The emergence of social media has changed our world forever. Its presence has impacted our businesses, entertainment industry, politics, social movements, relationships and overall view of the world. Social media has eliminated communication barriers and has paved the way for people to connect, collaborate and share their opinions and creations with anyone who is willing to listen. Social media is breaking down hierarchical, regional, age and cultural boundaries by providing a communication platform that spans across the globe and reaches us all. We can now find out what we want from whomever we want, no matter where they are located on this planet. Social media enables people to effectively mobilize, rise up and speak out on issues that they consider important. Everyone now has a voice that can be heard, no matter your race, religion, color, creed, or sexual orientation. But while we mostly hear about the enrichment that social media is to our lives, some may argue that there is a significant flip side to the phenomenon as well. In this post, I would like to provide some historic context to the origins of social media and also present an overview of the two-sided argument that is present in society today with regards to how using these networks has impacted our wellbeing; positively or negatively.
Origin & Emergence of social media
Throwing it way back.
It is almost impossible to truly pin-point a starting point for social media, as it has emerged from a landscape that has gone through some incredible technological developments over a span of decades, centuries and perhaps even millenniums. I believe that the essence of social media is long-distance communication. One could consider that the earliest forms of long-distance communication date all the way back to Ancient Persia, when around 550 BC a true postal system was developed in Assyria. (Gascoigne, 2015, p.1) The system was broken down into two categories: Express Post, which carried letters of kings, ministers and top officials by men on horseback and Ordinary Post, which carried letters of government employees and ordinary people by pedestrian postmen and beasts of burden. (Tour Egypt, 2011, p.1) But while it was mind-blowing that the Persians were so far ahead of their time with regards to communicating across great distances, I would like to identify a different starting point for the journey that led us all the way to becoming the Facebook Post-liking, Tweet-favoriting and Instagram Picture-Double tapping social media users that we are today.
Straight from the Morse's mouth
Samuel Morse was an American painter and inventor who revolutionized communication by inventing a wire telegraph system based on previous European telegraphs. In order to transmit messages across telegraph wires, Morse and his partner Alfred Vail developed a code that assigned letters in the alphabet and numbers to a set of dots (short marks) and dashed (long marks) based on the frequency of use, called Morse code. (History, 2009, p.2) The marks were initially written down on a piece of paper, to then be translated back into English. But as time went on, people started to be able to understand the code simply by listening to the clicking of the receiver. Morse sent out his historic first message: “What hath God wrought!” on May 24th, 1844, and the telegraph system began to spread across America and the world to forever transform the way we communicate. Introducing the telegraph radically changed the world of journalism, how wars were fought and how money was exchanged. News or other updates no longer took weeks to be delivered by horse and carriage but could now be exchanged between telegraph stations in an instant while money could now be “wired” across great distances.
While many different technological advances and innovations began to emerge by the end of the 19th century, practically all of them were based on the foundation that was laid by the telegraph system. Even though technologies such as the telephone, fax machine and Internet surpassed and replaced the telegraph, I still consider its invention as pivotal catalyst in ushering us all in to the Digital Age.
Here comes the boom
It seems impossible in today’s day and age to consider social media and the Internet separately. But the Internet was not founded to necessarily become the driving force behind massive social platforms like it is today. The Internet had, in its humble beginnings, only a relatively small set of networks most of which had direct links to defense research or operations. Through the 1980s and 1990s the Internet grew tremendously in size and became no longer under military control. Instead, it became under civilian control and its operation would be privatized. (Abbate, 1999, 181) This meant that the network became much more accessible to the public and people were now able to truly acknowledge and embrace the possibilities and potential it offered regarding information gathering and self-expression. When the power of the Internet joined forces with a new application called the “World Wide Web”, all bets were off and our society has never been the same.
The original World Wide Web did not have an easy way to search the data on it, so new businesses began sprang up offering services that made it easier to locate information on the Web. Originally, users could only type in a URL or follow links from page to page. But then programs referred to as “search engines” hit the scene which made it possible to search for specific topics, organization on people on the Web effortlessly. (Lazonick, 2002, p. 294) The Internet became no longer merely a research tool but a popular medium as it provided a platform and application that was attractive enough to draw the masses of potential Internet users into active participation. Abbate explained, in the chapter Popularizing the Internet of Inventing the Internet how the Web “solidified the Internet’s traditions of decentralization, open architecture, and active user participation, putting in place a radically decentralized system of information sharing.” (1999, p. 217) Each individual could now become a producer as well as a consumer of content, which was one of the most pivotal advancements that handed the users more control over the way information on the Web would be presented to them. This set the stage for the arrival and era of social networks.
When looking back in history for the origin of social media as we know it today, pointing out a starting point can be very difficult and confusing. When searching for a social media platform or website with a structure like the ones that we are so accustomed to today, one has to consider SixDegrees.com as being the very first to do it.
SixDegrees.com was founded in 1997 and was the first to allow its users to create personal profiles, invite their friends, organize groups and browse through other user profiles. While the networking site did bring in millions of users, SixDegrees.com never caught on like its’ successors. The website was sold in December of 2000 after its popularity had steeply declined. A big reason for this was, in my opinion, that the accessibility to the Internet was still limited at the time, meaning that people were simply not connected and online to fully embrace the platform that SixDegrees.com was pushing. In a timespan of only 3 years after SixDegrees’s birth, the amount of worldwide internet users had quintupled and it became more and more common for people to be engaged socially online. It wasn’t until a few years later that the Internet’s infrastructure was able to catch up with the concept of social networks and the huge boom of social media occurred when platforms such as LinkedIn (2002), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and Instagram (2010) hit the scene.
Social media TODAY: Good or Bad?
Social media as we know it today is a relatively new concept and development in our lives, which is why there is so much divergence in the published research on social media usage and its effects on our wellbeing. There seems to be a rather strong divide in approaching the consequences of substantial social media usage; One half of the studies out there tends to mostly focus on the negative consequences and effects, while the other half highlights the positive impact that social media usage has on people.
Social Capital? Thumbs up!
Especially for young adults, establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with peers is important for several reasons. Besides positively helping their psychosocial development, it also functions as an important source of “income” commonly referred to as social capital. Social capital is an “elastic construct used to describe the benefits one receives from one’s relationships with other people” (Lin, 1999 as cited in Steinfield et al., 2008, p. 434) Social media allows you to re-connect with old friends and associates, make new friends, exchange ideas and use your established network to market yourself in a way to further your professional career and business prospects. Social media has empowered people to learn about diverse cultures by connecting with others all over the globe in a way that was never before possible. Several studies that were highlighted in Social Capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis (2008), by Steinfeld et. Al, highlight how social media usage positively impacted students’ lives by helping them maintain distant relationships with friends and family, spark offline conversations and also initiate new social interactions; all of which directly linked to increased social capital. Certainly, being part of social media platforms has proven to be a very powerful tool of communication and inclusion for people from all walks of life.
Not all sunshine and rainbows
While social media continues to be praised for promoting a welcoming community to people from all social, cultural and racial backgrounds, one has got to be willing to look at the other side of the coin as well. Social media’s structure has perhaps had an even more profound effect on the exclusion of people. Not being a part of “the movement” and specifically being targeted and/or excluded from such online networks has shown to be detrimental to a young adult’s mental and social wellbeing as it can lead to isolation and depression. Cyberbullying is a growing problem in society that puts children and young-adults in serious emotional and social danger. Danah Boyd explains, in It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, how “networked technologies complicate how people understand bullying. Some people believe that cyberbullying is a whole new phenomenon. Others argue that technology simply offers a new site for bullying, just as the phone did before the internet.” (2014) While lawmakers have begun to implement anti-bullying laws all over the country, cyberbullying continues to cause significant problems by being considered a “grey area” because of the difficulties and common surrounding the definition and explanation of the term. Over half of today’s adolescents state they have been bullied online and over 25 percent of adolescents state they have been bullied repeatedly through the Internet or on cell phones. However, only 1 in 10 teens will tell a parent about the bullying. (Cyberbullying statistics.org, 2014)
Sadly, some victims of cyber bullying resort to suicide to escape the embarrassment, and increased social media use has hit the scene as possible contributor to the increased suicide rates for teens between 2010 and 2015 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).
A review of 37 studies found a definite relationship between cyber bullying and suicidal ideation and behavior. (Kim YS, Leventhal B, 2008, 133-154) There are even more extreme examples of social media contributing to shocking outburst of violence. A Dutch teenager was murdered for posting “derogatory comments” about another girl on Facebook.
I believe that the impact that social media usage has on our lives can simply not be approached as black and white as most people tend to do. I stand on a middle ground, where I look at both sides and can completely identify myself with both sides of the argument: I acknowledge the incredible potential for connection, inclusion and flourishing of personal networks and social capital that social media brings to our lives. But I also recognize the dangers that lurk when you realize that such an immensely powerful tool as social media can also be used to destroy someone’s life. When I take a step back, I realize that we are really only at the dawn of the social media era and only time can tell in what ways immersing our lives into these networks has changed us; emotionally, psychologically and socially. One thing I do know for sure, regarding social media, is that we must never stop studying, analyzing and questioning it because the fact of the matter is: The emergence of social media has changed our world forever and we can never stop seeking new ways to better understand the world we live in.
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