Karl Marx wrote in 1944 that “alienation” was a fundamental feature of capitalism. In this postmodern late capitalism age, is social media alienating or connecting us?
Socialization, according to MacIver and Page (1950), “is the process by which social beings establish wider and profounder relationships with one another, in which they become more bound up with, and more perceptive of the personality of themselves and of others and build up the complex structure of nearer and wider association.”
Fast forward 68 years and to be ‘social’ has a whole new meaning, bound up in the digital platforms that have billions of subscribers/followers.
According to the Global Digital Report 2018 by We Are Social there are 4.021 billion internet users, 3.196 billion active social media users, and 5.135 billion mobile phone users worldwide. Extraordinary statistics considering the current world population is 7.5 billion people and includes babies and children.
With over 2.167 billion active users, Facebook easily holds the majority market share, with Google’s YouTube the second most popular platform with 1.5billion users. Again revealing Facebook’s dominance in the market, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Messenger come in next with 1.3billion users apiece, and Facebook-owned Instagram currently sits at 7th place with 800million users, and rapidly growing. (Source: Statista, most popular social networks worldwide)
On almost every metric, Facebook clearly dominate:
These social platforms have become an integral part of the lives of billions of people across the world. So, how are we using them?
Sensis comprehensive 2017 Social Media Report reveals that the predominate reason for using social media is to keep in touch with friends or family (89%), with a desire to meet new friends (30%), connect with people with the same interests (26%), almost doubling compared with the previous year.
Among people using any of these six sites – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Google+ or Instagram – their average number of friends, contacts or followers across those platforms is 469. The average proportion of friends, contacts or followers where face-to-face contact occurred in the past year was 39%, which is the same as in 2015 and 2016. So although social media is often touted as ‘anti-social’ it is proving to be an imporntatn tool in helping people stay connected and get together in real life (IRL).
The next highest reason for using social platforms is to sharing photos or videos, and in turn expanding one’s own social profile (57%). Consistent with trends around the world (globalwebindex), entertainment is high on the agenda – whether watching video (43%), playing games (34%), following celebrities and influencers (28%) and finding events (18%). We also use it to access news (37%) however while more people are engaging with news content on social media, traditional media remains a more trusted news source (82% vs 12%).
Another factor influencing our access to both news and entertainment is the increase in smartphone ownership, with 81% now preferring to use their device to access social media, as opposed to a laptop (30%) or desktop (28%). Our media consumption is being boosted dramatically because of how easy it is to access social media at any time of day from any location. Multiplying average time spent on a platform by average usage occasions during the day, week and month, Sensis have calculated that that the typical user is spending almost 10 hours per week on Facebook, and Snapchat users are on the platform for more than three hours per day.
Social media is being used to research items before purchase (most commonly electrical goods at 47% followed by furniture and homewares at 42%, and clothing and fashion items at 35%). In more than half the cases where someone researched an item online, it was subsequently purchased (52%) and most commonly via an online transaction (61%).
Social media is also used as a forum for activism, whether supporting topical issues or events or contributing to public dialogue on them. Last year Sensis reports that 39% had been active in this manner, primarily because they felt passionately about an issue and social media proved an easy way to show support. In 2017 it dropped to 19%.
But, despite incredibly granular data social media use, perhaps the more important question is why are we using them?
In his book “Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism, and Social Media“ (2017), senior lecturer in digital journalism at the University of the West of England Marcus Gilroy-Ware, critiques why we really use social media, and what this means for our understanding of culture, politics and capitalism itself.
Referencing the work of the late British writer, critic, cultural theorist, Mark Fisher, Gilroy-Ware agrees with Fisher’s social diagnosis of “depressive hedonia” which is “an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure”. They attribute this to our age of “capitalist realism” which “creates and exploits a desire for consumption, and also produces a reality from which people are trying to distract themselves”.
Arguably, this ‘consumption’ relates not just to online shopping, but the consumption of news, entertainment and social views. Gilroy-Ware sees this consumption as “compulsive” and a 2017 study by Asurion reveals just how addicted we are to our smartphones. Of the 2,000 American’s surveyed, the average person checks their phone once every 12 minutes, or 80 times a day. One in 10 check their phones on average once every four minutes, and four hours is the longest time the average person studied was prepared to go before the need to check their phone becomes too much. The survey found that separation anxiety is real. 31 percent feel regular anxiety at any point when separated from their phone and 60 percent reported experiencing occasional stress when their phone is off or out of reach.
Gilroy-Ware asks us to consider what are we compensating for when we use social media, and is it related to our current political and economic context? He postulates that social media is consumption for pleasure and emotion regulation, possibly even a panacea to the emotional distress and consumer sentiment of capitalism.
Undoubtedly, there are real and compelling benefits from our hyperconnected modern reality – whether a small business looking to engage with its target market, or as an individual looking to stay connected (however loosely) to a wider circle of family and friends, or to make new acquaintances. Equally, there are potential negative impacts ranging from addiction, cyber bullying, withdrawal from real life relationships and roles, and misinformation such as fake news and ‘echo chambers’.
As a society our technology and connectivity has grown exponentially and our ability to moderate and manage this potential has not kept in step. In the same way that we see a burgeoning health and fitness industry to help us better manage our relationship with food and exercise in the face of western excess, as a society we need to be seeking more ways to accurately moderate online behaviours, take individual responsibility, and have ways to correct any imbalances. In this way we can harness the positive aspects of social platforms and actively minimise the negative effects.
Perhaps we can create an all-encompassing App for that!