In today’s world of mass communication we find ourselves interacting with social media networking sites all the time. The big guns: Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Myspace. Yes, Myspace is gaining steam yet again with Justin Timberlake buying up a large portion of the ownership and recrafting the site to accommodate the musicians and artists of the world.
Social networking has become a driving force of our economy and our personal lives. In its simplest of terms a social networking site is an online website that allows people to connect into a group-based online community. Connections, are everything. Connecting with others on the same networking site is a way to expand your network. Personally, I have over 500+ connections on my linkedin account. These connections expand my network to just over 18,000,000 people. What exactly does this mean? It all really goes back to the idea of the algorythym. The larger my network expands, the more people on a particular social network will be exposed to my content.
Connections are like tree branches, spitting out in every direction trying to grab more and more connections in the cyberspace online community. The more connections a social networking site has, the more prominence the site itself has on the internet. What does this mean? It means that when you search for social media, those sites that host the most connections (and the largest networks) are those sites that pop up first in searches. An easier way to realize this prominence is to ask all of your friends if they are on facebook, or twitter, and with networks of over 500 million, the answer is most likely yes.
But, like any community, whether online or your hometown PTA meeting, there are issues that arise. One of the issues that social networking sites run into is called the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number represents something interesting. If the idea behind social networking is to build real, beneficial and interactive relationships with other users, then the Dunbar Number represents a figure in which we max out our capacity to engage in building a relationship with another user in our network. This number marks the point in which we can’t possibly build a significant, ongoing relationship with another user because our network and our ability to communicate with everyone is near impossible.
But, at the same time, with social media hogs like Tila Tequila, the idea of building significant relationships takes a back to seat to the benefit of expanding our networks. See, Tila was the first person on myspace to reach a million “friends”. And was she communicating with each of them? Of course not. There is not enough time in the day. But, the idea of making her known holds prominence over the idea of building a substantial, interactive relationship with her audience. We see a shift in the idea of the relationship. It becomes one sided to most. Tila posts what she is up to, her music, her thoughts etc., and her community can view it. But, for the most part if you write Tila a message, she won’t be responding anytime soon.
Then we see “The Law of the Few”. This is the idea that 20% of the online community is responsible for 80% of the content the social network sees. Social media hogs (see Tila). These three types of people are: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen. Tila would be a connector. Just connect with anyone who’s anyone. Mavens differ in that they act as specialists, or experts on a certain type of information. Personally, mavens, I feel earn their connections through educating the public. Salesmen are people that you see always posting a post, (all the time) about how you can benefit from their services.
So why did you join facebook? To keep up with your former preschool schoolmates and express interest in their new lives with their husbands and kids 20 years later? Not me. I mean that’s great, but I don’t really care. If you know me, call or text me. I don’t have facebook, I don’t have myspace and I don’t have twitter. But there are those that fall into the category of “FOMA” – fear of missing out. Just think of all the announcements and updates you will miss out on if you aren’t keeping up with your social media. You might not know that your friend posted on twitter “Yum, I had a muffin” or you would have no idea that a guy you went to high school with just got a new job at JP Morgan. Sounds silly, but social media has that affect on people. We feel we are missing out on what the world is saying and, often, that feeling causes us to join a social network to feel connected to the world. Society takes a new form and humans interently need to be a part of it.
Some organizations are studying the effects of social media on teenagers. The ICMPA is one of them. (International Center for Media and the Public Agenda). They recently completed a study that involved taking all social media away from a group of teenagers for 24 hours, then asking them to blog, after the 24 hours, about how they felt. The studies are a little disturbing as they found that the teenagers felt entirely disconnected from people that were close by. I think this says something significant about social media and its impact on society. Society is relying on social media to autheticate its idea of a true relationship. By constantly updating your twitter account you feel connected to your followers, and vice versa. You may never see them, most likely, you are substituing hanging out with the person face to face with letting them know what you are up to at every moment. If we know where our friends are and what they are doing, we feel that we are, in some signficant way, hanging out with them. This interaction is an interesting facet of social media.
Now let’s talk about Facebook. I personally do not have an account. A couple years ago when they adjusted their user policy, I jumped ship. But they are betting on something. That the attraction of knowing that everyone you have ever heard of is on the site, that will be enough that you won’t read it. What’s disturbing is they own a lot more of you than you think. Facebook can use your picture to advertise a product as long as it appears in a state that does not border your own (or is not your own). Basically, when you see those ads on your facebook profile page, those often, are other facebook users’ pictures. Now, while I don’t necessarily have a modeling career, you might, you just will never know about it. I would want to get paid for my picture being used to sell something in another state, but because of Interstate Commerce Laws, it is quite possible. Afterall, you clicked ‘I agree”.
Plus, we all know, if you are posting a profile pic, it probably isn’t the first one you took. You probably took four or five and decided on the one that you feel represents your idea of how you would like to be portrayed, the best. Think about this for a minute. Obviously, narcissistic, (which I don’t even mind that part, we all do it), but think of the implications. If the entire world is taking into consideration this when they update their profiles, then we have to account for a type of social media inflation. What’s exactly inflated? Reality, or an accurate construct of society. That’s the problem with instituting too much trust into social media. Marshall McLuhan, a great communication theorist from Canada said it best. “The medium is the message”. Now, while MuLuhan passed away before the internet age, his concept of how media effects us, holds true today. If we are going to participate in social media, then we HAVE, and I mean HAVE to understand that it is effecting us in some way. Everything we choose to share with the world effects us. It effects others opinions of us and successfully shapes our daily lives. Whether or not it’s for the better, is the tricky part. But, if we know that we must take responsibility for our social network uses, we can understand the importance of realizing that we are all part of an ongoing, society-shaping, phenomena.
If we can learn this, we can utilize social media to benefit us more than if we don’t consider its implications. If we can truly understand that we are engaging in a communicative society that is taking us all in certain directions, we can understand how to prevent negative aspects of the practice from emerging. It is of vital importance that we don’t just learn HOW to use social media, but that we also learn WHEN and WHY we should be using it. Without considering its implications on our lives, we are leading ourselves towards areas that negatively impact us. And, unfortunately, what we do online stays online. Binary code makes it so that everything can be found again. Even google keeps your information for approximately 186 days tied directly to you. After 6 months have passed the information becomes anonymous. It’s dumped into a world we cannot topically see, but it still exists in cyberspace. It is always is there. It’s not like shredding a sensitive document at your office, then burning the remaining pieces. Social media and the content we choose to create with it, stays in existence. We must be aware of what this means to society, to our youth and to ourselves.