Is Social The New Personal?
The word ‘media’ has the ignominy of never being called by its first name. It’s always prefixed or suffixed into playing second fiddle. Evidence? Traditional media, mass media, new media, digital media, hypermedia, social media, citizen media – the list could go on with subsets. What remains common and consistent is that consumers have always accessed finished material from the media. Digital platforms have of course changed all that; the lines between content producers and consumers has blurred.
What is it about social media that drives us to contribute information and in turn become producers? Perhaps it has to do with the design interface of easy log-ins, handy read-and-respond menus and archival features that allow us to store streams of conversations. Having a ready reference to the events in a day, week and month allows us to pick and choose – curate in a way – information that we feel is relevant to a larger community beyond home.
So, don’t we have any qualms in putting up personal information on a public platform? Well, social media never took off with claims of being a strictly “public entity”. Its primary purpose was to initiate circles of friendship and network on the Internet, allowing members to share with each other what they would otherwise do via a phone call or text messages. Thus, personal information remained in a tight circle. What we don’t deliberate over is the fact that circles and communities never remain strictly closed or rigid; they contract with the loss of a member, both physically and with waning interests of some, and they expand, with new members becoming family and bringing their own circle of friends on board. It’s the leitmotif of our offline social circles, why not online?
We are at a cut-off point in history when we can clearly demarcate the line between the generation that looked at the coming of the Internet as a historical narrative, an event that occurred in their lives, versus those for whom ‘digitalia’ and ‘logging online’ is a “way of life”. This second group – perhaps those born in the mid-90s, to middle-class, educated, white-collar parents – sprouted their milk tooth as their parents set-up a yahoo account for them (fear of running out of domain names is quite valid). Their first baby steps, first birthday and first comic act in school is recorded not on photopapers stuck in decorated albums, but in the real-time archives of Picassa, Facebook, Orkut or Flickr; a life span coverage that began when their parents uploaded pregnancy pictures to videos of the hospital visit post delivery and so on from their digital cameras to the Web.
We – the digital dinosaurs and analog junkies – might constantly wonder at the ease with which the digital natives adapt to new technology, be it gadgets, apps, new platforms of expression online, a deluge of social media technology and the very language and etiquette required to traverse these disparate spaces. More than a decade ago, we had English professors lamenting the erosion of their cultured language by the worms of netspeak or sms-lingo: “Y r kidz usin short-hand?” they wondered, in full-fledged literary forums across the Western world. Today, it’s not just how we communicate that has changed; there’s a whole sub-culture involved in even accessing the lingo of the digital native. What do widgets mean? Why is an app way more cooler than an application? Since when did Facebook and Google become verbs? Until the 90s, we never used upload and download in the same sentence while talking about movies and music! Of course, this is just another factor to annotate the digital divide debate.
Does this generation realize that they are unwitting curators and historians, documenting their every waking routine and the meta-narratives of their lives?
Many of their activities – uploading photographs, sending emails, responding to posts and commenting on forums, watching videos and shopping online and simply being available in green indicator – are indicators of their personality, their hobbies and interests, their moods and nature, and gives us clues to their literacy levels, intelligence, emotional quotient, and more. Clicking links, reading news at all times, *Liking* several hundred posts (randomly), participating in a-synchronous messages in real-time (you message and don’t wait for the opposite person to respond immediately) and living a multi-tabbed existence is not only what they do but who they are.
– Nilofar Ansher
A version of this blog appeared as editorial for Links In the Chain, an online newsletter brought out by the Digital Natives project of Centre for Internet and Society. Download Volume 8 of the newsletter here.