By Marlesha Havea (SID: 470308462)
Tutor: Kai Soh, Wednesdays 5-8pm
Social Networking Sites and Social Media have shifted the way in which individuals, groups, communicate and engage with each other. It has also been taken up by businesses in many ways, perhaps most importantly as a vessel for marketing. The power and sheer size of this new communication sphere begs the question; Are we using Social Media or are we being used by social media? Before unpacking this question, clarification is needed regarding the difference between Social Media and Social Networking Sites, who is using them and how. For the purpose of this article we will be using the following definitions provided by Social Media Today (Social Media Today, 2015):
Social Media: forms of electronic communication (as Web sites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos).
Social Networking: the creation and maintenance of personal and business relationships especially online.
So who is using them? In 2015, the United Nations reported that the world’s population was over 7.3 billion people (United Nations, 2015). According to Statista, over 2.3 billion people actively used Social Media in 2016, that’s a staggering 31% of the world’s population (Statista, 2017).
In that same year, over 79% of Australians had access to the internet and 68% of those internet users had a social media profile (Sensis, 2016). The top five Social Networking Sites in Australia are Facebook with 16 million users, YouTube with over 14 million active users, WordPress has 5.1 million users, Instagram 5 million, and Tumblr with just over 4 million (Cowling, 2017).
What does it mean to use Social Media?
An adequate answer to this question would include explorations of key concepts such as community formation, self representation, and intimate publics.
In a time where people spend almost two hours a day on Social Media, (Sensis, 2016) Social Networking Sites have become an acceptable form of establishing, maintaining, and strengthening relationships. Users are most likely to use and communicate regularly on Social Networking Sites in an attempt to strengthen their existing offline ties with friends, family and coworkers (Haythornthwaite and Wellman’s 1998). In a recent Australian study, 49% of participants said that social networking is one of the first things they check each day and this behaviour has been growing steadily since 2012 (Sensis, 2016). Just like the transition from writing letters to calling landlines to sending a text, social media is a reflection of our time and it is another platform for users to connect with their friends and family.
This American Life podcast below explores some of the reasons why people interact on social media and it’s importance to them.
At its most fundamental level, Social Networking Sites allow users to create some kind of online presence and articulate that with others (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013). It’s now a place where people can express themselves freely wherever they are, in any way they want, and whenever they want. Users also have the power to create their own online identity and carefully curate the self image they portray to others. Someone can choose to represent themselves authentically online or invent an entirely different persona. This is typified by the MTV Show Catfish which investigates online dating.
Social Media platforms have also played a vital role in recent, largely offline, social movements such as Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. Individuals from across the world are able to connect with others who share similar views on social and political issues, and create genuine bonds through their shared passion. Community formation through social media, particularly for the Black Lives Matter revolutionary civil-rights movement, allowed individuals from all across the world to bond over their collective disgust at racial inequalities as well as their common goal to correct institutional racism. Through the power of organised protests and social media, people were forced to acknowledge the inequality, racism and abuse African Americans face. The sharing of stories and footage using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media sparked national and international attention. The online movement empowered people from all across the world to stand in solidarity and show their support, organising extra-institutional protests in major cities.
Are we Being Used by Social Media?
When thinking about whether or not we’re being used by social media, the concept of digital marketing needs updating to incorporate the intricacies of online algorithms and the potential issues of only being shown information on our feed that we ‘like’.
The Facebook algorithm is complex both technically and philosophically. It allows users to grow and personalise it based on what they like, click, read, and watch. This personalisation creates a unique content bubble also known as the filter bubble for all of it’s 1.86 billion active users (Facebook, 2017). This means there is effectively a limiting of information, thoughts, and content that the algorithm determines you may not like. However, this also limits potentially new information that could challenge or broaden your worldview. For example, if during the US Presidential election of last year, your political views and therefore your engagement with content fell in line with Donald Trump, Facebook’s algorithm recognises this and reduces the number of pro Hillary Clinton posts in your feed. This further complicates the process of differentiating between genuine media generated news and the now infamous ‘fake news’. Users who express their views through active participation on social media run the risk of being left only talking to likeminded people, sharing the same content, and living their online lives inside their own personalised, algorithmic, filter bubble.
Relying on this same type of algorithms, social media is now another sphere within which we are marketed to. In 10 years, active Social Media users have grown increased from 970 million to 2.14 billion (Statista, 2017). This 45% growth has meant that marketers cannot ignore the power that online communities possess, as fertile space for their content, messaging, and products. Facebook allows businesses to target specific posts to their desired audience by using paid functions that identify users gender, age, location, workplace, relationship status, interests, and more. Unbeknownst to most users, Social Networking Sites are utilised as marketing tools for business in the same way that TV ads, radio promos, and print covers have for generations. These online platforms utilise user information to generate profit from digital marketers. This new form of business through digital marketing combined with the potential for filter bubbles presents a potential dilemma for the modern consumer around the very nature of their online activity.
Eli Pariser gives a great Ted Talk about his understanding of the ‘Filter Bubble’:
So what does all of this mean?
It’s clear that there needs to be more transparency with digital marketing and further education about filter bubbles. Although the information exists it’s not easily accessible. Facebook is becoming one of the most popular sources of news for young people (Media Insight, 2015) and Digital Influencers are the new trendsetters of the 21st century. However, as long as the internet is open source, with unrestricted access, users are able to do their own research, to fact check, and can construct their own meaning from the wealth of information that exists online.
Taking into consideration the privacy concerns, seamless digital marketing, the filter bubble, community formation through social media, and self representation, (Hinton and Hjorth, 2013) presents a strong case that Social Media is fundamentally a participative medium. Without user participation it loses its lifeblood and purpose. Whether people participating online are using Social Media for their own ends, or whether they are generating data for digital marketers, users ultimately have the choice to opt in and/or out of these platforms. So long as the user maintains their autonomy over this choice, the power lies in their hands as users of social media.
For example, in a 2015 study 32% of Australian internet users reported that they never use social media and 12% said that was because of Security or privacy concerns (Sensis, 2016). Social media depends on user participation and would cease to exist without it. At face value this places users in charge of this power dynamic, however with invisible algorithms and constant changes to data storage and privacy settings, users must be by-and-large self-informed and reminded of their agency.
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