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The Meteoric Rise Of Social Media

2013-02-19


Technological innovation tends to be of an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, nature. Computers become cheaper, faster and more powerful through the gradual improvement of existing technology. Our cars today are more fuel efficient than their predecessors a century ago, but the essential concept of the internal combustion engine remains the same. Every once in a while, however, a new technology appears that proves to be revolutionary. In the mid 20th century, it was the transistor. In the late 1980s it was the internet. Undoubtedly the greatest technological advancement in the last decade, measured in terms of its impact, has been the advent of social media. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, LinkedIn and others have drastically changed the way we interact with each other. We now live in an era where a technology created in a college dorm has the power to topple dictators in the Middle East, where social media can win a US presidential election or derail the political career of a man tapped as the next mayor of New York City. At the same time, the meteoric rise of social media in the past five or six years has raised pressing questions about its social and economic impact.

In many ways, social media has helped us to stay in contact with people whom we otherwise would rarely speak to. On its homepage, Facebook cheerfully states that it ‚??helps you connect and share with the people in your life.‚?Ě Gone are the days when we lost touch with our friends from high school and college. Facebook also has proven to be a useful organizing tool as well: a group of friends can organize a small social event, while youth activists can organize a million person march for freedom in Tahrir Square. Social media has drastically leveled the playing field in many industries, particularly music. People can easily create a Facebook page and Twitter account to promote their businesses, and musicians can share their music through YouTube, Facebook and other social networking sites without marketing budgets or distribution companies.

Yet as powerful as social networks have been in bringing us closer together, they have facilitated harmful interactions as well. Cyber-bullying is becoming more prominent as cyber-bullies, emboldened by the ease of communication social networks give and the anonymity the internet often allows, harass and malign others online. Some experts fear that social networking could exacerbate feelings of loneliness and alienation among the depressed as they see pictures and posts of others enjoying themselves splashed all over the internet. A still greater concern for most is the erosion of privacy social networking cites have hastened. In a Saturday Night Live skit, Bill Hader, portraying Wikileaks front man Julian Assange, quipped, ‚??I give private information on corporations to you for free, and I‚??m a villain. [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg gives your private information to corporations for money and he‚??s Man of the Year.‚?Ě Privacy advocates are concerned that social networking sites use personal data gathered from user activities and sell them to companies, which in turn use the information to tailor ads to the user‚??s interests. Others are concerned with the ease at which anyone can find a particular individual‚??s personal information (no doubt aided by that individual‚??s eagerness to post his or her own information online), which may lead to identity theft or jeopardize personal safety.

Other observers are wary of social media‚??s impact on human behavior and interaction. In his editorial ‚??The Twitter Trap,‚?Ě New York Times editor Bill Keller bemoans, ‚??Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans,‚?Ě and ponders ‚??whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.‚?Ě Studies show increased time spent on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media websites is inversely correlated with academic performance. Social interactions are affected, as people add hundreds and hundreds of ‚??friends‚?Ě to their social networks without any real world connection to them. For some, online interaction has taken the place of face to face meetings. Since social networks make interaction with others so easy, has the definition of ‚??friendship‚?Ě been cheapened and made more superficial?
At an economic level, there is some controversy about social media‚??s impact. Mark Zuckerberg the 21st century‚??s answer to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, has dramatically raised interest in Computer Science just at a time when the country needed more scientists and engineers in the pipeline to counteract Indian and Chinese innovation. Social media did dramatically lower promotion costs for many businesses, and created many high paying jobs for skilled programmers and computer scientists. However, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like are immensely distracting, so much so that many workplaces have banned them, citing decreased productivity. Others feel that the basic business model‚??provide the social networking service for free and raise revenue through advertisements‚??is unsustainable, and fueling a second internet bubble that will bust like the ‚??dot com‚?Ě bubble did around the turn of the millennium.

The full implications of social media are yet to be seen, as the first generation raised on it grows to maturity in the coming years. The controversy surrounding its growing role in our daily lives is perhaps a sign that it truly was the greatest advancement of the last decade. After all, agriculture, the printing press, the industrial revolution, modern electricity, the car, the television and the internet, all considered some of humanity‚??s greatest technological achievements, radically and controversially altered (and not always for the better) the way we as humans lived our lives. With all of those advancements, as with social media, the benefit or harm derived came not from their inherent nature but from ours.