Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance at Samsung’s press conference to talk about progress and promote virtual reality as ‘the most social platform’. It’s interestingly ironic having the words virtual reality and social put together in a sentence. This essay will explore the juxtaposition of being social in a virtual world.
Social scientists are concerned with how the internet contributes to the individualization of leisure time and how it reduces the time spent socializing with friends and family members (Franzen, 2003; Bargh and McKenna, 2004)
Putnam (2000) decries the authenticity of social media claiming that ties are easily broken and that most online relationships are unsubstantial. He argues that the internet has brought a pulling away from social interactions. (Peng Tai-Quan, 2011)
If we go with the picture above, it’s easy to give a quick yes and end the argument. But first, why are we so drawn to social media in the first place?
My argument is that it’s because the internet has no governance, no social obligations or restrictions for one. People aren’t escaping each other but rather societal expectations that have governed us since childhood. To an individual who grew up in an environment where humour was frowned upon, the internet will become their haven of understanding. They aspire to go where it has been unrealistic to go to: the world of imagination. In 9gag for example, majority of the posts discuss video games and sci-fi movies. These conversations in the real world have limited opportunities to take place since what is valued in real life is corporate success, family and other such things.
The internet allows us to find a community. ‘Whether its music fans creating mash-ups through Soundcloud, sports fans coming together in fantasy football games, movie fans posting fan fiction on LiveJournal, or gamers uploading Machinima to YouTube’, the internet gives us a chance to find people with common interests. (Coppa, 2014) My Facebook page may have possibly aided sociability in allowing people with a passion for food to come together.
The structure of online communities favours a one-to-many approach which serves to speak to an audience as opposed to conversing to an individual. (Johnston, 2014) In the offline world, there is limited opportunity for an individual to express their random thoughts to a large group of people. This is partly due to social dynamics where extroverts tend to dominate a social gathering. Additionally, the odds of a thought resonating within a small group of people are low. If I said something within a family dinner for example, my parents may not understand because of the age gap. Among a crowd of 100 however, which is most probable online, the odds are higher and at least 1% would relate.
Social media also appeals to the ego. It is a common fact that people love to talk about themselves. All SNS such as Facebook and Instagram create spaces for a profile which is really just a wall of trophies where we seek to showcase our best sides, our travels, clothes and political affiliations. Historically Facebook started out as FaceMash where pictures of two people were put side by side so that others could judge who was hot and who’ was not. It took off through superficiality. (Zeevy, 2013) Most SNS emphasise the me part; my thoughts, my friends and subconsciously people are trying to outdo each other and make themselves stand out.
In favour of the argument that social media helps our social lives, exists the age old point that it does so by improving speed and accessibility to people who may be far away. However, online interactions eliminate more than geographical barriers. They remove personal fears and awkward encounters. A friend request is now a click away as opposed to the heart wrenching process of going up to people and starting conversations. Flirting thankfully has also become as simple as incessantly liking someone’s Instagram photos.
Additionally, Naomi Baron (2008) argues that new media allows us to regulate our social environment in that we can wilfully ignore social interactions or create opportunities for them. We have a say in who we talk to, how frequently and what time. On the down side, it also gives the assumption that we are constantly available. (Baym, 2013)
This video summarizes the argument for social media increasing sociability: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwKpOCFiDcI
On the flip side the variety of online platforms has brought about a multiplicity of identity. Because we have the power to control how we are portrayed in different mediums, ‘digital media calls into question the very authenticity of out identities, relationships and practices’ (Sturken and Thomas 2004). How certain is a person’s online identity? As a popular meme says, ‘On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.’ The following case study exemplifies this.
Exploding Unicorn is a Twitter personality famous for live tweeting the hilarious conversations he has with his four daughters. Parents and non-parents love him for his girls’ out-of-the-world ideas and possibly the way he jokes about the failings in his life. Going under the name James Cornwell, he additionally has a web comic series, a blog named ExplodingUnicorn.com and writes for Reader’s Digest. In a radio interview however, he highlights this disconnect between the real and online world.‘People on my blog and on Twitter always tell me I should (be a stand-up comedian). No one who knows me in real life has ever said that. Clearly there is a disconnect between how I’m writing and how I talk. If you find me funny, the more disconnected you are from me. Twitter puts up the right barrier between me and the public to make sure I’m safe.’ (http://humoroutcasts.com/podcast/HORadio-7-31.mp3)
In this example he personally confesses that his real self is different from his online self. This would obviously be surprising to his hundred thousand followers and might seem like a lie to those who find him funny. He could however be lying to himself as in the words of McKenna et al 2002, we live in a time when some people feel that their ‘real self’ is expressed best online. Either way, virtual worlds bring out different identities which need a whole science to be explored.
Then there’s the argument that social media sites becoming a hub for advertisements and unoriginal content so that we’re not really interacting with human events but memes and promotions. Participation and interaction now surrounds a brand or a cause that is trying to go viral. Additionally, Facebook’s algorithm favours the popular statuses by putting what is most liked as the most likely to be seen. A person thus interacts with the hot topic of the day as opposed to the everyday events of the people they care about.
Each social media site has been repurposed as it reached maturity. Friendster is now an online hub for role playing games while Myspace emphasises on music. Facebook similarly has already shown signs of morphing into a marketing heaven where ‘each like turns into special deals for shoppers.’
Its ‘Partner’s Categories’ project allows businesses to access customer demographics and shopping habits lessening the social aspect and building the commercial one. This feature is gold as it offers personalization like no other. Companies know who to target, how to subtly show up in between the Newsfeed and how to make a friendly page that pursues a good relationship with consumers. With this in mind, the social aspect of Facebook is slightly deceptive. (Thomsen, 2014)
A study done by Peng and Zhu revealed that people are aware of the shallowness of online relationships and thus tend to mingle appropriately with both the online and offline worlds. (Peng Tai-Quan, 2011)
Another study done by PEW shows surprisingly that more people tend to use phones in social gatherings to engage as opposed to those who use their cell-phones to disengage. (Lee Rainie, 2015)
SNS effect on sociability is largely individual. However, it does not affect sociability as people still find value in real life interactions and are aware that they have to participate in such in order to maintain relationships.
Baig, E. C. (2016, February 22). Mark Zuckerberg: Virtual reality can become the most social platform. Retrieved from USAToday: http://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/baig/2016/02/21/mark-zuckerberg-vr-can-become-most-social-platform/80706338/
Baym, N. K. (2013). Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Wiley.
Coppa, F. (2014). Pop Culture, Fans and Social Media. In T. S. Jeremy Hunsinger, The Social Media Handbook (p. 78). New York: Taylor and Francis.
Johnston, A. (2014). Community and Social Media. In T. S. Jeremy Hunsinger, The Social Media Handbook (p. 25). New York: Taylor and Francis.
Lee Rainie, K. Z. (2015, August 26). American’s Views on Mobile Etiquette. Retrieved from Pewinternet: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/26/americans-views-on-mobile-etiquette/
Peng Tai-Quan, J. Z. (2011). 6 A game of win-win or win-lose? Revisiting the internet’s influence on sociability and use of traditional media. New Media and Society, 568-586.
Thomsen, M. (2014, February 8). What Will Facebook Be Like in Another 10 Years? Retrieved from complex: http://au.complex.com/pop-culture/2014/02/the-future-of-facebook
Zeevy, D. (2013, February 21). The Ultimate History of Facebook. Retrieved from socialmediatoday: http://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/ultimate-history-facebook-infographic