Has Social Media come of age?


One of the main characteristic of any mass media is its ability to impact the society. Be it the newspapers, television or radio, each had played its part, in terms of changing views and shaping the society.

In the recent past, there have been many news articles about the impact of social media in the civil society movements… Be it Coffee Party in America, The elections in Iran, the civil movements in Tunisia, Egypt (#Twitterrevolution) and other Arab countries...or, closer home, the Team Anna’s anti corruption movement in India…. Social media usage has become an important tactic in terms of spreading awareness and mobilizing support.

The question is - has social media come of age?

If you look at the history of mass media… it has always been associated with politics. In fact, it is referred to as “fourth estate”, the other 3 being Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. Traditional mass media was and has been controlled by a few (Just imagine, more than 90% of mass media consumed in the US is owned by just 6 media companies), and is limited by its ‘real estate’ – print area, bandwidth, or time… Mass media has always been used as a mass communication system to reach the public.

The relatively new Social Media however is built on a different model. The characteristic of social media is that it is not limited by any ‘real estate’, and more importantly is a mass communication system for the public. On the same platform, one can either broadcast or send a personal message.
There are 3 distinctive features for any mass media –

- The reach
- The information
- Influence on the people/society

The Reach:

The Internet boom took place in most countries during the mid 90’s. Majority of the social media consumers are the people who grew up with the Internet. Of the 640 Million Facebook users, more than 70% of the users are under 34 years…and close to 50% of the users under 25 years (source: checkfacebook.com). According to worldinternetstats.com, there are 2.1 Billion internet users in the world. If we assume that at-least 40% of these users are on social media, we are talking about close to 800 Million users globally. Looking at the sheer numbers, the social media surely fits into being called a mass media

The information:

Any mass media is known by the quantity and quality of information it disperses. Nobody can doubt the quantity of the information… be it a foursquare update on one’s check-in into a local bakery, or a Facebook update of a traffic jam on your way to work, or a tweet about environmental impact of discarded laptop batteries, linking to a blog or YouTube video..there are millions of such updates happening every minute, globally

But, when it comes to quality of information, most of the stuff seen in social media is found wanting. It is known fact, that ‘noise’ is the biggest factor that impacts effective flow of communication. In the traditional media, information flows from a professional few, and a lot of ‘filters’ before it is actually transmitted to the users… But in social media, the number of professionals and the reason for filters do not exist. Hence, there is a lot of information created, but very little percentage of that is of substance… It is early days of social media, but ‘filters’ for information has already begun… be it the search engine algorithms, or the social bookmarks, or user reviews… it is just a matter of time, before the perfect mouse trap in terms of social media filters is created

Influence on the society:

The influence of mass media shapes our concepts of who we are, what is important to us, and how we live our life. Majority of the social media users are the youth. Most information in the social media is created by the youth for the youth. Where as in today’s world the society is being led and shaped by people with experience. Most Decision Maker’s in our society still belong to the classic era of media, and have only adapted to social media (or for that matter, Internet) pretty late. However, the divisional lines between traditional media and social media are diffusing. It is a world of convergence media; Where-in each media feeds of the other for information seeking and broadcasting… You’ll find traditional media tweeting about their articles and liberally seeking information from other people’s tweets… so too, you will find tweets and updates based on the information the user gets from print, TV or radio.

So while, in today’s context, social media may not directly influence the society at large… it can indirectly influence the people who influence the society… (eg. the traditional media). However, as more and more internet generation people becomes decision makers…the impact of social media on the society and popular culture would become strong

So has social media truly come of age?? I’d dare say, yes. However, there are some things that social media needs to overcome to be accepted as a powerful and influential medium by all… The concentration of the users should not be skewed to few locations, there should be stronger filters to reduce the noises, and more importantly wait for few more years

Cheers

Santosh

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