Rain makes the flowers grow, unless it becomes a flood that destroys the garden. Fire keeps us warm, unless it burns down the house. Good and bad, yin and yang—it’s hard to find one without the other, especially during times of great change. So, it is with social media in an era when users enjoy friendships and support, learning and exchanging ideas anywhere, any time. But from another perspective, users reveal intimate details and personal information on sites and applications owned and operated by some of the richest people on the planet. Will forces now at work build social media dedicated to serving as a mutually-beneficial beneficial global community, or push and pull users into a newly imagined social web?
Tufekci observed that “when social media platforms emerged in the mid-2000s the “networked public sphere”–the burgeoning civic space online that had been developed mostly through blogs–expanded greatly, but with a simultaneous shift to commercial spaces”. Future users may decide to shift back to the public sphere; increasing commercialism and the mounting reports of tracking, hacking, and cyberthreats may chill social media users’ enthusiasm for commercial sites. Alternatively, users might see these winds of change as a natural part of the weather—and similarly out of their control—so continue with their sharing activities on social media sites?
To dig into these questions, we will distinguish between social media and the social web. Social media can be defined as: “commercially-owned online platforms or applications that allow for interactions between users who can create, archive and retrieve user-generated content. Social media allows users to define and create groups, lists or circles of “friends” or “followers” who have access to content and can participate in dialogue.”
I use the term social web, to describe a broader universe of digital places where we communicate and exchange ideas including blogs, wikis, 1-1 email or newsletters, photo- and video-sharing sites, chat and messaging tools, virtual social or game worlds, collaborative document tools, etc. Social web spaces can be enabled by commercial services or applications, just as writing electronically is enabled by word processing software. However, as defined here, social web applications or services do not collect or sell users’ data, monitor or use algorithms to promote content, or conduct surveillance on content creators or visitors. By these definitions, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest are social media sites while a public blog created with WordPress, or a members-only wiki created for a collaborative team in WikiSpaces would be examples of the social web.
Here we will focus on three forces that might affect whether users will choose to use social media or social web sites: the desire to connect and network, the ability to engage with minimal levels of digital literacy, and profit or control motives.
1 Connect and Network
Users go online post content we have created, to read what others have posted and learn, exchange ideas, and network. We go online for personal or social reasons: we want to communicate with local and distant friends and family, and to make new acquaintances who share our interests. We go online for professional reasons, to fulfill job functions, or to promote our products and services. Self-disclosure in IT-mediated communication enables people to promote effective communication and to establish a close relationship, so is an expected part of the goings-on with social media.
2 Function Based on Digital Literacy Levels and the Technographic Ladder
Ease of use is a critical factor in wide-spread online participation. In the early days, users had to learn HTML in order to create a website, and some level of digital literacy was needed to navigate the fledgling Internet. Social media sites now make it painless for technophobes to join in. The Technographic Ladder devised by Li and Bernoff provides a useful way to differentiate the ways people engage online, from “spectators” who read and watch, to “joiners” who maintain profiles and are members of friendship networks or groups, “critics” who rate and review, “conversationalists” who chat and post, to at the top level the “creators” who generate substantial content and post it online.
It can be argued that all of these steps are simple to carry out on social media sites. However, while it is feasible to be a creator on social media sites, formats, length or post, and other restrictions are in place. On the social web, creators are more free to develop the kind of site, blog, or community they want, but they will need to acquire more sophisticated digital literacy skills to do so.
3 Track and Sell
Commercial social media sites make money by collecting and selling users data to other parties, and by selling advertising that appears on the pages of users who exhibit particular characteristics. In simplest terms, the companies profit while users get free access to the social media sites. The friendlier the culture of the social media site, the less inhibited users become in giving detailed personal information to company and its advertisers.
Companies and governments go online to follow and monetize consumer behaviour. Companies go online to try out messages and gain feedback on products. Governments and political entities go online to influence citizens’ attitudes and choices. They conduct surveillance and monitor citizens’ online actions, creating profiles based on patterns of behaviours including the types of opinions they voice and “like”. These profiles are used to target advertising and political messages.
While the European Union and some countries aim to protect users’ privacy, few legal or regulatory restrictions consistently protect users across the globe. Hartzog points out that rather than preventing companies or other entities from collecting or using data collected online, they are required to provide notice of their activities. However, such agreements are typically extremely long and overly complex. Since they offer users two options, to either agree or do not participate, most readers abandon reading these agreements altogether and just click through.
These three forces are inter-related and point to a driving question apropos to the future of social media is: IF future users want to connect online, will the commercial harvesting of their data, government surveillance, and unwanted negative messages change current posting behaviours? If so, many other questions are germane. Will future users either self-monitor to avoid giving social media companies as much personal information? Or will users move away from commercial social media sites and take the time and effort needed to participate in the social web? Will we see a new digital divide, with savvy users migrating to other types of online spaces or finding ways to protect their identities and data, while those with lower levels of digital literacy unwittingly put themselves at risk?
Social Web Blogs and Social Media: A Comparison
To think ahead, let’s compare and contrast current options. Bloggers can choose from a number of free or paid platforms where they can devise their own, adapt or use available templates. Bloggers can create a wide variety of formats and styles of presentation. Some are very basic with simple narrative posts and others are complex with design features that include media, static pages and time-sensitive posts. Bloggers can elect to generate revenue with advertising and other promotions.
Freedom has a price. The would-be blogger has to evaluate and choose among options and make design decisions. The blogger also needs to determine ways to reach the desired network, and set up comment features to invite feedback or to interact with readers.
This flexibility stands in contrast to posts made to social media sites, where the user registers or logs in, and follows simple steps in order to type in or upload messages. Social media companies have determined ways to make a profit from genres of user-generated material and are thus invested in allowing certain kinds of posts. Brands are built on the sites’ graphic design and features—which everyone must follow. Users of sites like Facebook can be surprised to login and find that their pages’ layout has changed; they do not control the arrangement of the wall or feed. They are accustomed to seeing advertising on their walls, as well as links to other content the company has decided is of interest to users who fit the demographic profile of the user and friends.
Doing it all- design and community-building- can be overwhelming to the most dedicated blogger. They might employ a hybrid approach: use social media to interact with others and use their blogs to present more substantial writings and other expressions. They create posts that link to the blog, where they can present information in the way they prefer.
|Flexible formats and options for presenting narrative material of any length, attachments for download, graphics, photographs and/or media.
|Format options determined by commercial owner of site.
|Communication features determined by blogger, using free, open access plug-ins and software or professionally designed templates.
|Features and design options determined by commercial owner of site.
|Bloggers use analytic tools to track visitors and learn what content is most appealing.
|Social media sites collect detailed data from visitors, which is used by the company, and also sold to other entities.
|Advertising determined by the blogger, who collects the revenue.
|Advertising determined by the commercial site, and the site collects the revenue.
|The blogger chooses what content to promote and what links to share.
|Commercial owner of site uses data analytics to select content and links aligned with visitors’ interests.
Table 1: Blogs and social media
Questions for Researchers to Explore
If future social media users decide they want more freedom and flexibility, as well as more control over data mining and tracking, undoubtedly, new forms will emerge beyond the blogs and websites we know today. What will the social web look like? “Platform co-ops” offer one way to disrupt the ownership designs: users co-own and govern the platform.
While more empirical research is needed to examine these questions and the complex interrelationships, some studies are looking at users’ willingness to trade-off between the easy, ubiquitous presence of social media and concerns about privacy and negative behaviours of other users. Choi’s study of college-age students found that while they were concerned about privacy, those fears were countered by the enjoyment of the close friendships that were nurtured by ongoing communication. The researchers surmised that students felt that to maintain a close relationship, and develop better interpersonal relationships, sharing personal information regarding daily lives was fundamental to their social media experience.
Janet Salmons is an independent researcher, writer, instructor and consultant. Her eclectic, inter-disciplinary interests include various facets of collaboration, leadership and ethics in a digital world.