Social Media Is Not Social

On: September 30, 2010
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About Joris Pekel
I’m a MA. New Media student at the University of Amsterdam. In november 2009 I graduated as a bachelor theater, film and televisionstudies at the University of Utrecht. After that I started an internship at Kennisland where I worked on a project called Images for the Future. My main interests go to: Social media and how they can or can’t be useful, online copyright, Creative Commons and privacy issues. Other than that I’m an improv-theater actor and music lover (check out my famous Dutch eclectic-farmerband “Skitterend Mooi!”)

Last week I saw this TEDx presentation by David Armano. In this inspring 16 minutes he talks about how social media itself, is not social. Armano says that it is the people itself that are social. It is time for us to look beyond the technology of social media and to focus on the social needs that human beings have.
This talk got me thinking about how ‘social’ social media actually is. Is it really just the people and is the technology redundant? I think that is not that simple to just focus on the users itself and not to study the technology that they are using. After all, it is the technology of a social medium that allows people to express their social needs. Moreover, the social media encourage people to be social and to share their lives and thoughts with their family, friends, or the entire world. Without the social networks like Facebook and sites like Blogger, it would not be possible for all these social people to share. And without the people that want to share, social networks would not exist. The techology is after all just an empty platform that needs to be filled by users. Without it, it is pointless and nobody will use a social network when there aren’t any people there to be social with, as we see now happening with Google Buzz.

When we want to study the question of how ‘social’ social media are, we find a chicken or egg dilemma. Does the needs of the people that want to be social, lead to new social media technologies? Or does the existence of the technologies create new ways of how people interact with each other? It is interesting to study these questions.
Last century there has been a lot of discussion about this subject. Media-theorist Marshall McLuhan was one of the first that said that the content of the medium is not important. The medium itself is the message. By this, he meant that it is not important how we make use of media, the fact that there is a new technology changes society. In the case of social media this would mean that the technology of the social networks, that allows us to make contact and share our thoughts on a global scale anywhere and anytime we want, changes the way we think about time and location. On the other side of this technological deterministic view of McLuhan, is the anthropologist Raymond Williams. For him, the content is one of the most important parts of the media. It is not about the technology of the medium, but how we make use of it. He disagrees with the view of McLuhan that technology itself changes society, it is the need of people that create new media. So in relation to social media, people wanted to be social on a global scale in the first place and therefore the social networks were created.

To get back to the presentation of David Armano, he gives numerous examples on why social media are not social, but the people. He focuses on the situation of a family that is about to get evicted from their house. Armano posts on his blog about this family and asks his readers to help them. Within a few days there is enough money to pay of their debt and get them out of trouble. Because of this Armano believes that it is the people that are social, not the media. This particular example made me think of two things concerning the relationship of technology and social users. First of all, I think that he overlooks the fact that he could reach all these people because of the technology of the social media he uses. Without his blog, that he has for a couple of years and is well read, he would never have reached so many people to share the situation that this family is in. With a few lines typed and a click of a button, he reached hundreds of people, people that themselves were also active on social networks and could share the story of Armano by one click of a button, in the end reaching thousands of people that wanted to help this family. On the other hand, technology itself would never been able to realise this without the people using it. Like I said before, social networks are useless without users. The fact that Armano has been an active blogger for years resulted in the fact that hundreds of people started following his thoughts, because they think Armano writes interesting stuff Every time Armano writes a new article or makes a new comment, people will notice. Armano created his own social network around him which allowed his followers to act social. So in this case, technology is less important.

When we want to study the question of how social, social media is more thoroughly, the thoughts of McLuhan and Williams are a good starting point. Both academics have been praised and criticized for their thoughts and a lot has been written since them. Although I think it is impossible to give a clear answer on how social, social media is, this sure could lead to some interesting conclusions.

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