05. A01.

Cyber Cultures

‘The Network Self': How Social Media Has Changed Us

social-media

MSN, Bebo, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter: The ever expanding group of ‘Friends’

Contemporary society is in a revolutionary period. Towards the end of the last millennium and onwards, numerous advancements in technology and culture have formed multiple online networks and network societies. These networks have become so inclusive of all cultural expressions and personal experiences that they have made virtually a fundamental dimension of our reality. It is no longer impossible to communicate with friends and family around the globe instantaneously or be a part of a widespread online community centered around one particular interest. The internet has now become an extension of life itself; our methods of communication have been transformed and shaped by social networking sites, extending our real life communication and forming new ones. Everyone now has a ‘Network self’ (Castells 2011).

Social networking sites expand our ‘fluid associations with social circles’. In contrast to traditional methods of communication, often different between distinctly separated social circles, with closer friends and family at the centre and with which there is regular communication, there are acquaintances forming a larger loop with which there is less frequent communication. Social networking sites allow us to maintain a larger set of weak ties in online spaces neither “distinctly professional nor distinctly personal”. This means we possess the ability to engage with both close friends and acquaintances in the same social network simultaneously. Combining these two separate spheres of friendship and communication is largely out of our hands, our “public displays of connection” typically group into one, multi-network category, ‘friends’. Hence it is easy to question:

What does it mean, then, to be on someone’s Buddy List or to be ‘friended, in contrast to what it means to be a friend?’

Adopting multiple ‘faces’ or choosing to emphasise and/or suppress aspects of personality is something which most of us are accustomed to in everyday life. Just like in life, where we “adjust (our) behaviour to make it appropriate for a variety of different situations and a variety of audiences”, we also do online. In the original format of ‘Facebook’, there was little opportunity for users to distinguish between social circles, with every connection labelled as ‘friends’, hence all status’ and photos were displayed to everyone. The same goes for Twitter simply having a ‘follower’ and a ‘following’ list. The little difference between contemporary social circles often produces a general misunderstanding between how we relate to each other;

It is often difficult for two users who both call each other a friend to know if they are talking about the same thing.

Fono & Raynes-Goldie 2006

This perplexity of contemporary social circles is gradually becoming detrimental to traditional social circles, removing the hierarchical flow of information and replacing it with a general communicative system in which friendship ‘categories’ as such, are difficult to define. Generalization of communication doesn’t end there though – contrasting principles often arise through privatizing accounts; though some may choose to privatize theirs, you may not, and they can follow you, but you can’t follow them back.

It can be understood that contemporary identities are differing greatly from traditional identities – with greater individual power and a shift in power dynamics, identities are strong and forceful, conforming to less conventional social norms.

This challenges traditional relations as the power structure within relations is shaped, from all the individuals sharing the power, to each individual having their own personal power. If we utilize this understanding of social networking sites and apply it to Wiley’s concept of the “semiotic self” (1994) it can be understood that contemporary identities are differing greatly from traditional identities – with greater individual power and a shift in power dynamics, identities are strong and forceful, conforming to less conventional social norms.

With stronger individual identity and confusion of social spheres, how individuals relate and communicate on social networks, the freedoms granted by the internet, (permitting exploration the entirety of the world wide web in accordance to personal preference anonymously), are profoundly affected and shaped by the amount of power each individual has. Whilst for the most part, a large majority of online users explore the world wide web exploring their personal interests in their own personal spaces, a more selected and smaller group of individuals exploit online animosity to torment, tease and spread enmity, habitually quite violently, often leading to much more somber development like cyberbullying. Citing the epigraph of Oscar Wilde, “man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” (Lovink 2011).

Traditionally, negative relations between individuals were often between small groups, however the power each individual has over their own actions on social networking sites, combined with animosity, affects ‘everyday cycles of self-presentation and impression formation’. This renovation of expressing negative emotions has allowed fixed social maltreatment to reach new levels with the portability of social networks on portable technology allowing negative relations to continue in all aspects of life.

Unlike most other social networking sites, ‘Twitter’ has a large population of celebrity users with which there is little distinction between them and regular users. Individuals can easily connect to these celebrities in ways previously impossible

The exchanging of malicious sentiments between ‘friends’, regardless as to what extent individuals can be dubbed as ‘friends’ on social networking sites, is not such a great transformation in traditional relations between individuals. It is possible to see that these contemporary transformations shaping these traditions have extended from contemporary social networking sites and there are concerns over the speed with which these renovations are happening. And it is the issue of what will develop and be created from this in the future that is the primary transformation of the way in which we relate to one another and also how social networking has changed us. ‘Twitter’ is the best example of this. Unlike most other social networking sites, ‘Twitter’ has a large population of celebrity users with which there is little distinction between them and regular users. Individuals can easily connect to these celebrities in ways previously impossible, sending messages to them by simply adding ‘@’ and their username. Celebrities, on the other hand, use Twitter for a variety of different reasons:

Promoting their latest work or product, helping to raise money for charity, and communicating about their daily lives. No matter what the message, it gives fans new, different and unexpected glimpses into the lives of celebrities they love – and love to hate.

South University 2013

Problems with the site stem from its instantaneous nature; the 140 character limit combined with not enough forethought can often produce malevolent tweets which may not have been the intention. The central focus of negativity on ‘Twitter’ points towards relations between fans – fans to other fans, and fans of celebrities they love, and love to hate, with rival fans of competing celebrities becoming known to post vicious tweets to celebrities and other individuals. The issue most focused on in the press at the minute are the fans of ‘One Direction’.

These youths now shun aspects of traditional relations between people and employ technology to share their thoughts and feelings.

This ‘fandom’ often posts malicious tweets to the large majority of people that come into contact with the members of the band, whether that is magazines, partners or other celebrities. This group of fans, whilst extreme in their actions, is representative of a youth that has grown up in the contemporary childhood of being surrounded by various technology and competing new technologies. These youths now shun aspects of traditional relations between people and employ technology to share their thoughts and feelings. If the younger generation is demonstrating this type of relations online, does this give a glimpse of the future? The animosity of social networking sites is blurring the lines between private and public relations with the privacy of traditional communication fading fast.

It is human instinct to find others of our ‘kind’, those similar to us, and settle together, forming settlements which develop into communities. Likewise, the internet has spawned multiple virtual communities, often overlapping across multiple social networks. The primary difference, though, between online and real-life communities is how the members of each community communicate with one another, in such different contexts of ‘community’. Traditionally, community is often defined through key characteristics, such as living in the same place or having characteristics in common.

The solitude that individuals are often in when engaging with a social network, whether that be in their bedrooms or on the app on their phone, can taint the traditional feel of a community.

The key attribute of a community, though, is the ‘togetherness’ of the individuals that are part of it, who have principally positive frequent relations which in turn create a particular ‘je ne sai quoi’ about the community, a spirit that is something to be proud of, and is often flaunted. The online community, however, thrives from “networked individualism”, depicted by Castells’ thesis of the ‘Network Self’ as “me-centered” networks. The solitude that individuals are often in when engaging with a social network, whether that be in their bedrooms or on the app on their phone, can taint the traditional feel of a community, hence prompting the question – to what extent is an online community a ‘real’ community if it is missing such a key attribute?

Myspace, Remember that? Just before the days of Facebook, some used it a little, others a lot. The Myspace community was huge, developing swiftly and vastly and one of the sources behind this was ‘Myspace Trains’. These ‘trains’ were a way in which individuals’ could gain colossal numbers of ‘friends’, often overnight.

This worked by individuals’ becoming friends with the owner of the ‘train’, signing up and leaving their Myspace ID and the amount of friends they had. This would then be published on a post across bulletin boards other train ‘members’, encouraging them to add the individuals. This was an extremely popular tool for frequent Myspace users, often leaving them with thousands of ‘friends’ from all over the globe. At the other end of the spectrum, there are some moves against “me-centered networks” happening on a large scale, for instance the Arab Spring, (December 2010).

One could simply say that social networking has only transformed traditional relations by removing geographical limitations, allowing people from similar communities around the globe to communicate and join together without constraint.

Social networking sites were vital infrastructure in the work of the political activists in the Middle East and North Africa. The significance of social networking throughout the Arab Spring was noticed around the globe, with the success of demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia spreading like wildfire to other nations, gaining high-speed global support. Measuring the success of social networking sites in assisting global political activism demonstrates how though some may view online communities as dissimilar from tradition, lacking particular attributes and having a different ‘sense of community’, they, by and large, still fulfil the component of traditional community – that each individual’s needs are met by other individuals participating in the group/community. One could simply say that social networking has only transformed traditional relations by removing geographical limitations, allowing people from similar communities around the globe to communicate and join together without constraint.

The shrinking of the globe, as such, which is assisted by social networking sites for the most part is exceedingly valuable; it does not just create new communities in which people who struggle to categorise themselves locally can find similarities with others, but brings existing communities closer together, allowing friends and family to have instantaneous contact.

Whilst is it true that “when we change the way we communicate, we change society” it is still difficult to define exactly how these transformations have affected society. Through a positive lens, social networking is generating an extension of traditional relations. Individuals are still finding those who have similar interests to them, and creating communities, just on a much bigger scale. The shrinking of the globe, as such, which is assisted by social networking sites for the most part is exceedingly valuable; it does not just create new communities in which people who struggle to categorise themselves locally can find similarities with others, but brings existing communities closer together, allowing friends and family to have instantaneous contact. Whilst there are numerous negatives which stem from social networking sites, particularly revolving around animosity, again it can be viewed that this is an extension of tradition. Relations have always been both good and bad, and the false security of animosity granted by social networking sites allows for individuals to blur their lines of public and private relations.

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