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From Newsroom to Newsfeed: How Social Media is Giving Us The Control

written by Andrew Ehrenberg

Social media has irreversibly changed the way human beings relate to one another. Common social media interactions such as ‘share’, ‘like’, and ‘comment’ have become an established part of our shared global vernacular. In addition, many individuals have used social media to expand their breadth of personal expression. In a world of asynchronous editing, gargantuan networks communicating in real time, and global exposure previously unknown to mankind, we now have the ability craft movements, stories, and personalities with almost unlimited control. Social media, as an issue, has been incredibly polarizing. Some people completely rely on it, while others look upon it scornfully. On both ends, there are abundant and diverse evidence, opinions, and arguments. I believe that social media possesses an incredible amount of potential and that some of its best qualities have already manifested. Many critics claim that social media is corrupt, antisocial, and unproductive. If one looks at social media solely as an extension of the superficial social scene, this argument may have some validity. I, however, believe that the world-changing initiatives only made possible by social media have established solidarity amongst the persecuted, brought relief to the devastated, and healed the sick. Social media is changing the world through giving us the power to share at a global scale.

Through seamless connectivity across massive populations, social media democratizes participation by giving a voice to consumers. Although one individual’s words may not possess the digital power of another’s, the cooperative strength of many ordinary users can effectively impact the status quo. Yochai Benkler references Platform Cooperativism, which, in his words, is “an effort to learn the lessons of the last quarter century of cooperation and apply them to challenges of exploitation in capitalism both old and new.” (Benkler, 2016) By using social media as a platform for cooperation, we put ourselves in a better position to eliminate social ills, cope with government surveillance, and accumulate influence as a collective. Among new social innovations, New School professor Trebor Scholz focused on “The Sharing Economy” and how it is beginning to completely change the way we cooperate and interact. Peer-to-peer services have evolved rapidly over the past few decade. (Scholz, 2015) Crowdsourced forums like Wikipedia and Reddit have changed the way we access information, and the news and opinion sharing culture on mainstream social media has only added to it. Individual contractor companies such as Uber and Airbnb offer us quick access to housing, transportation, and other integral resources. This takes advantage of a prevailing cultural paradigm which Scholz describes; “millennials don’t have an interest in worldly possessions, they just want to access stuff when they need it.” (Scholz, 2015) I am a millennial, and this, in my opinion, is a somewhat fair indictment. A large portion of my generation, myself included, would rather have quick access to something rather than own it, especially if it bears heavy financial burden (namely, a car or house). More importantly, this system works because platform cooperativism reinforces it. As Scholz puts it, “this is the end of the road for the shady used car salesman, the incompetent plumber, or wanting electrician. Now, “real-life profiles” on LinkedIn and Facebook, connected to these emerging platforms, introduce novel checks and balances.” (Scholz, 2015) We now have more than just access, we also have a open system of verification. Consumer feedback has expanded far beyond a simple module.

Today, a large portion of transactions get reviewed by the buyer, often through their personal social media accounts. This tells not only the company, but also their personal network, the nature of their experience. This, in effect, is a cooperative measure in which a consumer can report their satisfaction, indifference, or frustration to the hundreds, thousands, or millions of people that follow their account. The novel concept of mass shareability makes our opinion visible at an unprecedented scale. Much of the sharing economy’s potential is yet to be unlocked. Benkler recognizes this and issues an imperative: “Learn from the experiences of online cooperation to design better more sustainable cooperatives of work online to allow producers and consumers to grab control over the platforms that allow us to pursue our life plans. With this new model of cooperation, we can create a way of life that is both productive but also more embedded in actual social and ethical values.” (Benkler, 2016) By identifying the weaknesses of the current system and focusing on its ability to unify us, we can make the most of the ecosystem we have created. We already have transformative tools, so we, as human beings, now the responsibility to maximize their value.

The optimal media landscape is not only one that supports information sharing, but also one that promotes widespread conversation about locally and globally relevant events, and we are well on our way to achieving this. As Clay Shirky puts it, “media is increasingly less just a source of information, and it is increasingly more a site of coordination, because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well.” (Shirky, 2012) Social media broadcasts conversations regarding live events in real time. Whether it was the attack in Orlando, Brexit, or Johnny Manziel’s latest failed return to the NFL, some pocket (or many pockets) of the internet will be having a profound debate about it. In essence, our social media landscape can serve as a global viewing party, where thousands of different conversations are happening in every room. Even when these conversations are on the metaphorical outskirts of the property, they can still find a more prominent voice if the message catches on. To illustrate an example of this, Shirky referenced a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. After a 7.9 on the Richter Scale, a light buzz began taking shape on the Chinese social network, QQ. Eventually, the news made its way onto Twitter and other global networks, and a new campaign for relief and justice in Sichuan proliferated. Within hours, the earthquake was the top story on several major social sites. Within days, we learned that corrupt Sichuan officials were bribed to build school buildings contrary to legal codes, which led to fierce protesting in the streets of Sichuan. The protests were so large and implacable that the government decided to run protests into the group and arrest large numbers of protesters. (Shirky, 2012) Investigative journalism has now become a duty of the people, not just media, and with amateur reporting on the rise, “The Great Firewall of China,” among other despotic nations, is faced with the decision to continue regulating the monstrosity of social media, or shut down entire networks completely. This widespread surge of platform cooperativism and citizen journalism is slowly moving our cultural control center out of our news and media rooms and into our personal news feeds. In addition, our social networks are often able to capture the stories that our mainstream media misses.

Due to ruthless political agendas and highly limited bandwidth, important news stories are often left out of corporate news plans, often in favor of less critical, but more entertaining, information. While CNN covers Donald Trump’s latest slew of controversial executive orders, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are revealing what’s going on in the streets of American cities. Even outside of the election cycle, news conglomerates are endlessly in search of the best content. By ‘best content’, I do not mean the most important. I am talking about the stories that reel in the ratings. From a 7-car accident on I-87 to a local dalmatian with a functioning third eye, journalists serially identify stories that will be profitable for their network, regardless of social importance. While millions of women were openly orchestrating a march on Washington D.C. to protest the Trump administration’s ideological threat to abortion rights, fair wages, same sex marriage, and more, the negligible number of cover stories ran by mainstream news networks was quite surprising. Ultimately, despite the Washington Post being the march’s sole mainstream propagator, women from all over the country and world flocked to Washington D.C, ultimately producing the largest march in American history. During a Washington Post interview with Virginia Commonwealth Associate Professor of Journalism Marcus Messner, he asserted that “the event demonstrated that “organizers don’t need media coverage anymore to reach large audiences and turn out large crowds for protests when people are passionate about issues and connect via social media.” (Farhi, 2017) Individuals and large groups are making their voices heard at a global scale through leveraging the public social media domain, and they have done it without the help of the mainstream media.

In my SI 110 lecture, Professor Lampe spoke briefly regarding Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 YouTube Film and its ephemeral rise to social prominence. (Lampe, 2017) This, in my opinion, is a strong example of how social media is able to capture large, global collectives. As an early advocate of Invisible Children’s founders, I got the opportunity to witness Laren Poole and Jason Russell execute their vision from the ground up. Since the early 2000’s, Invisible Children has accumulated a large and loyal following, but could have never predicted that social media would carry them to over 100 million global viewers. Using YouTube’s video platform and the power their social media following, Invisible Children was able to make millions aware of an afflicted people and one of the world’s cruelest criminals. Through just these examples, I think it is evident that social media does make us more connected in, at least, some ways. Yet, I believe social media’s influence goes far beyond being a global whistleblower; it also plays an integral role towards shaping our everyday lives.

While social media is not (yet) an all-encompassing global equalizer, its diverse resources and platforms have begun availing new opportunities to deprived communities. In regions that lack proper schooling, government, upbringing, and/or capital, access to the internet may be their only hope for a better life. With educational resources from introductory reading and writing modules to college-level coursework to seemingly infinite catalogs of facts and how-tos, the internet essentially offers more than we could process in many, many lifetimes. With the ability to interface with people all over the world by way of social networks, isolated communities now can access valuable resources from all over the world in real time. In a UCL study about social media’s relationship with education, countries in all 4 hemispheres were examined to determine how this relationship varies cross-culturally. In Brazil, for example, “with limited access to formal schooling, many people turn to social media, and particularly YouTube videos, as an important source of education.” (UCL, 2016) While not all countries view digital technology this opportunistically, this is a strong example of how social media can fuel learning without any formal schooling. In a world largely connected through mediated communication platforms, I believe that social media can begin leveling the playing field through a global faith in the power of connectivity and a desire to continue sharing.

With social media’s sharing power, journalism has been able to reach its most prolific audience with as little as a smartphone. The ability to disseminate important information instantaneously has streamlined the process of revealing truth. Journalism Professor at University of Melbourne Andrea Carson noted, “unique to the digital age, this can be achieved with tools as simple as a mobile phone and internet connection. Social media platforms are useful too, to distribute stories beyond the territories that oppress them” (Carson, 2017) Instantaneous connection allows oppressed communities’ voices to escape their localized vacuum. Once the cruel plight of a people is captured by social media, these groups can gain access to aid and resources that were not previously available. Looking back on Shirky’s example of social media’s impact on the earthquake, and parliamentary corruption, in Sichuan, it was clear that platforms like Facebook and Twitter became a principal tool in salvaging the community. (Shirky, 2012) The power to send a message to a global audience and rapidly receive responses is revolutionary.

Lastly, social media has been successful in establishing solidarity amongst marginalized groups. Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Women’s march all had one key thing in common: they all used social media coordination to form a unified front to make their voices heard to their respective communities and community officials. These movements also all happened to challenge institutionalized injustices in the American system. In a recent edition of Allure Magazine, a piece was ran about how social media is shaping the beauty industry in a novel way. The American beauty industry is known to be significantly kinder to fairer skin tones, so the beauty of dark-skinned women often goes unappreciated. Through Twitter trends like #blackgirlmagic and online campaigns for swatches for underrepresented complexions, (Dirshe, 2016) black women can turn to social media as a source of empowerment. In order for things in the beauty industry to really change, there needs to be more black women on the runway, but establishing an appreciation of black beauty throughout media culture is a step in the right direction.

Since its inception, mediated communication has slowly weaved its way into our social fabric. Today, most of us are prisoners to our smartphones. For many, the first and last moments of the day are routinely spent doing things like watching NowThis on Facebook or scouring Reddit for the best Pepe meme. While a small proportion of total internet interactions are truly meaningful, the platforms that allow and inspire users to take action make all the difference. Social media is changing the world. In the short term, we will struggle to adjust to a hyperconnected digital ecosystem. We fret losing touch with the physical world, we are wary of internet privacy policies, and we use social media carelessly and belligerently. Yet, when social media is used to promote prosocial agendas, the power of its impact is clearly demonstrated. Due to the burden of human nature, a utopian social media environment seems implausible. However, industry leaders like Mark Zuckerberg are making the integrity of social media a top priority. As fake news continues to alter public opinion, possessing media literacy is paramount. While Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and the rest of Silicon Valley are building the tools create bigger and better social media solutions, perhaps it is our responsibility to make media literacy the norm. We should know the difference between real and fake news without the infrastructure filtering it out for us. Like it or not, social media is not going anywhere. With its ever increasing influence and constant innovation, there is almost no doubt that the social media landscape will be significantly altered in the near future. Nonetheless, social media has impacted millions of lives, saved millions more, and created a global sharing platform. As the lines of communication open wider, I believe that social media will play an increasingly influential role in our everyday lives. With these tools, humanity has the responsibility to use them wisely, and this choice will likely determine the ultimate fate of social media.

Works Cited

Vimeo. Yochai Benkler at Platform Cooperativism, Yochai Benkler, N.p., Jan. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Scholz, Trebor. “Platform Cooperativism vs. the Sharing Economy.” Medium. N.p., 12 Aug. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Shirky, Clay. “Transcript of “How social media can make history”.” Clay Shirky: How social media can make history | TED Talk Subtitles and Transcript | TED.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Lampe, Clifford. “SI 110: Social Media.” MI, Ann Arbor. Jan. 2017. Lecture.

“For some people social media does not detract from education — it is education.” For some people social media does not detract from education — it is education. N.p., 29 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Farhi, Paul. “How mainstream media missed the march that social media turned into a phenomenon.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 22 Jan. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Carson, Andrea. “How investigative journalists are using social media to uncover the truth.” The Conversation. N.p., 07 Feb. 2017. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.

Dirshe, Siraad. “More Than Just Hashtags: How Social Media Is Changing the Beauty Industry.” Allure Magazine. N.p., 01 Aug. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.