Social media have now permeated all aspects of life. They have become part of our interactions with family, friends, and our communities. They have been integrated with work and commerce, dating and sex, health and well-being, information gathering, and spirituality.
It is an appropriate time to reflect on the extent to which they fulfil their promise improve human interactions and community.
Because of their communicative abilities, their institutional arrangement, and the ways we use them, social media produce effects and create issues that cannot be dismissed and ignored. Contemporary events and research are revealing significant effects of social media and the issues they pose for society.
The critical issues surrounding social media use and policy efforts involve authenticity of the communication, artificiality of community, individual behavioral and cognitive issues, narcissistic and dangerous behaviors, and anonymity and anti-social behavior.
Authenticity of the communication
Concerns about two types of authenticity are raised in social media use. The first involves the genuineness of the involvement and participation in activities and events. The second involves the extent to which one’s true self and character are revealed and the influence of external influences on that revelation
Although social media allow communication, they tend to reduce participation in and authenticity of experience by imposing themselves on experiences, sometimes becoming more important the experiences themselves. Their mere use interferes with absorption of the experience, atmosphere, and emotions and the processing their meaning and significance. This limits observation, contemplation and significance of experience.
Authenticity is also challenged because much social media activity involves performance and image creation. This involves presenting an image of self that one would like others to perceived. Most social media posts show us as happy, active, enjoying life, interesting, and successful. This raises issues of whether we are who we say we are; how accurately we portray ourselves and our emotions; and if we present ourselves or who we would like to be?
Artificiality of community
Artificiality involves movement away from naturalness and originality. It involves construction of something through imitation and affectedness that is not as genuine or pure as that being contrived. There are significant issues surrounding the genuineness of social media communities that call into question its success at creating community.
Social media create a false sense of closeness and community. We may have many acquaintances on social media, but most of us have few true friends there. There are few real intimate interactions using social media.
Community is also challenged because social media separate as well as bring individual together. Rather than making us part of larger communities, social media fragment us into smaller groups. This creates communities and groups based on group and interest affinity. These narrow communities tend to produce “echo chambers” of opinions and ideas rather than exposure to diverse ideas and opinions. We don’t expose ourselves to different people and ideas. We pay attention to and hear only comfortable opinions
Individual behavioral and cognitive issues
Social media have been associated with many behavioral and cognitive issues by social science and health researchers.
Social media use is associated with reduction in physical activity and this is especially a problem among teens. This issue tends to lead to depression and weight gain
Social media use is associated with reduced attention span and Interferes with listening and learning. It promotes short attention spans to mediated content and tends to heighten attention deficit disorder.
Researchers have shown that social media can intensify existing psychological conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, addictive compulsion, narcissistic personality disorder, body dysmorphia, social anxiety, social isolation, depression, and voyeurism. Although social may not be the cause of the conditions, social media use creates conditions that makes them worse.
Narcissistic and dangerous behaviors
Social media promote narcissistic and dangerous individual behaviors. They induce and reward narcissistic exhibitionism in which individuals make themselves the center of attention, intrude on activities and events, act selfishly, and disregard the suffering of other. This is seen in photos people take and share of themselves at accidents, fires, and tragedies.
Social media can lead to risky behaviors, such as hanging from high buildings or cliffs. Their use reduces awareness of surroundings and each year thousands of people die walking into paths of vehicles, being attacked by animals they are photographing themselves with, and by using social media while driving.
Other forms of unsafe social media behavior observed include sharing too much information, trusting anonymous relationships, addictive symptoms, and sexting and sexcasting.
Anonymity and anti-social behavior
Anonymity involves being unidentifiable. When anonymity exists, it reduces the bonds of community, connections to others, and social obligations. It produces impersonality and diminishes the sense of responsibility for one’s actions.
Anonymity increases bad behavior in digital media. It releases individuals from the restraints of social norms, makes individuals more willing to make negative and outrageous statements, increases willingness to use language not normally used, and creates ability to threaten and attack without disclosure of source.
Social media thus create a hospitable and less observable environment for bullying, extortion, and stalking. Women are particularly harshly targeted online and in social media by other women and men. Their physical attributes adjudged and maligned, mental abilities denigrated, threats of violence and rape are made after they express opinions on issues, and coordinated attacks are sometimes made by multiple parties.
Social media have also become vehicles for hate speech, trolling, and threats against racial, ethnic and religious minorities and those with opinions that others disagree.
Social media create enhanced potential for manipulation and propaganda because source of information or advertisements are often uncertain or less evident and because of difficulty checking accuracy or veracity. Social media are especially problematic because they rapidly spread and repeat messages. Such repetition of misinformation or false information leads to its acceptance by large numbers of people.
Increasing policy intervention and demands
These issues and use factors are creating significant public policy challenges globally. For the most part, digital platforms are without responsibility or—in some cases—shame. Most perceive themselves as common carriers. Most don’t believe they have responsibility for, or they are uncomfortable with, determining how people use their platforms or what they say. Many social media executives have difficulty seeing or admitting the effects of their activities.
Social media thus create a conundrum involving the values of individual expression and desires for a noble social ethos, a nurturing culture, and the maintenance of social order. Demands for regulation of social media are increasingly globally, mainly because existing policies, laws and regulations are often not suited for effectively dealing with challenges and issues that social media pose.
The greatest efforts are focused on child pornography, extremist uses and posting, hate speech, and copyright violations. Germany now provides fines up to $60 million for not removing hate speech within 24 hours of notification, the U.K. is trying to establish a 2-hour take down time for extremist posting, and the U.S. Congress considering measures to control political advertising on social media.
Increasing efforts are also being made to address stalking, revenge porn, bullying, and encouragement of suicide.
There is growing social pressure for self-regulation by social media. This is being promoted as corporate social responsibility activities because uses of the platforms are increasingly important to their own reputations, share values, and avoiding regulation. Primary issues companies are trying to address are harassment and threats, portrayals of suicides and encouragement of suicide, fake news, manipulative advertising, and false accounts.
This brings us back to the question: Are social media improving human interactions and creating community?
The answer is “Yes but….”
Yes. They make it easier for individuals to communicate and create narrow communities in ways not possible in the past, but it comes at a cost....A good part of the communication is disingenuous, artificial, and socially detrimental.
Social media are relative new to society, but this is not the first time new technologies and new communication opportunities have appeared in society and posed new social issues. History has shown that it takes time for society to adjust to the transforming developments and the challenges they create. It takes time for the implications to be understood, for new institutional and economic arrangements to develop, for their values and norms to be established, and for policy and regulation to appear.
That understanding is developing and responses are underway. The overall trend for social media and the internet is now one of it becoming tamed, commercialized, and constrained. The degree to which they become so and how it will affect their abilities and effects remain to be seen, however.