Social Media and Social Change

Technical and social change are always intertwined.  The automobile at the start of the 20th century and television in the 1950s are just two examples of technology changes that dramatically changed societies and social life.  It’s important to remember that while the changes were global, the social changes varied dramatically from one society to the next. How the technology was embraced and incorporated into the dynamic changes were complex and in many cases unpredictable.  Scholarly analysis and media discussion almost invariably saw the changes from the standpoint of a few ‘central’ societies, usually in western Europe and the United States, and then generalized the impacts as global universals.

The growth of the Internet and digital reality could be said to come of age just over a decade ago, when the virtual worlds of Sims Online, World of Warcraft, Everquest and Second Life came to the public notice.  Media warned of the fears of gaming addiction. Fears were raised that huge numbers of people were losing their grip on physical reality as they became immersed in virtual reality and virtual worlds.

Scholars studied the issue, and gaming addiction eventually became a listed psychological condition.  Almost all of the current discussions and issues raised about Web 2.0, smartphones and social media were commonly discussed in 2007.  No consensus was reached, and no conclusions generated about the social issues and social changes that might result from the availability of virtual worlds and their attractions.

Looking back, a key point that was not given enough attention was paid to the fact that this phenomena was physically fixed–it was not mobile.  You needed a relatively high-end PC and the place to put it. In some societies this resulted in the growth of PCs and home online networks, while in other areas it resulted in the growth of Internet Cafes and a new social dynamic in meeting in the real world to engage in the virtual world.  Gaming became a new competitive sport, mimicking traditional sports such as pool, ping-pong and poker tournaments.

This changed in radical ways with three simultaneous technical innovations: smartphones with cameras that allowed mobile 24/7 connectivity; Web 2.0, that allowed this to exist in real time; and social media apps, which allowed people the painless ability to connect to everyone in asynchronous time simultaneously.  This was radically different from 2007 in that the older version required money and the ability to be at a particular place at a particular time.

The 2020 version removed these constraints, and allows people to live in a digital reality 24/7 that overlays their physical reality.  We all live in augmented reality now, and the social impacts are just beginning to be debated and defined. As Miller and others have noted global generalizations about the social impacts of digital reality are both naive and ethnocentric.  As as with prior technological changes, the social changes are not universal, but already vary tremendously from society to society. The constant is that major social changes are happening.

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