason run deeper? Is it pure conformism or do social media actually fulfill a need that is inherent in human nature?

Communication has always been important to humans from the dawn of civilization. There is no need to reiterate the different means of communication that have evolved over time. What is important is to understand the dimension of human communication – till the advent of social media it has always been one to one (letters, telephone, telegraph) or many to many (newspapers, radio, television). While one person could and did communicate with many (friends, family, associates, colleagues…) the means of communication were unidirectional. It required time and effort. Social media put an end to that. It made communication possible with a whole community with minimum effort. This is possibly the main reason for the popularity of social media applications, be it on the internet or on the mobile telephone platform. It gave us the opportunity of interacting with people who we do not know in real life, but who share some common interest – literature, cinema, sports, humanitarian causes, political opinions or professional interests. Across societies, cultures, religions, across linguistic and social barriers. For the first time, we were able to connect with like minded people, sharing same interests, preferences and opinions all over the world. Thanks to the social media, we now share the day to day concerns of people living thousands of miles away. We share their joys, their sorrows, their plights, their trials and tribulations. As they share ours.

Social media has shrunk distances, made time zones a mere concept, have proved that men and women all over the world share basically similar values, concerns and emotions. It has brought the world to our homes, widening our horizons, making us aware of what is going on elsewhere be it natural catastrophes in faraway lands, wars, migrations, assassinations, or mass murders, through social media almost in real time. We see pictures, videos, read comments of firsthand witnesses. These messages are able to mobilize global communities in much less time than traditional media. While it is necessary to be careful about the authenticity and the veracity of the posts, the information is there, available to the whole world. Yes, there are people who abuse this power of the social media as well – but is it any different from what happens on the traditional media? I think not. It is always up to the receptors to separate the grain for the chaff – to make their own judgments and decisions.

Social media today is widely used in all spheres of life: politics, business, promotion of different types of humanitarian causes because its widespread use has altered the way ideas change hands and spread. Which is why it is necessary to put in checks and balances – the same medium can easily be used to propagate racism, religious or political fanaticism, intolerance, hate, terrorism and everything else that plagues the modern society. It is not a coincidence that anti terrorist organizations all over the world track the social media relentlessly – each user on the Clearnet leaves a digital footprint that can’t be erased easily. Cyber bullying, stalking, trolling, identity threat and on-line harassment have unfortunately become day to day incidents in the realm of social media.

I have been an adept of social media for quite some time now, and I would like to end this article on a more personal note. I know for certain that social media is an indispensable part of my existence today. I am able to communicate with like minded people all across the globe, I am in constant touch with my family and friends, and I am able to participate in political and humanitarian movements anywhere in the world. I militate, I protest, I participate, I construct. I enjoy writing and interacting with people who enjoy writing too. I enjoy participating in chat groups that share my own interests. I enjoy the creativity of ordinary people on the net. I find that social media has given unprecedented freedom to people, and especially women who are able today to give wings to their own creative instincts through regular interaction with like minded communities. I applaud and admire the grit of groups on social media that protest against social and economic inequality and injustice and sometimes succeed in large scale mobilization, both political and social, that changes the course of history. I believe that social media today has become a great equalizer for those who want equality.

While a vast majority can and will go on using social media just for socializing, sharing pictures of children, pets and vacations and interacting uniquely with family and friends, there will be people and groups who will continue using these platforms for other causes, both gainful and harmful. It can have negative and destructive effects, especially on the young, and needs to be monitored. It is a powerful tool and like any power, needs to be handled with care and precaution. It is necessary to understand the dark side of the social media that can have disastrous effects irrespective of age, sex or social status. It is indispensable to recognize its power for manipulation and distortion. It is up to each one of us to harness the immense power and use it for collective good.

Aparajita Sen


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