Yesterday, we were asked to reflect upon three overarching lessons that we’ve taken away from this course. I’m really looking forward to that discussion tomorrow at Coffee Lovers, but I’m not sure that simply listing three take-aways can really do my experience complete justice. When I signed up for “Social Media Networking” I thought this course would offer a comprehensive look at how to navigate through the complexities of a social network, in order to forge better connections, and increase a friendship or professional circle. That concept, to me, seemed engaging enough… but maybe that was just the Stern student inside of me craving a better way to use LinkedIn.
Much to my surprise, and enjoyment, this class turned out to be something completely different. The questions I had about how to engage professionals via social media, or how to turn online relationships into offline social capital were certainly answered; but I was asked to consider more meaningful things as well. How exactly do you define a social network, would a graffiti wall count? Can social media be an instrument of change, the spark of a revolution? As such, when it comes down to moderating important online communication, what is the appropriate relationship between Twitter, a now publicly traded company, and the United States Government? Is Facebook changing the way that we value and quantify friendship? Along the same lines, I even wrote my final paper on how social media and widespread internet use is changing the formation of human identity; though my interest in topics such as these was always high, if it wasn’t for this class, I might have never taken the time to gather my thoughts, do some personal research, and formulate well-defined opinions of my own.
After more than three months of reading, discussion, and weekly writing on the topic, here’s what I’ve come away with. First, social media is extremely powerful. Even after considering the arguments of Gladwell, Morozov, and other contrarians, one thing is certain: social media has been able unite previously disparate groups of people, and mobilize them toward an objective. Whether it’s something as frivolous as returning a lost phone to its owner, or a more noteworthy cause like that of the Arab spring, it’s clear that social media has been a catalyst for progress. Even if social media networking is resulting in an often-unorganized sense of collective action, it’s importance as a connectivity tool cannot be discounted. Moreover, from a financial standpoint, social media collects invaluable information about each of its millions of users, and in that regard it is extremely powerful. Consider that Snapchat just turned down subsequent $3 billion and $4 billion dollar bids from Facebook and Google respectively. Clearly, the information that social media is looking to monetize holds water with larger information companies, and an educated user who knows this, alters his participation accordingly.
This image is courtesy of Flickr user _DanilloRamos
This leads me to my second takeaway point. Social media is personal. Not only in the obvious way- that these online providers are collecting petabytes of data from user uploads- but also because inappropriate online behavior can land you in hot water, even offline. The like button is considered free speech, so make sure what you like is representative of your values. A retweet is a symbolic assumption of responsibility for another user’s content, so be careful of how you use it. Online chat rooms are boundary spanning, and your anonymity under a created profile is mostly an illusion. That’s why when malicious content is posted on Internet forums, people cannot hide behind the shield of a computer screen for long; action is taken, and users are reprimanded.
This image is courtesy of Flickr user angermann
And finally, I’ve learned that the future of social media is still being written. For example, we have yet to see social media’s full impact on journalism: is it eroding the power of the industry, or simply redefining its core processes and characteristics? Social media marketing is another gray area. Does it generate a worthwhile return on investment, or is it simply an obligatory albeit profitless way of engaging users? And from a broader perspective, we are not even sure what the face of the social media industry will be in the future. Keep in mind that elegant and user-friendly sites such as Facebook, or Google+, are still competing for user attention with simpleton platforms like Reddit.
This experience challenged me to evaluate social media, a major aspect of my everyday life as a college student, within the larger cultural context of society. I’ve examined how new media technologies fit into the practices of everyday life, and the construction of social relationships, and I’ve certainly come away with three tangible takeaways. I hope this post did them justice.