Social media: Globalized material culture

Social-media-culturesA growing number of people around the world are participating in online social media platforms, where floods of information are eroding barriers once imposed by national borders, religious convictions and governmental pressures. Nearly 4 out of 5 active Internet users visit online social networks and blogs, according to Nielsen (2011a). In business transactions, purchase decisions today rely more on consumer ratings and reviews than company sales pitches (Nielsen, 2011b). People are collaborating online about issues ranging from spending a dollar to the enforcement of policies. While sharing opinions in virtual venues, they’re rewriting definitions for socially acceptable beliefs, principles and activities. Mankind is distilling a kaleidoscope of data, discarding some elements, while debating and merging others. Controversial topics in online communities often explore concepts relevant to all of humanity, thereby programming minds with instructions formulated from a collective conscious. Social media is a participatory technology that’s rapidly consuming data, mixing ideas and homogenizing cultures.

The amount of digital information accessible to online communities is expected to reach 35 trillion gigabytes by 2020, as digital convergence sweeps across all major forms of media, capturing voice, television, radio and print (Rosenberger 2010). The social spheres are acquiring, creating, updating and reorganizing an astonishing amount of data. Networked activities are filling databases with documents ranging from two-byte text files to multi-gigabyte multimedia presentations, as well as explanations of personal associations, group sentiments and historical perspectives. Facebook, the social-networking website consuming most of America’s online time (Nielsen 2011a), accounts for more than 30 percent of the Internet’s upstream peak period traffic in North America — the area’s largest share of bandwidth consumption (Sandvine 2011). Facebook is hosting more than 800 million users who, on average, upload more than 250 million photos per day (2011). Twitter’s more than 100 million users post more than 200 million Tweets per day (2011); YouTube users upload 48 hours of video every minute and view 3 billion hours of video every month (2011); LinkedIn’s business-centric network connects more than 135 million professionals and two million companies around the world (2011). These domains and other participatory websites are collecting a seemingly endless source of research possibilities for consumer marketers, social scientists and other data miners. Frequent user influxes are sustaining a consistent stream of international interactions, which are forming the foundation of culture, online.

In a review of intercultural cooperation, Hofstede, Hofstede & Minkov defined culture as “always a collective phenomenon, because it is at least partly shared with people who live or lived within the same social environment” — it’s “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others” (2010). Social media is a technical platform that’s reprogramming populations through global perspectives. Web programming, government regulations, plain-folk propaganda and public stigmas serve to either re-enforce or obstruct a homogenization of cultures. As with any struggling culture, leaders must ascend to preserve it and provide direction. Individuals are needed to navigate the networks through hardships and distractions, while grooming the groups to aggressively defend their rights to organize and protest. Shneiderman, Preece and Pirolli call their model for evolving online social groups the “Reader-to-Leader Framework” (2011):

This [Reader-to-Leader Framework] describes how some of the large numbers of readers mature into contributors who offer user-generated content such as videos, photos, reviews and ratings. A smaller segment becomes intensely involved in collaborative groups who discuss substantive changes and expansions of content. Finally, a small group of leaders emerge to set policies, deal with attacks, resolve disputes and mentor newcomers. (p.35)

Online communities are connected by information technologies, typically the Internet. The motivation behind each participant’s desire to transition from online reader to contributor to collaborator to leader — and back-and-forth between roles — remains somewhat vague. A significant driver could rest in mankind’s passion to conquer its environment, which requires cooperative efforts to improve tools. People around the world are leading initiatives to tackle adverse political and economical conditions. Social media may offer them a new system for hope. When it comes to pushing technical plateaus to solve problems, we’re prone to proceed forcefully, sometimes on impulse, especially when it’s a matter of life or death. After nuclear weapon research progressed in the United States, it inadvertently started an era of grave concerns in global disputes. But even when incomplete moral assessments or undeveloped infrastructure delays a population’s technical progress, another population or generation may proceed with contradictory standards or advanced abilities. Eventually, a technology resumes toward inevitability, and then finds itself released for user refinement. Social media has evolved to improve the sharing of casual updates, as well as advance demands for public accountability and equalized rights to resources. The net result of local adaptations is a global gain.

Kobayashi (2010) attempted to qualify the online blending of beliefs by measuring its offline effect. His research examined the offline democratic potential of online communities by investigating an online gaming environment in Japan. The results revealed that acceptance to online diversity causally enhance offline social tolerance. He suggests that online communities are bridging social capital by gathering heterogeneous populations in shared contexts: “Despite some differences from traditional voluntary associations, such as lack of face-to-face communication, online communities can be considered voluntary associations in that they are based on shared interests and concerns that facilitate collective communication” (p. 547), moreover “social tolerance nourished through collective communication among heterogeneous members online spills over into tolerance toward a broader range of people offline” (p. 562).

Until recently, mankind’s material culture mostly changed as the result of adaptations to ambient environments. But today, we have globalized technologies, tools that spin through a cycle of innovation and constantly alter world cultures. One nation initiates a concept, and then another reinvents it — together they perfect the original idea for all of mankind. In other words, ingenuity forged in foreign lands are extending perceptions, snowballing ideas down a mountain of needs. The tools are refined within a variety of contexts, and then continue to influence regions worldwide. U.S. citizens re-enforce social equalities and civil rights, concepts they’ve transferred to the World Wide Web by encouraging the online democratization of public information. Mark Zuckerburg transformed his dorm room Web service in Massachusetts into a global network capable of facilitating meaningful connects for millions of people: Facebook (Grossman 2010). The former Harvard student was ultimately announced “Time” magazine’s Person of the Year in 2010, a position routinely held by influential figures, ever since aviator Charles Lindberg’s portrait graced the cover for 1927 (2011).

Zuckerburg’s tool, an extension of his democratic republic, wound up in places where people had never considered such a platform. Social media innovations have seared in necessities over thousands of miles. Local environments have compelled additional technical advances for improved integrations, such as multilingual translations and additional support for mobile networks. As online social-networking software resonated in societies trampled by oppression, people chose to leverage them to launch and organize revolts. When physical places for public debates became nonexistent or suddenly closed down, people started creating virtual spaces on the Internet. In a report covering changes in information infrastructure, Howard and Hussain highlight that social media conversations about revolution have preceded major real world events (2011), suggesting the Internet had “allowed for content to be hosted on servers beyond the control of state censors and it afforded anonymity to those who advanced political critique” (p. 20). Feeling the pressure of social media against organized crime, Mexican gangsters murdered and disemboweled two people in September for their online activities, and then hung a sign on their bodies to warn others about their disclosures (Castillo 2011). As the government battled street protests threatening to topple President Hosni Mubarak in January (Richtel 2011), nearly 90 percent of Egypt’s Internet access was shut down, according to network monitoring service BGPmon (2011).

Transparency International, a global network of agencies fighting corruption for nearly 20 years, broadly defines “governance” as “the relationships between leaders, public institutions and citizens, including the processes by which they make and implement decisions.” They define the practice of “good governance” as “participatory, accountable, transparent, efficient, responsive and inclusive, respecting the rule of law and minimizing opportunities for corruption” (2009, p. 22). The agency advocates the use of national integrity systems that provide a holistic approach in analyzing the extent and causes of corruption (p. 27). These systems periodically review the checks and balances and institutional pillars that form a society. For example, in Romania, government officials must disclose on a public website their financial positions and property holdings, including deposits, claims, bonds and other boosts in income and gifts resulting from protocol activities (The Right to Information 2011a). In India, a 2002 Supreme Court judgment requires the Election Commission to upload on its website details of movable and immovable assets owned by electoral candidates, their spouses and three dependents, including their liabilities (The Right to Information 2011b). U.S. President Barack Obama ordered agencies in November to expand their use of digital-based record-keeping systems, “so the American public can have access to clear and accurate information about the decisions and actions of the federal government.” (Office of the Press Secretary 2011).

Participatory media has evolved into a front-line information source that excites activism, while forming a powerful national integrity system.

Before the Arab Spring — a wave of demonstrations and protests in the Arab World — Transparency International warned of the region’s deeply engrained nepotism, bribery and patronage. They warned these problems were so entrenched in people’s lives that existing anti-corruption laws had little impact. Eliminating corruption would require a modification in culture. A report in November from Al Jazeera, a leading Qatar-based Arab news organization, implied that “social media powered up the Arab Spring and has created a new space for how history will remember its events,” citing a digital trail of Twitter updates, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, Wikipedia pages and blogs (Parvaz 2011). Transparency International has noted a new political era unfolding in the Arab world, while announcing their 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index — rating New Zealand first, followed by Finland and Denmark. Cobus de Swardt, Transparency International managing director, said “2011 saw the movement for greater transparency take on irresistible momentum, as citizens around the world demand accountability from their governments. High-scoring countries show that over time efforts to improve transparency can, if sustained, be successful and benefit their people” (Transparency International 2011). Participatory media has evolved into a front-line information source that excites activism, while forming a powerful national integrity system.

Time_Magazine_Cover_2011_POY“Time” magazine forecasted the upcoming power of participatory media in 2006, while announcing “you” as the publication’s Person of the Year in 2006 (Time 2011). The associated article explained that a popular theory had been beaten: “that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species” (Grossman 2006). The author suggested “an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding, not politician to politician, great man to great man, but citizen to citizen, person to person.” The edition’s cover depicted a computer monitor with a reflective screen, allowing readers to see their own image. The publication congratulated contributions to Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, discussion forums and review sites, as well as advances in open source operating systems. The magazine later declared 2011 the year of “the Protester” and highlighted how the Arab Spring had toppled dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, while disturbing regimes in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain (Stengel 2011). Moreover, Mexicans rose up against drug cartels, Greeks marched against unaccountable leaders, Americans occupied public spaces to protest income inequality and Russians battled a corrupt autocracy. Through it all, online social networks kept protesters “alive and connected,” according to the cover story. Protestors were honored “for capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century.”

Social media has transcended borders by accepting participants based only on their common desires to create, inform and be informed. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council (2011), “by enabling individuals to exchange information and ideas instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders, the Internet allows access to information and knowledge that was previously unattainable. This, in turn, contributes to the discovery of the truth and progress of society as a whole” (p. 7). Social media has given the public a prominent voice that cannot be silenced. Blocking it is akin to admitting dirty secrets and evil deviancy — those who try to stop this momentum immediately appear unjustly autocratic and irresponsible. Organizations are finding public transparency is the best policy. In today’s media landscape, those who reach the public first, speak loudest. Furthermore, once information has echoed through online communities, its impact is difficult to reverse or retract.

Participatory media is arguably the most noteworthy change in human communications since the inception of the printing press in the 15th century. And the barrier to entry is relatively simple: a computer terminal with an Internet-ready modem and connectivity. Social media is not a tool reserved for the elite; it’s a globalized material culture of and for mankind.

Works Cited

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