Social networking sites have arguably revolutionized the communication. They have increased the pace, volume and boundaries of human interaction as well as changed its nature.
E-mail is a copy of postal service. Blogging is an extension of letters to the editors (and now much more). Skype quite resembles to how we converse in physical world. WhatsApp and BBM is an updated version of SMS (short messaging service). News sites are a replica of print and broadcast medias. So, here we can draw parallels between the digital services with what we already have in non-digital space. But the same can not be said about social networking sites.
Social media stands out from any other communication medium as it is not entirely personal medium, nor mass medium. Also, the information we share is not completely public, nor private. Social media is flexible. It allows users to have one-to-one conversations as well as broadcast a message to a broader audience. Users can use text, images, videos, infographics, whichever form they are comfortable with, to convey their message.
Social networking sites are new. Many people find them fairly difficult to understand, as they are unlike any other mode of communication we already have. This has created a lot of anxieties and misunderstandings in people and experts alike. What are we supposed to share on these platforms? Am I supposed to say this on Facebook or not? Should I tweet about this or not? What if my photos on Instagram are misused? These generally are the kind of questions you will see users asking themselves.
The major criticism against social networking platforms is that people only share the coolest stuff about themselves there and thus try to engineer their image. But I do not see an anomaly here. We do that in non-digital world too. More people got to know when I topped in an exam than when I failed in an another one, simply because my family and I shared the former one more. We constantly edit our lives for the consumption of the outer world and share only the narratives we prefer.
Some people complain that conversations on social media are sub-standard and superfluous. They say we are trading face-to-face interaction with virtual (their word, not mine) one. I have a major problem with this argument. Whenever people criticize social media, the essence of the criticism is based on comparison. They expect that things on social media should happen as they happen off-social media. But they can’t. You can’t have same kind of conversation with a person on Facebook as you have when you sit with that person on a couch and talk, simply because these are two drastically different modes of communication. That does not mean one is better than the other. The quality of a conversation does not depend as much on the medium as it does on the person you are talking with and what you are talking. The person I enjoy talking to the most is on WhatsApp, and not someone I meet in-person every day. We expect that social media should follow the rules of other spaces. But it can not, as its nature is different.
The other major confusion people have is about privacy. Apprehensions about your photos being misused is a very legitimate concern. But I do not understand when people want social networking sites to treat even their basic data as confidential data. Come on, our government, banks and telecom service providers already have far more sensitive data about us than these platforms will ever be able to gain.
Since social media is new, there is still a bit of anarchy or confusion about the ideal way to behave on these platforms. Before Facebook people hardly used their real names online. Now real names is a norm and if you do not use your real name or hint your real identity, people will treat you suspiciously, and suspect your motivations. The point being, norms on social networking sites are still evolving.
Social media researcher Zeynep Tufekci has written a beautiful piece in The Atlantic about social media’s small and positive role in human relationships. Social media is not evil. It is not meaningless. It is not pure entertainment either. Instead, it is just one more tool of communication, and we should treat it as just that.