The social in 'social media'
The so-called Web 2.0 and social media are enthusiastically embraced as enabling technologies turning alienated couch potatoes into active producers of media content. But what is actually so social about 'social media'?
A plethora of publications frames web applications such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and others as 'social media' to describe the dynamic interaction and massive participation of large audiences. However, 'social' receives here an overly positive connotation, something like 'nice people are collaborating nicely with each other in order to create nice things.'
Three aspects are remarkable about the popular framing of 'social media':
a) Claiming that users belong to a community. Drawn from the notion of collective intelligence and peer-based production, the 'social' in 'social media' receives a positive connotation as a community experience. It is perceived as a social phenomenon rather than a commercial one.
b) Claiming mediated communication equals publishing. The simple use of technology that mediates communication and facilitates interaction is presented the replacement of established media production with user generated content.
c) Claiming that these practices are specific features of the Web 2.0 and distinctive from earlier media practices online.
The commentary on Web 2.0 constitutes a 'rhetoric of community', emphasizing aspects of togetherness, equality, collective production and democratic decision making. Turning users into media producers is only one part of the promise the 'social web' bears, the other is changing the world for the better through collective efforts facilitated by 'social media' (e.g. Leadbeater 2008, Shirky 2010). Social progress is considered as collective effort achieved by simply using advanced technologies properly.
In his programmatic text We think. The power of mass-creativity, Charles Leadbeater dreams of a way to amplify the collective intelligence of the plurality of users who then, in a joint effort, provided technology is used 'wisely', could “spread democracy, promote freedom, alleviate inequality and allow us to be creative together, en mass” (2008:6). Through this repetitive positive connotation of 'social, the 'social media' acquired' a public understanding that goes beyond the original denotation of social interaction and organisation. Actual events of using Web 2.0 applications, such as during the Obama Campaign in 2008 or in response to the Iran elections of 2009 constituted a strong belief in the revolutionary potential of media technology. However, this image is mostly shaped by not telling the entire story and therefore creating media myths.
Web 2.0 platforms or 'social media' established themselves successfully as community driven platforms committed to public weal. And while the enthusiastic promoters celebrate their potential to empower passive consumers, entrepreneurs have long realized that the 'social media' users are not only yet another audience for advertising, but also a crowd of helping hands in distributing the commercial messages. A plethora of marketing oriented books promises to provide strategies on how to employ social networks for commercial success and how to boost a company's image by appearing friendlier and more committed to customers communicating through 'social media'.
Recently some critical voices are pointing out problematic aspects about Web 2.0 platforms (e.g. Lanier 2006 and 2010; Zimmer 2008, Scholz 2008; Petersen 2008; Mueller 2009; Schaefer 2009). Critical perspectives can be divided into three accounts. The free 'labour account' draws from post-marxist critique of labour in media consumption (Andrejevic 2002; Terranova 2004; Virno 2004).
The critique aims at the the unacknowledged implementation of user generated content for commercial ends (e.g. Scholz 2007a, 2007b, 2008; Petersen 2008). A joint effort in revisiting participatory culture as unpaid labour for corporate companies has been initiated by Trebor Scholz on the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity and a conference with the programmatic title 'The Internet as Playground and Factory' (Scholz 2009).
Another branch of critique emphasizes the violation of privacy in online services (e.g. Zimmer 2007, 2008; Fuchs 2009) and the power structures facilitating means of control and regulation (e.g. Galloway 2004; Chen 2006; Deibert et al. 2008; Zittrain 2008).
A third thread of criticism considers Web 2.0 platforms as emerging public spheres (Münker 2009; Schaefer 2010) and the new socio-political quality of user-producer relations in governing software applications and their users (Uricchio 2004; Kow and Nardi 2010). This is exceedingly important to consider since 'social media' platforms are indeed becoming something similar to traditional “third places” where conversations take place as much on private issues as on socio-political concerns.
In expanding the traditional private and public spaces and increasing the possibilities for socio-political organization and debate the actual social quality of online media is revealed. The function and role online platforms occupy in daily social life are still subject to negotiations between the various stakeholders ranging from common users over corporate producers and public administrations. These debates result from the technological qualities of the new media as well as from the media practices that are eventually transforming social interaction, markets and politics. Drawn from a deep-rooted idealism for participatory societies, democratic decision processes and freedom of expression expectations are formulated for potential use and regulation of the new technologies. Currently social media platforms constitute an area of conflict where platform providers and users negotiate possibilities and limits of corporate governance. While users attempt to make a difference through petitions requesting consumer rights, the platform providers seek ways of communication and negotiation in setting up policy blogs. The social in social media is recognizable in how these platforms increasingly constitute semi-public spaces and how they turn users into something similar to mini-societies while their corporate providers find themselves in the roles of governors.
Mirko Tobias Schaefer is assistant professor for new media and digital culture at Utrecht University. He is co-editor of the recently published volume Digital Material. Tracing New Media in Everyday Life (2009 Amsterdam University Press) and author of Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Industries (forthcoming at Amsterdam University Press, December 2010). www.mtschaefer.net
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