Bubble Deflated, Social Media Will Now Change the World

The article I have chosen to write about is entitled Bubble Deflated, Social Media Will Now Change the World, written by designer and Forbes contributor Chunka Mui. The article is mainly about the authors opinions on how the onset of social media has been changing the way people communicate. According to Mr. Mui, society in general has overestimated the effects of technology in the short term, yet underestimate it in the long term. With regards to the overestimation in the short term, he brings up the initial “exuberance and now the collapse of stocks like Zynga, Groupon, and Facebook.” When it comes to long-term effects however, Mr. Mui argues that society is greatly underestimating the degree to which technologies of social media have been transforming the nature of commerce, communication, collaboration, entertainment and media. He goes so far as to label this underestimation of effects as “harder to pin down, but even more dangerous.” Even just by looking at the article title, it is apparent that Mr. Mui writes from a very technological determinist point of view. According to Nancy Baym, “technological determinism is conceptualized as an external agent that ads upon and changes society the technology is conceptualized as an external agent that ads upon and changes society, entering societies as active forces of change that humans have little power to resist” (Baym 25). Mr. Mui, I’m sure, would very much agree with that definition. In one of his responses to a readers comment at the end of the article, he writes, “I think that social media is, however, an important change agent towards the style of communication that you espouse. As Neil Postman wrote, ‘the medium is the metaphor.’ In other words, technology dictates the kinds of conversations that can be carried over them.”  Mr. Mui has no doubt that social media will change communication, collaboration, commerce, and media at a dangerous pace – he says it is inevitable and already underway. The question for him, then, becomes: Who will harness social media most effectively to do so? Those who choose to ignore social media, he writes, will inevitably be “relegated to the trash bin pictured in the snide graphic in Saturday’s Times.”

In my opinion, all technological innovation, including the onset of social media, should be approached with a skeptical attitude. I recently watched an interview of the great American media critic and NYU Professor Neil Postman addressing this particular point in his discussion of the “Faustian Bargain” of technology. This concept revolves around the idea that all significant technological innovations are a kind of Faustian bargain (deal with the Devil) in that they both give and take away. It is clear that many people around the world (especially Americans) have become experts in pinpointing exactly what these new technologies will give us. People in general are only interested in what technology will give them, and not so much what it will take away: We have become experts at identifying what problems a new technology would solve, yet we never ask ourselves what new problems will arise because of it. Postman believes that society is destined for a catastrophe if we continue to remain unaware of the consequences of improving of our existing technologies. He also believes that it is vital to consider those who will benefit (the winners), and those who will degenerate (the losers), because of new technology like social media. In fact, the tech-savvy media consumers who thought they would be the winners often ended up on the losing end, without ever even knowing it. Unfortunately, one such group who may have been negatively affected by social media is children.

During the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, childhood was established as a distinct stage in a person’s life that prepared him for adulthood. This preparation came in the form of keeping certain so-called “secrets” from the children, and then revealing these secrets sequentially in “psychologically assimilatable stages.” These secrets, whether sexual, political, or medical, would be revealed to children gradually, when they were thought to be “of age.” Finally, when a person knew all the secrets, he or she would be deemed an adult. Postman points out that in the age of print, this method of hiding and gradually revealing secrets was still possible, for parents and teachers could prevent children from reading certain things. With the coming of the Internet and social media, however, this was no longer the case. The new forms of media make available the total content of the adult world to children. There is no way of controlling the content to which children have access to on the Internet. The great Marshall McLuhan once said, “The personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology,” or more bluntly stated, “The medium is the message.”

The next logical question to ask would be: So what do we do about it? There is no easy answer to this question. The worst thing we could do, in my opinion, is to prohibit children from using social media of all sorts. This would do more harm than good, as the child would be completely “out of the loop,” and looked down upon by his/her peers. Banning a child from using social media would hinder their social development, and basically make that child look “weird” amongst their peers. The answer to this question probably lies in the only other form of mass media that is capable of addressing children: our schools. Perhaps it is the school’s responsibility to educate children on how to distance themselves from social media before it can become detrimental to their well-being. Just like we do in our class, perhaps rather than using social media to control education, schools should use education to control social media.  Children should be taught about the nature of the social media and technology that they so blindly depend upon. Teachers too, should be educated in media literacy. If these questions are not brought up in schools, and children are not taught about how technology shapes their consciousness, they run the risk of being entirely controlled by their means of communication.

Neil Postman and Chunka Mai both stress the importance of asking the right questions when it comes to addressing something as influential as social media. From the scholarly work we’ve read thus far, I think Judith Donath poses the best questions in her paper on Sociable Media – “The network’s ability to connect us with more and more people may be infinite, but our attention is not.  Are these large numbers of weaker ties replacing or supplementing stronger ties?   Are we replacing stronger ties with a greater number of weaker ties?  If the former, social theories suggest that we may be moving to a world where people have greater access to ideas, information, and opportunists, due to the wider range of people with whom they are in contact, but also to a world where social support is weaker and people’s sense of responsibility for each other is diminished.” Like Chunka Mai and the rest of these scholars, I too hope that people will stop underestimating the effect of social media on society and instead are able to harness it to its full potential.

Baym, Nancy K. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010. Print.

Alex Topchishvili

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