Social interaction particularly across long distances has been a concern of humans for eons. As social animals, people have always relied on communication to strengthen their relationships. When face-to-face discussions are impossible or inconvenient, humans have dreamed up plenty of creative solutions.

The earliest methods of communicating across great distances used written correspondence delivered by hand from one person to another. The earliest form of postal service dates back to 550 B.C. The discoveries of telegraph and radio in 1890 and 1891, respectively, ushered in a new era in social media.

Social media as we know it today can probably be traced back more than two decades. While it was unsophisticated by today’s standards, users could post public messages on sites such as Usenet. Not surprisingly, the advent and availability of high-speed internet access has led to a proliferation of sites and an explosion in their popularity.

The Oxford Dictionary defines social media as ‘websites and applications used for social networking’. In turn, social networking is defined as ‘the use of dedicated websites and applications to communicate with other users, or to find people with similar interests to one’s own’. For many this will intuitively make sense, based on their personal experience, the experience of others around them, or what they have heard or seen in the media. However, social media has evolved to include other tools and practices that were not conceived of only a few years or even a few months ago.

For many of us, websites like Facebook and Twitter typify social media. The sites have become enormously popular across demographics of race, age and gender, and have hundreds of millions of users. Recently, Facebook reported 1 billion users logging in on a single day, marking the first time in company history to reach this milestone!

Modern social media got a start with blogs, which in turn grew from personal web pages. Text-based varieties are still very popular, such as the microblogging sites of Twitter and Tumblr.

In comparison, social networking sites like Facebook allow users to connect by creating personal information profiles and inviting ‘friends’ to have access to these. Profiles usually include photographs, videos, audio files, blogs, and so on.

Besides these two popular categories, collaborative projects enable the joint and simultaneous creation of content by many users. Examples include various ‘wikis’, such as Wikipedia. Some of these sites allow users to add, remove and change content; others are a form of ‘social bookmarking’, in that they allow the group-based collection and rating of internet links or media content.

Content communities have, as their main purpose, the sharing of media content among users, including text (e.g. Bookcrossing), photographs (Flickr), videos (YouTube) and PowerPoint presentations (SlideShare). Users are not usually required to create a personal profile page.

On the lesser known side of social media are the virtual game worlds. These are platforms that replicate a three-dimensional environment in which users appear in the form of personalized avatars and interact according to the rules of the game. They have gained popularity with the support of devices such as Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation. An example is World of Warcraft.

Virtual social worlds allow inhabitants to choose behavior more freely and to live (in the form of avatars) in a virtual world similar to their real life. An example is Second Life.

The rapid development of both technology and the skills and knowledge of social media users means that what makes up ‘social media’ continues to change at a rapid rate, as new websites and online content appear each day.

It is undeniable that social media has given countless protesters a voice. For example, social media has been an influential force in human rights movements. During the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, half a billion protestors downloaded FireChat, a messaging app that does not rely on Internet access to work. Even in areas where police cut off Wi-Fi, protestors were able to message each other.

#BlackLivesMatter, a Twitter hashtag, sparked national discussion and galvanized a generation of protestors in the US. The hashtag offers a space to speak out against systematic racism, express grief for those lost to police brutality, and stimulate conversations about race power structure.

When 43 students went missing in Iguala, Mexico, protestors found solidarity on social media. #BringBackOurGirls demands justice for over 273 Nigerian school girls. #HeforShe focuses social media discussion on feminism. #LoveWins champions the legalization of gay marriage. #WhyIStayed allows female victims of domestic violence to share their experiences.

Slacktivism, as social media activism is sometimes called, gets criticism for its inherent laziness. Some point out that tweets do not mean action. Retweets aren’t as effective as marches, demonstrations, and petitions. “Likes” don’t carry the same weight as donations. Additionally, many who network in social justice spaces may be doing it for the attention rather than devotion to the cause. These spaces are also prime hunting grounds for those seeking to make a profit.

But social media also connects protestors to a vast audience, providing feedback and response as needed in real time. These protests do not have defining figureheads like M.K. Gandhi or M.L. King, Jr. Instead, modern-day protests tend to be more democratic: anyone’s voice can be heard through Twitter or Facebook. Additionally, social media allows for international solidarity. Those who tweet in the same hashtag feel united in a cause, and those like the same Facebook page share a common interest.

It can be said that social media has enabled the democratization of content, giving people the ability to emerge from consumers of contents to publishers. This user generated content is shared over the internet via technologies that promote engagement, sharing and collaboration, something that conventional media can’t offer. Thus, social media allows the user to expand the content’s reach and communicate any developments in real time.

Social proof is measured by the amount of interactions an article has on social media. The more likes, retweets, and shares a post has; the more authoritative it appears to the audience. Of course, there’s a flip side to such social engagement. It is my personal opinion that most users of social media do not investigate adequately about the authenticity of the information in a post before engaging. Often I would find myself as the lone dissenting voice among the followers of a post!

On a smaller scale, social media also has a powerful influence on our daily lives. But in the same vein, whether it’s positive or negative influence depends on the user. The Journal of Applied Psychology published a 2015 study that states social media helps college freshman feel at home. On the contrary, college students’ grades fell an average of 0.12 points (on a 4.0-scale) for every 93 minutes spent on the internet. Middle-aged people are also becoming an active presence on social media. Nearly 70% of baby boomers have a Facebook account.

Social media will continue to evolve by adapting to the demands of users, making any attempt to fully define the term problematic. In 1850, William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable. Faraday answered, “One day sir, you may tax it.” Social media has already proved its value to its adopters while escaping the clutches of tax collectors. Perhaps, social media has not run its full course. Thus, it is likely to become even more all-encompassing and be embraced more strongly by generations to come.

Social media has revolutionized our society in permanent, dramatic ways. So does that mean it is beneficial or destructive? That’s up to the individual users of the technology. J.K. Rowling once said in her acclaimed Harry Potter series: “We’ve all got both dark and light inside us. What matters most is the part we choose to act on.”

       Subhodev Das


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