It isn’t easy to wrap your mind around the global adoption of social media. The Visual Capitalist website posted a compelling infographic that shows the current use data for all of the major social media platforms. Clearly, no other technology has grown so much, so fast, and become entrenched so deeply into the global habits and patterns of human beings across the world. More than one-third of the world’s population uses smartphones, and despite the relatively young age of social media, billions of people use it for online communication, commerce, news, and information. The implications of this revolution are mind-boggling.
The Daily Me
More than 20 years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Nicholas Negroponte wrote about the rise of what he called The Daily Me: individuals bypassing traditional media outlets to choose the kind of news and information they are most interested in. With social media and today’s abilities to save, share, bookmark, and personalize online experiences, we have found ways to better focus on what is important to each of us individually—but at what price?
And individuals aren’t the only ones who are curating their experiences. Hashtags, algorithms, and other technological features, often implemented behind the scenes, are working to tailor your experiences to what they assume (based on your usage) you would most want to know.
The results of this can be stark. A study from Columbia University finds that when recommendation algorithms are used on a social network, women become less visible. Another study finds that the aggregated partner preferences on dating websites “created aggregate communities unseen by the users themselves, but no less influential for dating opportunities. …”
Stephen Davies of the University of Mary Washington studied the interaction between what sociologists refer to as homophily (the tendency of people to connect with others who share similar beliefs, characteristics, statuses, or attitudes) and accessibility. He writes, “Clearly there is a delicate interplay here, at the heart of which remains an unresolved question about what the end result of enhanced communication will be for a society. Will the expanded freedom of selection lead to people simply forming more homogeneous factions? Or will the greater exposure to more ‘remote’ parts of the society result in greater diversity of one’s social groups?” Davies believes that the second option may win out.
In 2017, a Stanford University study analyzed Airbnb users and social bias. According to a press release, “Airbnb and data suggests measures that enhance a user’s reputation, like stars or reviews, can counteract … harmful prejudices. … [S]ites that use reputational tools create a fairer and more diverse online marketplace.”
Trends in Social Media Use
The American Psychological Association (APA) recently released an in-depth study comparing digital media and legacy media (aka traditional media) use. It examines “generational/time period trends in media use in nationally representative samples of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders in the United States, 1976–2016 …” and finds the following:
Digital media use has increased considerably, with the average 12th grader in 2016 spending more than twice as much time online as in 2006, and with time online, texting, and on social media totaling to about 6 [hours] a day by 2016. Whereas only half of 12th graders visited social media sites almost every day in 2008, 82% did by 2016. At the same time, iGen adolescents in the 2010s spent significantly less time on print media, TV, or movies compared with adolescents in previous decades. The percentage of 12th graders who read a book or a magazine every day declined from 60% in the late 1970s to 16% by 2016, and 8th graders spent almost an hour less time watching TV in 2016 compared with the early 1990s. Trends were fairly uniform across gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
A recent issue of the APA journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture shows the pervasiveness of contemporary research exploring the impacts of social media. One study looks at the relationship between narcissism and social media and finds that “grandiose narcissism is positively related to … 4 indices”—“(a) time spent on social media, (b) frequency of status updates/tweets on social media, (c) number of friends/followers on social media, and (d) frequency of posting pictures of self or selfies on social media”—“although culture and social media platform significantly moderated the results.” Another study examines the self-esteem of college women, finding that “passive Facebook usage influenced the [study subjects’] internalization of societal beauty ideals, which was related inversely to [their] satisfaction with their bodies and self-esteem.”
The Telegraph details a University College London study of 11,000 children, which determines that their “time on social media could be detracting from reading and homework,” leading to concerns about basic literacy. “Figures from the millennium cohort study, which tracked children born in 2000 at ages nine months, three, five, seven, 11 and 14, found that by their teenage years children were far more likely to spend time on social media or video games after school than doing homework or reading books.”
Facebook Reigns, but Other Platforms Are Key
Pew Research Center’s “Social Media Use in 2018” report shows that the patterns of social media use vary by age: “A majority of Americans use Facebook and YouTube, but young adults are especially heavy users of Snapchat and Instagram.” Additionally, “Roughly three-quarters of the public (73%) uses more than one of the eight platforms measured in this survey, and the typical (median) American uses three of these sites. As might be expected, younger adults tend to use a greater variety of social media platforms. The median 18- to 29-year-old uses four of these platforms, but that figure drops to three among 30- to 49-year-olds, to two among 50- to 64-year-olds and to one among those 65 and older.”
The thought of giving up social media is problematic for most user groups: “[T]he share of social media users who say these platforms would be hard to give up has increased by 12 percentage points compared with a survey conducted in early 2014. But by the same token, a majority of users (59%) say it would not be hard to stop using these sites, including 29% who say it would not be hard at all to give up social media.”
The Impact of Social Media on a Free Press
A sobering Duke University report, “Assessing Local Journalism: News Deserts, Journalism Divides, and the Determinants of the Robustness of Local News,” studied “over 16,000 news stories, gathered over seven days, across 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities” and found depressingly little local news, including the following:
- Only about 17 percent of the news stories provided to a community are truly local—that is actually about or having taken place within—the municipality.
- Less than half (43 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets are original (i.e., are produced by the local media outlet).
- Just over half (56 percent) of the news stories provided to a community by local media outlets address a critical information need.
The decreasing dependence on traditional news sources in favor of the web has led to serious economic challenges for the news media. The study continues, “As news distribution and consumption have migrated online, it has been difficult for news organizations to attract the same kind of subscription revenue that they were able to attract for their print product. Attracting advertising revenues in the highly competitive online environment has proven equally difficult. Online platforms have siphoned off traditional forms of newspaper advertising such as classifieds. Social media platforms such as Facebook have proven capable of siphoning off not only national advertising dollars, but local advertising dollars as well.”
And the results aren’t indicators of a robust democracy: “Research has shown, for instance, that the demise of local newspapers leads to increases in government costs, as the absence of the governmental watchdog allows local governments to operate under less scrutiny and thus, apparently, less efficiently.”
Regulating Social Media
Consider the recent actions by social media companies concerning American radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website. No one denies the shocking content of his programs or the often extreme actions that his followers have undertaken; however, are the actions by Apple, Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube—and perhaps others—to remove his content the best or only solution?
In July, officials from Facebook, Alphabet (Google), and Twitter gave testimony to a U.S. House of Representatives panel investigating whether the companies’ filtering practices are politically motivated. Twitter’s Nick Pickles defended his company’s efforts, noting, “Our purpose is to serve the conversation, not to make value judgments on personal beliefs.” However, having the private sector responsible for monitoring the new age of communication is troublesome.
In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, authors Danielle Tomson and David Morar suggest a type of multi-stakeholder initiative: “Instead of making decisions in private isolation, companies would do better by engaging one another and their users to shape content-moderation policies in a more transparent and consistent way. We propose a deliberative body, a ‘content congress,’ where stakeholders—including companies, civil-society groups and even constituencies of end-users—could hash out best practices, air grievances, and offer rebuttals.” That way, social media companies lose their current “seemingly authoritarian power … to decide what gets removed in an opaque content-moderation process.”
The authors cite examples of collaborative organizations or standards-making groups that involve stakeholders in their decision-making. They say, “Companies would do well to be proactive by engaging each other and stakeholders in solution-making before government or courts step in. Recently, key industry players have expressed willingness to collectively discuss their content moderation practices in a more open forum. This participation is a signal of goodwill and an opportunity to create a sustainable, innovative multistakeholder body within the industry.” However, Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the European Union (EU), and other bodies may have other ideas.
In fact, TNW reports that the EU is planning to fine social media companies that take more than an hour to remove extremist content from their platforms. This follows a report from the Policy Exchange, “The New Netwar: Countering Extremism Online,” in which the authors argue that “more must be done to force jihadist content out of the mainstream. It is clear that the status quo is not working; it is time for a new approach.”
A report from the Counter Extremism Project notes that “tech companies have yet to release the details of their counter-extremism efforts for third-party review. [Facebook] promises that ‘we work every day to get better.’ But without a mechanism to truly evaluate tech’s progress, the public can only hope that these tech companies are taking the problem as seriously as they claim before the next terrorist attack.”
Social media is a major force in our lives, a juggernaut driven by human behavior and available technology, and it’s moving faster than research, legislation, or social norms can keep up. And there is little evidence that that fact will change, so buckle up.