The Impacts of Social Networking: Facebook

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the so-called Web 2.0 era is undoubtedly the emergence of social networking websites. What has made this appearance all the more striking is the fact that such social network tools have essentially transcended their distinct virtual media environments, thus becoming a dominant form of communication that is effective on all social levels. One only has to refer to the stirring political events of 2011 in the Middle East, referred to by commentators as “The Arab Spring”, to understand how such networks facilitated communication between protestors and thus contributed, in the case of Egypt, to the organization of an opposition that precipitated the downfall of the Mubarak regime. The empirical data that the social-networking site Facebook now has over five hundred million accounts demonstrates the near ubiquity of this form of communication within modern life: it has simply become one of the preferred means of communicating. Accordingly, when pondering the question as to why social media should concern us, it becomes evident that the reason lies in the effect these media have on our everyday lives, as they have become omnipresent within our various communicative relationships

Certainly, in contrast to its present global impact, the origins of a social networking site such as Facebook can be considered fairly mundane. As Lampe, Ellison, and Steinfeld, note, Facebook originally was based on a structured determined “by offline social networks, initially membership in a university community.” Hence, the initial communication framework of the company intended to merely provide an online presence for already existing social formations. Yet as social networking sites grew, so did their role in forming social groups, as structure was engendered by the online community as opposed to vice versa: “the development of online interactions focuses on finding people online with whom you have a shared connection, but would not be likely to meet in an offline context.” In other words, while in its early stages a social networking site such as Facebook merely transposed existing offline communities into the digital space, the radical shift in the life of Facebook occurred when the virtual space itself formed the bedrock for the organization of social communities. Facebook essentially became a means by which to grow and develop social communities: As basic tasks all the more rely upon the digital world, so it follows that social media sites become attractive tools for the exchange of information and social experiences.

Accordingly, the continued expansion of social-networking sites now means that the digital world becomes the primary means for the establishment of social communication. Moreover, one can suggest that this is a purely democratic space, in which anyone can join the online community. The cases of the revolution in the Arab world show that the virtual space is not self-contained, but can spill out over into the real world, affecting massive change on both the political level and the lives of those who may have never even heard of such social-networking sites. The significance of social networking sites thus lies precisely in their providing of an alternative to traditional ways of structuring and maintaining social communities, and as such, as an important social force, it changes other social structures, to the extent that as Shirsky notes, “social media have become coordinating tools for nearly all of the world’s political movements.” It is therefore clear that social networking is not only relevant for those that employ this media, but rather applies to everyone in the current global age. Social media becomes a concern for everyone because it can impact the lives of all. These sites have re-defined how we communicate on all strata of our social lives.

According to this undeniable prescience of the medium, it is thus crucial to understand current state of affairs in the area. The current state of affairs can be split into two basic categories: firstly, how social media sites currently see themselves and secondly, how non-virtual social formations, such as political governments address the phenomenon of social media. In the first case, some of the important questions are as follows: what are the future technological plans endemic to the medium? Furthermore, how does a company such as Facebook continue to expand, remain relevant, and introduce novelty into the social networking arena? In the second case, how do people, companies, and organizations that find their traditional home outside of cyberspace, such as political governments, utilize and approach the medium?

As Tom Watson notes, “On Facebook, the profile is at the center of the entire experience and its ever-changing nature creates an individual’s personal news feed.” The foundation of Facebook is thus the constant influx of a news feed of information to an individual. More importantly, this is not entirely restricted to the individual’s own personal preferences, insofar as contact with others will inevitably open one up to new information. In social media, individuals are not isolated subjects, but it is rather inter-subjectivity and dialogue that shape the common living space of the social web. The current state of affairs of Facebook and other such social networking can be said to revolve around the growing inter-subjectification of the “personal newsfeed.”, making its presence ubiquitous, such that the Internet itself becomes a giant social networking experience, as opposed to a mere archive of information. At the 2010 f8 conference, experts and developers in the field targeted plans for Facebook that have been already put into place, primarily based on the notion that Facebook should be a “sprawling network of connectivity”, meaning that features of Facebook such as social-plugins, which is “essentially the Facebook’s like button, are splashed all over the Internet.” Special features which appeared firstly on Facebook are now springing up all over the Internet. This speaks to the fact that Facebook created a certain communicative framework that was highly compatible with how the Internet works, and furthermore, how the Internet should function in the future. Following the success of social media sites, the Internet browsing experience is ever more becoming a social experience itself, in which communication lines are constantly open and continually expanding.

To underscore this current state of affairs in the area, the reaction of the political realm to these developments helps clarify the latter’s extent and scope. Because the Internet experience has become all the more social, “the world’s authoritarian governments (and, and alarmingly, an increasing number of democratic ones) are trying to limit access to it”. This clearly indicates that the increasing social networking of the Internet has created a legitimate tool for contemporary social and political transformation. At the same time, social networking demonstrates a revolutionary potential, as traditional societal structures and forms of power essentially become de-stabilized by a fully democratic flow of information. As these sites make information and communication so accessible, knowledge is no longer the privilege of the few, but rather is available to the many. In this regard, the very omnipresence of social-media can be considered to be a realization of political democratic ambitions, since the promises of democracy in the “real world” become a reality within the virtual world.

In this regard, questions of the future of social media networking sties such as Facebook are inevitably tied to the way in which it impacts all levels of our social existence, and thus become a concern for everyone. It can be said that such a socializing of the Internet further breaks down the boundary between the real world and the virtual world, as this distinction will become all the more archaic. The growing popularity of sites like Facebook shows the continued demand by the public to remain inter-connected, suggesting that they are certainly not a mere fad, but a legitimate medium for social organization, incorporating private lives, public lives, social groups, businesses, and political organizations. The social media network essentially creates a new public space, in which boundaries between different segments of society become forever blurred.

 

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