On-demand consumerism and the rise of Social Networks

Social Networks have gained popularity by adapting to an on-demand consumer. The desire for instant consumption of media and instant gratification in general has been a growing trend in contemporary everyday life. This trend has been gathering momentum since movies, sports and television media made the transition to an demand model of distribution. Paid services such as Foxtel enabled viewers to consume what they wanted at their own leisure. This change occurred well before the rise of social media. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, irrespective of their initial intention, have converted human communication into another commodity of the on-demand paradigm. This is most evident in the everyday practices of Social Network users. People use Facebook to obtain an instant connection with their friends (Cheung et al. 2009, p. 1340). It seems that in almost every aspect of life society has elected to be always connected and adopted the trend of on-demand consumption. This has fundamentally changed the paradigm of social interaction. Social Networks have made it possible to digitise more of life and the cultural influence has been significantly greater than any previous technology advancements such as mobile phones and SMS — As Tony Chalkley suggests “the more we do online the more we do online” (Sexing Up New Media 2014). The digitisation of social interaction is unlike other media transitions into the on-demand paradigm as for the first time communication and everyday life is made persistent at a global scale via the virtual world of social media. This paper will identify and explore the phenomenon of on-demand consumerism and use critical analysis to suggest a possible answer for how social media became so popular and whether it will continue to grow.

What is on-demand consumption?

Technology over the past decade has created a more direct means of media consumption. Despite on-demand entertainment being so widely adopted it’s commonly taken for granted, quite a recent phenomenon and has yet to be the focus of academic study. There are now streaming services for almost every form of new media. For music there is iTunes, movies there is Netflix and television shows there is Foxtel and many more. There is an entire market of on-demand services competing for audience. As with any market there is a black market, collectively known as piracy, accessed via websites such as The Pirate Bay. However, this trend doesn’t stop at entertainment. The new modes of digital distribution “not only affects the economic models of the movie industry but also promotes an on-demand culture” (Tryon 2013, p. 173). This culture is now evident in almost every facet of contemporary society in the developed world. Shopping has become more immediate through the likes of eBay and online stores. The consumption of news content and the paradigm of a central news agency has been replaced with a more open and instantly accessible new media platform. This trend has also influenced the design of communication technologies such as Social Networks and more recent messaging Apps. New media is largely responsible for the relentless barrage of notifications individuals receive every day. Each notification is often received multiple times on different devices and each competing for the receivers instant attention. The over-saturation of content in the digital world is a result and reflection of the cultural desire to always be connected to an instant method of communication. Research suggests that the paradox of consumer information overload is that it’s both created and can be solved through social media technology (Pentina & Tarafdar 2014, p. 211). Often the saturation is increased through Social Networks as content that isn’t immediately available is created and shared by members of digital society. The modern on-demand consumer is both the product and the producer of new media. This self-perpetuating force is a direct service that generates more on-demand consumption.

Social interaction in an on-demand paradigm

Social interaction over the last decade has increasingly become a more direct experience through the use of new media technologies such as social networks. It could be argued that this has been growing trend in communications technology in general even prior to new media generation. However, the difference with social media is that the on-demand consumption extends beyond the physical limitations of the real world into an always connected virtual world. Social Networks have infiltrated almost every facet of everyday life within the developed world. From education to the economy there is an undocumented requirement that the individual adopt the digital world or be left behind. This makes it difficult to see a legitimate freedom of choice to participate in this brave new digital world (Cinque 2012 b, p.145). Whilst the phenomenon is widespread and present in many cultures each culture interprets it differently and some countries have attempted to reject such capitalist influences entirely. For example, China has blocked access to many Social Networks and provided its own networks with the hope that the new networks are more in line with the Chinese cultural values. Bamman et al. (2012) found that the governance over these social media networks was too extreme as the Chinese government was able to discriminate against certain political views such as the outlying provinces of Tibet and Qinghai. People in these regions are finding other methods to have their voice heard but whether anyone is listening to bring about positive change remains to be seen. The shift toward digitality of this censorship is perhaps another sign that the more we do online the more practices and culture we digitise and then we do even more online. The very fact that large organisations such as the Chinese government have implemented a measure of digital control demonstrates they recognise that Social Networks have the power to foster cultural change. Such dominant agenda setting is inevitably met with public resistance. Social Networks have also benefited activists by providing multiple methods of organisation, social interaction and digital protesting. Gerbaudo (2012, p. 96) contends that social media has enabled “a re-appropriation of public space and a reinvention of the tradition of street politics”. However, as social media continues to grow and evolve the re-appropriation may become a reinvention of social media itself. Christofides et al. (2009, p. 341) argue that “social networks, such as Facebook, are changing the nature of social relationships.” Most social groups have welcomed and adopted the social media generation of communication. However, there are valid concerns for privacy, mental health and quality of life that are contested by users and non-users alike. The attitude toward social media is subjective and formed from the unique perspective of each individual. Lull (2008, p. 96) argues that the individual has the power to control their cultural preferences and carefully choose their own experiences. In this way, social media transcends the conversation and reflects the dominant values of society.

Future of Social Network influence

Social Networks often make changes in an attempt to adapt to rising cultural trends and maintain a perceived meritocracy of the network’s own identity. However, not all networks will continue to grow as over time the social network itself becomes an identity. For example, changes made by Facebook often displaces and challenges many of its users (Wood 2014). The risk a Social Network takes in facilitating change is that the displacement becomes too great and the user will leave the network. However, not changing poses equally high risks as a stagnant network may become irrelevant to the everyday lives of its users. Perhaps the answer is that larger social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are unable to make the types of changes that small networks can to keep up with cultural trends. New networks have more freedom and are able to target smaller audiences and the degree of cultural influence from these networks is forever changing. Cheung (2011, p. 1341) concedes that more research is required for new networks and care must be taken if extrapolating findings between networks. Snapchat, Tinder and Instagram have gained popularity in their own right and through varied means. One common theme behind their growth has been to target the latest trend in society which is perhaps a dominant ideological desire for a more localised experience. This segmentation of communication channels could be seen as part of the wider evolutionary process of human communication. Our survival and cultural history has depended on constructing and navigating multiple frames of reference (Lull 2008, p. xxiii). Social Networks such as Facebook and Twitter have grown to be so popular that they are challenged with this process of reduction. To service a single purpose within the community it’s easier to start a fresh network than continue the complexity of layers and hierarchies found within the larger networks. Facebook appears to be aware of this trend with the purchase of Instagram for $1 billion (Rusli 2012) and it’s own segmentation of Facebook Messenger (Wood 2014). It would seem that the larger Social Networks are seeking to eradicate the unnecessary distractions of complex navigation in favour of an even more direct and purpose driven channel of communication.

Conclusion

Social media technology continues to fulfil the desire for a direct form of social interaction. Facebook and other Social Networks will continue in popularity as long as the dominant groups in society perceive the network to satisfy their needs and serve their agenda. Much of the public discourse surrounding social media today questions whether social media can even facilitate substantial human connection. For example, a friend posting holiday photos online is a different experience to meeting in person and having the friend tell the story. Generally “[t]he notion of ‘friendship’ or being a ‘friend’ is seemingly not the same in the online world as it is in the offline one” (Cinque 2012 b, p. 143). Critics of social media would also raise concerns of privacy for posting such photos online. Given the rising governance of social media digital surveillance and questions of who’s watching whom is becoming more and more relevant (Adam Brown, ALC201 Exploring New Media: Users, Settings, Implications, Deakin University, ALC201 Study Notes 4, 17 August 2014). These arguments certainly have merit, however, the individual has the freedom to utilise social media technology for his or her own benefit. The individual must and should take responsibility to challenge and decode their media exposure (Cinque 2012 a, p. 30). This critical thinking of social media is important as the organisations in control of Social Networks may be agenda setting or the Social Network itself may redesign the interface to void any alternative choice but for the user to accept. For example, Facebook on mobile devices recently forced the requirement for its users to download a separate Messenger App to access instant communications with friends (Wood 2014). Regardless of whether changes are made with good intention or questionable agenda setting, each design iteration and consequent reception adds a legacy element to the resulting identity of the Social Network. The future success of a Social Network is then confined to the boundaries set by the legacy of its own identity.

References

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