The impact of social media

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IT has been said by many respected observers and commentators that the rapid increase in the number and variety of social media platforms in the last 20 years or so, has been the most impactful development in the entire history of human social interaction.
Whether or not one agrees with that view, there is no doubt that the fast-paced increase of the number and variety of social media platforms has significantly affected the direction of human social evolution.

As is the case with all major developments, there have been both positive and negative consequences; and, as is to be expected in the case of extremely fast change, little thought was given to the medium and long-term effects of the introduction of the new factor into human society. Caught up in the frenzy of becoming part of the new order, society has, for the most part, paid scant attention to its implications. And, it is only within the last few years that researchers have begun to grasp the magnitude of the change, and study its effects.

Unfortunately, the general propensity of humans to leap first and think later has already had profound consequences. That state of affairs is likely to continue, at least until an equilibrium state is attained; that is, the point in time at which human understanding of the effects of the fundamental change, catches up with the pace of such change. Those factors considered, Guyanese should endeavour to learn as much as possible about the issue, because social media can have major effects on our country.

According to statistics, it has been found that 2.77 billion people currently use social media, up from 2.46 billion just two years ago in 2017. As of July, 2018, Facebook had the most users with some 2,270,000 active users worldwide. You Tube follows with 1,900,000, and 1,500,000 people use WhatsApp, making that communications platform the third most popular medium. A 2018 survey by Pew Research has confirmed that Facebook and You Tube dominate the social media landscape among all demographic groups worldwide. The survey found too, that younger persons aged 18 to 24 years, use a larger number and wider variety of social media services.

Those include the photo-sharing app Instagram, video-calling platform Skype, micro-blogging site Twitter and others such as Snapchat, Linkedin, Viber, and Pinterest. Significant too, is the shifting means by which persons access the various applications.

Researchers have found that the accelerating pace of mobile-technology development has had the effect of speeding up the spread of access to such media, owing to the fact that persons can have access no matter where they may be located. With so many persons — a high fraction of the earth’s human population — using social media, there must, of course, be consequences. But, most researchers first wanted to find out why so many people decided to start using social media; what is the initial attraction or first motivation?
Scientists have found that major motivations include the desire to share entertaining content with others, the need to define themselves, to establish and nourish relationships, and to spread the word about causes that they support

. While those motivations may appear to be generally harmless, once a large number of persons became involved, interests with less than noble intentions saw the potential of the platforms to achieve their own objectives. Those factors have caused social media to evolve from being a means of keeping in touch with family and friends, to being a means to profoundly influence society in important ways.

At this point, the election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States inevitably comes to mind. The New York Times has opined that, “Trump’s [election to the presidency] is the starkest illustration yet that across the planet, social networks are helping to fundamentally rewire human society.” The Times noted too, that this rewiring is possible because human communication has become incredibly easy, thereby, among other factors, allowing marginal groups, and extremist organisations to reach and influence larger numbers of people.

As was stated, researchers are only just now beginning to observe, study, understand, quantify, and analyse the effects of the new phenomenon. Their initial findings, though necessarily incomplete, and possibly less that totally accurate, are interesting for at least two reasons: (1) the introduction of social media has impacted virtually all aspects of human life, including the social, economic, scientific, medical, inter-personal, and behavioural facets, and; (2) researchers and analysts are remarkably in agreement with each other with regard to effects, both positive and negative.

Experts have discovered that the introduction of social media into the human milieu has had, and continues to have major effects. Another study by Pew Research has found that some 18 per cent of people get their news exclusively from social media, and that fraction is increasing. The result is that social media are now the determining factor in worldwide electoral politics, choice of brands in business, and other important human decisions.
One example of how social media has changed human behaviour was discovered by a study by the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business. The study found that persons were less inclined to donate money to charitable causes about which they care, if they had the opportunity to “Like” posts about the charitable cause. In other words, they were substituting likes for actual, substantive donations that could make a real difference. Evidently, such change of behaviour can hurt charities and other similar organisations that depend on donations.

Social media have changed almost everything. Cyberbullying is a growing problem, with 23 per cent of teenaged respondents reporting having experienced such incidents, according to a survey done by the University of Alberta. A study done by CareerBuilder found that 60 per cent of employers check job applicants’ social media pages before making a decision about hiring. Pearson Learning Solutions reported a dramatic shift by students towards relying on social media reviews before deciding to enrol in courses. Persons have met people whom they later married, and others have divorced spouses as a result of matters discovered via social media. Clearly, social media have changed everything.

While there are many reports of negative experiences as a result of social media, there are also numerous positive ones. Guyanese are smart people; we should endeavour to take advantage of the positives and do our best to mitigate the possibilities of the negative. To that end, individuals have a responsibility to stay informed, organisations should be aware of the issues, and government is urged to conceptualise and implement policies that will benefit all citizens. In that way, we can learn from the mistakes of more developed countries, avoid the pitfalls, while, at the same time, making good use of lessons learned.