Social networking has developed rapidly since the 1970’s. Originally existing as basic file sharing networks, recent decades of globalisation, free trade, and technological revolution have moulded social media into a cornerstone of modern life.
While a handful of companies manage the data of millions of users worldwide with a disproportionate media market share, the data exchanged and distributed through these platforms set in motion a variety of political, social and economic shifts in the new millennium.
Social networking services (SNS) are websites that allow people to create profiles within a bounded network, to then communicate with other users inside that network. Users can communicate directly with one another, use in-built games and applications, create communities, and share content privately and publicly through their message-board design.
(Adapted from Hjorth & Hinton, 2013)
To start, I will argue that the skyrocketing popularity of everyday social media comes down to the interplay of several critical factors; Californian neoliberalism, American free-market values and the explosion of Silicon Valley innovation, the monopoly of a handful of media companies as owners of the data of millions worldwide, and the smartphone revolution. Second, I will argue that individuals, corporations, and democracies are both benefitting and suffering from the social media revolution, in political, economic and social domains. To conclude, I will explore the benefits and disadvantages of SNS in my daily life as a university student.
From bulletin boards to targeted News Feed ads
The advancement of modern social media traces back to 1978, with the arrival of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) (Edosomwan & Prakasan, 2011, p. 80). An early form of peer-to-peer file and message exchange services, BBS was the predecessor to the infancy of social media in the 1990s with sites such as AOL, and then later LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter in the 2000s (Edosomwan & Prakasan, 2011, p. 81).
In terms of hardware advancement, the period from the 1970s to the 2000s saw a rapid revolution of technological innovation with the birth of Microsoft and Apple computers, the growing expansion of broadband and then wireless internet technologies (Wi-Fi), and the birth of the 3G-connected smartphone through the likes of BlackBerry, the iPhone and Android. These factors allowed for a widespread adoption of social media worldwide.
A simultaneous socio-political and ideological flux can also account for the ubiquity of social media. The root of social media companies in Silicon Valley, California reflects the expanding neoliberalism of modern America, valuing the freedom of markets, expression, speech and commerce (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p. 98). This ‘contradictory’ Californian ideology now depicts the monopoly Facebook has in market dominance – where socially left-wing technology entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg value freedom of expression for social media users, but remain economically right-wing in favour of state-deregulated capitalism (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p. 98).
Marxist-orientated media critics label this modern oligopoly as exploitative and pervasive (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p. 96). When users sign up to sites such as Facebook or Twitter, they exchange personal data for network access, freely providing an ‘unpaid cognitive labour’ that gives advertising executives the analytics they need to sell products and services through targeted digital advertising (Martin & Dwyer, 2019, p. 96).
Here, an asymmetry of power and digital rights forms – as the user base grows, corporations can collect more of their data for targeted advertising. The terms of service on SNS waive the basic rights of users to privacy and content ownership, in exchange for freedom of expression and network access. This inspired new regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016.
President Twitter: Do politics and social media mix?
The 21st century is the first time in history where a Tweet or Facebook post can help determine the next leader of the free world. The Twitter-sphere, with President Trump as the quintessential Tweeting president, is a successful political tool to garner new voters and campaign donors.
In 2019, researchers analysed over 250,000 Twitter accounts and found that Trump’s Twitter campaign, that resulted in his 2016 election success, targeted highly-engaged disaffected users together, defeating Clinton’s higher levels of corporate funding (Bryden & Silverman, 2019).
Social media can also disadvantage political actors, yet provide arguable socio-political benefits for their constituents. During the Arab Spring of 2010-2012, previously silenced dissenters of Arab authoritarianism organised themselves through Twitter and Facebook, catalysing a widespread demonstration movement (Tucker, Theocharis, Roberts & Barberá, 2017, p. 46).
Moreover, the New York Times reported in 2017 that Russian operatives bought $100,000 worth of political advertisements targeting swing voters on divisive social issues.
Tweeting and Liking: good or bad for the economy?
At a societal-wide level of economics, social media provides many advantages and disadvantages.
A new study found that Facebook and Pinterest disadvantage the economy, in terms of lost productivity through social media use, the replacement of previously paid leisure items (pay-per-view television, newspapers, books), and the opportunity cost of time spent searching for information (Vitenu-Sackey, 2020, p. 233). However, social media sites encourage users to disseminate information and product knowledge, effectively providing free advertisement for companies and greater audience reach and market engagement (Vitenu-Sackey, 2020, p. 233).
A 2018 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report also found that Facebook aided economic growth in Australia by $16.8 billion through connecting Small Medium Businesses to over 120,000 new hires (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2018).
Is social media good for our social lives?
Social media inherently changes social lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated physical distancing and a limiting of everyday social gatherings, transferring what would be a regular coffee catchup into a FaceTime call or a Facebook Messenger conversation. Social media sites have successfully allowed people to stay connected during these unprecedented times.
A 2011 Australian literature review found key benefits of SNS for young people such as providing education, identity formation, promoting a sense of belong and self-esteem and facilitating supportive relationships (Collin, Rahilly, Richardson & Third, 2011, p. 7).
Alternatively, SNS can have negative psychological impacts through excessive use. Researchers from UNSW and Macquarie University found that higher Instagram use correlates with higher ‘self-objectification, through internalisation and appearance comparison to celebrities’ in young American and Australian women (Fardouly, Willburger, Vartanian, 2017, p. 1380).
How social media transforms my daily life
As a university student, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Dating apps are my kryptonite when it comes to studying and handing in assignments in on time. Social media allows me to always be ‘online’ and in contact with my friends, even if I’m alone in my bedroom. This constant accessibility allows me to be easily contactable and distractible, yet the addictive nature of online socialisation erodes my self-discipline to the impossibility of ever logging out.
Working in retail and administrative jobs on the side of my studies, I find that social media is an excellent distraction. Sometimes, when I’m processing bland payments and orders, or pushing security pin tags through new stacks of jeans, I need that jolt of cognitive and emotional stimulation that a quick tap into my Messenger app provides. But give it more than 30 seconds, or a glance from my boss that might see on my phone, and its positive benefits can quickly backflip.
Indeed, these apps are not malicious in themselves. I would argue that SNS have enriched all aspects of my life, and are a fantastic tool in general. However, too much of a good thing can be a poison. Depressive symptoms and insecurities can often creep up when I spend too much time scrolling and imagine everyone else having a better time than me at a particular point in time (read, FOMO). Putting things in perspective though, and swiping up and out on my phone screen, back into reality really helps put my feet back down on the ground.
Because sometimes, it’s better to put the phone down, and simply live in the moment.
Do I like what social media has become?
To this end, the skyrocketing of social media’s popularity in the recent decade comes to no surprise, given the previously discussed economic, technological and sociocultural revolutions. While personal data storage and privacy concerns, as well as asymmetry in digital power between corporations and user come to light through the expansion of social networking, many economic, social and political benefits and disadvantages come to result.
From the election of Donald Trump, the Arab Spring, small-medium business growth and exposure, improved relationships and declining self-esteem, it is clear that social media permeates all aspects of life in 2020. As a Generation Z digitally native university student myself, this has its pros and cons, which a healthy mediation between my online and offline lives can successfully reconcile.
Bryden, J., & Silverman, E. (2019). Underlying socio-political processes behind the 2016 US election. PLOS ONE, 14(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214854
Collin, P., Rahilly, K., Richardson, I., & Third, A. (2011). The benefits of social networking services. Retrieved from http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/511069
Edosomwan, S., Prakasan, S.K., Kouame, D., Watson, J., & Seymour, T. (2011). The history of social media and its impact on business. Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship, 16, 79-91. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303216233_The_history_of_social_media_and_its_impact_on_business
Fardouly, J., Willburger, B. K., & Vartanian, L. R. (2018). Instagram use and young women’s body image concerns and self-objectification: Testing mediational pathways. New Media & Society, 20(4), 1380-1395. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444817694499
Goel, C., & Shane, S. (2017, September 6). Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political Ads. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/
Martin, F. (2019). The Business of News Sharing. In F. Martin & T. Dwyer (Eds.), Sharing News Online: Commendary Cultures and Social Media News Ecologies. Springer International Publishing (pp. 91-127). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-17906-9
PricewaterhouseCoopers. (2018, August). Facebook Connecting Benefits Report. Retrieved from https://www.take3.org/wp-content/uploads/Facebook-Connecting-Benefits-Report-2018-featuring-Take-3-1.pdf
Tucker, J.A., Theocharis, Y., Roberts, M.E., & Barberá, P. (2017). From Liberation to Turmoil: Social Media And Democracy. Journal of Democracy, 28(4), 46-59. doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0064.
Vitenu-Sackey, Prince. (2020). The Impact of Social Media on Economic Growth: Empirical Evidence of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Pinterest. International Journal of Business, Economics and Management, 7, 222-238. https://doi.org/10.18488/journal.62.2020.74.222.238.