The process of defining social media presents conflicting roles. On one hand, carving out a definition as this phenomenon is happening carries somewhat of an ephemeral value because no one can be sure that their definition will preside for the next few years. Technology is ever-changing these days and what means something today may mean something entirely different tomorrow. On the other hand, the weight of defining this current phenomenon lands on none other than us because we currently carry the responsibility of defining and redefining the state of social media.
In order to define social media, it is crucial to examine its current state and its effect on us. It helps to look at its changes at every step of the way, rather than doing the aftermath years down the road. The definition of social media carries more weight now than ever given Jay Rosen’s generally accepted concept of the silent audience becoming an active audience who is gaining control and access to what once belonged to large organizations. If indeed the power is shifting from the “centroids” to the “edglings,” as Stowe Boyd defines them in his follow-up posts on Rosen’s article, it becomes our responsibility to define and manage what content carries what value. Not everything that is posted, commented on, and published through blogs and social media outlets is worth anyone’s time. So if this change in media control is allowing all of us to become the thinkers and publishers, who is responsible for discerning and judging the quality and worthiness of any given blog post or article? We all hold that responsibility, which inherently means that traditional patterns of judging published work changes as well.
Brian Solis in Engage! also alludes to the idea that we all have the power to change our world with today’s easily accessible forms of social media. But what kinds of benefits does this power bring? Do we seem to know how to use it abuse it? These are the questions that arise from reading the first part of his book. While Solis is correct that this “media Renaissance is transforming information distribution and human interaction,” whether this transformation is for the advancement and the good of all becomes an issue of interest. Some people will accept change with arms wide open while others will accept it with a dose of cynicism. It’s the simple truth. What becomes important then is if we will know how to react once we have a clearer picture of where social media is taking us. Solis believes that social media is part of a broader communication strategy that adapts to its people. Could he be correct in this assumption, or could we instead be the ones adapting to the power of social media?
The shift in control from the organizations to the individuals also brings into question the role of the scholar. Until now, writing has been an exquisite skill desired by many but accomplished by few. Written work gains scholarly merit from panels of professionals who are knowledgeable in those particular fields. In this sense, the people come to value well written work with influential power. With individuals gaining power through their blogs or websites, it becomes less clear who the panel of judges is, if any. This isn’t to say that those who have something to say but lack the words or skills to say it aren’t worthy of attention. It just means that more effort is needed on their part in order for good writing to maintain its value and significance.
Another aspect of the evolving topic of social media that merits attention is the issue of how social media affects how people interact online and offline. Social media can have great effects on how people manage physical and online relationships. Boyd and Hargittai’s research on Facebook privacy reflects one side of this issue. While their findings don’t directly prove how social media allows/deters online and offline relationships, it does demonstrate that from 2009 to 2010, an increasing number of young adults became engaged with managing their privacy settings on their Facebook accounts. The findings also show an increasing amount of time being spent on the website in general. This means that these individuals are becoming more aware and involved in their online social lives and using websites like Facebook to control and shape those lives. This online focus sometimes shifts other priorities like family, career and education. While Facebook may be a great way to connect indirectly to family, friends and coworkers, there is also something to be said about physical social interaction. It’s an important aspect of human relationships and we should be aware of how social media affects how we create and maintain physical relationships. The main concern then becomes how we can reach a healthy balance between online and offline relationships. We can use tools like Facebook to extend the way in which we maintain relationships, but we shouldn’t let these tools replace the much-needed physical interaction.
On a more positive note, social media can significantly alter the direction of professional organizations. In fact, it is increasingly becoming a tool for large companies and organizations to reach out to their public. Charlene Li’s introduction to the book Open Leadership gives a tasty look at the effectiveness of social media in reaching professional/humanitarian goals, when used carefully. The story of Wendy Harman’s initiative with the Red Cross proves that the mere fact that social media exists, as a tool, does not prove beneficial in itself. Rather, the degree of benefit is revealed by how we use the tool. Social media’s value appears by looking at how it is used and in turn how that use shapes and reshapes patterns of human communication. Intriguingly, Li’s case study revealed that part of what gave Wendy Harman success with the integration of her company with social media was the ability to let go. In order to succeed, they didn’t aim to control the tool. Li’s explanation of this case study reveals how crucial it is to have the right culture, mindset and leadership skills to succeed with social media use.
This example ties back to the earlier concern of an ever-increasing participatory audience. When everyone has access to forms of social media, it likely that not all will have the skills necessary, as in Wendy Harman’s case, to use social media successfully. As General David Sarnoff explained, “the products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value.” Currently, defining social media proves difficult simply because we are right in the middle of it. We don’t necessarily know how it’s affecting us physically or mentally or where it will lead us. We simply know that we are already involved in the web of social media and that it is indeed transforming the way we interact and distribute information. Social media is also affecting our oral and written communication, as can be seen by new “social language vocabulary” such as TTYL or LOL. The key to truly learning and using social media is to accept it, but with a touch of caution. Resisting from getting ahead of ourselves and being conscious of the effects of our past/current patterns of communication helps lead us in the right direction when it comes to understanding social media.