the future: billions of social media users – what is actually really changing?

The voices which claim that new tools equal new perceptions, change would be everywhere – dramatic, revolutionary – are getting ever louder, it seems. Creating technology and the use of new tools are undoubtedly offering enormous potential. We may create new and multiple selves, we can connect ourselves with a myriad of others in unprecendented ways and we can harness our imagination in more efficient ways than ever before.

Yet, these dynamics are multiplied and amplified by the flows of information which are subject to our social, economic and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). While in these days of massive economic downturn the calls for expanding the digital infrastructure and reducing the digital divide within industrialised nations remain audible, the number of those who critically debate the use of such celebrated tools by users other than teenagers, educational institions and coporations are still fairly small. Is there an assumption that the ways of using new social media are inherent in the techne (Boellstorff, 2008 )  itself?

Are we assuming that there is a universal approach towards connecting and sharing online as we are all driven by the desire to share and connect? Are we all driven by the desire to share and connect, we need to ask first. I find that, similar to television and radio for instance, the way individuals use new social media and the perspective they choose – consciously? – to make sense of it varies considerably. National background, social class, gender – but to a lesser extent also age and perhaps even marital status – make the difference.

Feeling powerless, lacking clear guidance and being highly sceptic of the usefullness lead to questions such as: What am I supposed to do there? How much time am I supposed to spent ‘in there’? How many more social networking sites and social bookmarking systems am I supposed to use? Passive resistance and a sense of being pressured into virtual being seem to dominate among those who choose to rather not participate in ‘the hype’. The many resisting half-hearted users seem to be widely neglected in those enthusiastic debates and deserve more attention if we aim at an increased understanding of virtual worlds and well-being in the online and offline contexts. Aren’t those who actually feel very uncomfortable with new social media at risk to make the least of the chances and choices available due to their low level of explorative engagement but yet shape actively and perhaps significantly the discourses offline?

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.

One response to “the future: billions of social media users – what is actually really changing?”

  1. jayprich says :

    Mainstream non-adopters worries seem more to ensuring children are exposed only to age-appropriate materials. While vigilance against regulation and censorship must be maintained, we have allies in all walks of life there. Social Media however threaten to organise vocal minorities efficiently and lead to disproportionate interest or maybe polarising society. Print and broadcast media risk exposing everyone to the establishment bias, even propaganda, the shared exerience can actually improve debate. To expose my own biases: I tried reading a few of the views expressed amongst US conservative bloggers, those I sampled were apparently proudly ignorant. There is some evidence that they exist as a growing sub-culture (search.twitter.com shows #tcot to be a trending topic), my fear is this sub-network makes an already vocal minority of republicanism more effective as a political pressure group and recruiting the more impressionable to stifle rather than inform and engage a debate about issues and choices which are very complex: natural resources, economics, justice system, international politics. Maybe democracy cannot survive this as its institutions require a balance of power, shared values and the capacity to listen to your opponents. Will Social Networks mirror “multiculturalism” where separate cultures co-exist without mixing and make it possible for “middle ground” to diverge between groups? Within such a society there is a natural de-stabilising incentive for minority extremism to actively threaten tolerance and mutual respect in the hope polarision delivers more power.

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