Monday, April 28, 2014

Social media and Civil Society

Social media encourages one to express, its effects have infused our into common syntax- ‘selfie’, ‘slash’, “hashtag”  have become words of the year or come close to being ordained so.  It seems social media also encourages less benign emotional expressions, as well- a man’s political or religious beliefs often inspire some of the angriest conversations on the social media. At times, really perceptive parleys can take place on social media platforms, but just too often, a posted article or controversial status open up outpouring of ridicule, offense, and disdain.
Though we still remain far from the world imagined by Michael Crichton in “Disclosure” where we actually meet with people in the virtual world by using more than our keyboards, it is a fact that these virtual communities and interactions in which knitted brows and glares which are sensed and not seen - have a profound impact on our exchanges and thoughts in real life. Cyber-bullying is a great example of how social media communication has some very real effects. The worst part about cyber bullies is that they behave with even lesser sense of responsibility because of the relative anonymity and distance lent by the platform itself.
Some 73% of online adults in US now use a social networking site of some kind. Facebook is the dominant social networking platform in the number of users, but a striking number of users are now diversifying onto other platforms. Some 42% of online adults now use multiple social networking sites. In addition, Instagram users are nearly as likely as Facebook users to check in to the site on a daily basis. These are among the key findings on social networking site usage and adoption from a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Centre’s Internet Project.
McKinsey Global Institute’s July 2012 survey finds that more than 1.5 billion people around the globe have an account on a social networking site, and almost one in five online hours is spent on social networks— increasingly via mobile devices.
The use of social technologies has led to the adoption of new behaviors across social, economic and cultural spheres. All forms of social interaction from weddings, politics or just plain talk are happening over social media. New social bonds are formed and broken over social media. Earlier advice was sought from social contacts made in the real world to determine which movie to watch, which neighborhood to live in, which maid to hire- now it takes place online and often from people whom we have never met. The ‘likes’ garnered on facebook often spur us on to lose more weight or feel applauded for a culinary creation.  New authors, musicians, artists can create an overnight market for their products if they manage to catch sufficient attention online and go ‘viral’- This may have just ended up being a good thing. The huge untapped wealth of mental ability is finding new ways to collaborate and create online.
Companies too are turning to social media to gather insights about products and services people like by tapping into what consumers do and say to one another on social platforms, which provides unfiltered feedback and behavioral data (what they like and what they do not), to engage in crowdsourcing new product ideas, managing logistics, setting up supply chains and even to raise productivity of knowledge workers.  
The speed of adoption of such technologies and platforms is unprecedented and scalability is easy. The same McKinsey Report puts it that while it took commercial television 13 years to reach 50 million households and Internet service providers three years to sign their 50 millionth subscriber, it took Facebook just a year to hit 50 million users. It took Twitter nine months In May 2012; Facebook logged its 900 millionth user. It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s online population use social networks on a regular basis (now of course Facebook has over a billion users).
Perhaps the change brought about by social media is akin to that brought about by the growth of high rise buildings. For a long time, the high rises were impossible to make- technology being the limiting factor and then they discovered how to use steel in structures. Tall buildings transformed not only the physical landscape but also modified the social scene. They also brought in new problems which had to be solved like that of ‘vertical policing and fire fighting’, about finding faster ways to move people up and down the floors etc. They created new living spaces which often are now designed with the theme of ‘live, work and play’.  Similarly, social media technologies are here to stay. They will and are having an impact on how we interact with each other- they increase the interface, but reduce the face- to – face interaction, demand new social skills, change the way we look for information, think and act as also the speed with which events happen. Etiquette is being refashioned. Crimes too have now taken on a dimension of the virtual world requiring new laws, codes, jurisprudence and skills to control.

As they say, change is the only permanent thing in this world- time now to prepare for another big one.  

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