Social Notworking

The proliferation of the term ‘social networking’ around the Internet and, indeed, in government policy, makes one think that it is the bees knees, the ‘must have’ of modern society. People could be forgiven for believing there isn’t much need to take notice very simply because it’s largely just a flash in the pan and the next best thing. The bottom line is that it is technology which has been the driver in this field. The technology is an evolution of computers, especially in the way different devices these days are able to communicate quickly and efficiently (but not necessarily cheaply, let it be said). Services such as Facebook, which currently commands over half of the social networking traffic and Twitter (just over ten percent) would not exist were it not for the technology of connectivity, in particular fast(ish) Internet connections. As it happens, people have only recently cottoned onto social networking in a large way as the technology has become mobile and can travel with them in handbag or pocket (or, it seems, stuck to the palm of the hand never to be relinquished). Therefore the integration of mobile phone technology with internet technology has been the major force governing the accessibility and take up of the whole world of networking.
Business of course has seen the opportunity and some airlines even provide their own social networking sites for their passengers to communicate with other like-minded passengers before their flights. Shops pronounce their special offers using social networking as do restaurants and bars. TV and radio programmes have ‘hashtags’ (a special simple to remember address used for Twitter) and presenters and MPs, or their publicity departments at least, have embraced the ability to represent themselves to an exclusive audience of interested parties. There are so many commercial and non-commercial tie-ins, one could be forgiven for wondering if not getting on the bandwagon will exclude one from something. And indeed there aren’t many initiatives around these days which don’t have some form of social networking surrounding to spread. Every EU bid I work on has to have some kind of ‘networking’ element included. Most companies have publicity departments with young and happening people in the know, if they don’t, then they have older and happening people in the know, both with several years of experience of carrying around communications technology.
In 2011 it seems that 47% of American adults use a social network. However, there are 10% of people in Great Britain who do not see themselves even having a computer or any computer device, let alone connected to the Internet. Studies are still being carried out as to how much time certain people spend ‘networking’ in this sense – but for some individuals, it is a large proportion of their waking lives – just ask any secondary school teacher.
There is a huge difference behind this revolution. Traditional publishing streams have always gone through some kind of editing process, where quality can be ascertained. However social networking does not merit such treatment. What you see is what you get. Therefore peoples’ opinions, unedited, are what appear to the whole world. In a democracy, one could argue that, slander and treason aside, the freedom of speech is a good thing. However, it does mean that there are many spoofs, teases, wild opinions, opportunistic and sick communiques also that proliferate and the individual user is left to her/his own discretionary powers whether to consume the material.
It is clear that evolution is playing the process in popularity of social networking these days. This means that people are forgetting about the technology and producing. The instantaneous nature of the publishing means there’s anything available according to need and desire. Look around and, beyond the D-rate celebs trying to make out that humdrum life is somehow special, social causes, philosophies and general streams of consciousness can be found in the mix. It is not the technology that attracts people, but what the technology combined and the interest it can generate around certain themes, ways of thinking and topics.
It should not be ignored either that isolation is one of the terrible things in our society. The use of social networking to combat isolation is perhaps one of its most powerful weapons. However, this is often used as an excuse by individuals to be anything but isolated – or even to remain physically isolated as they participate in their own virtual world. Sadly, the measure of much status on Facebook or Twitter can be made by counting the number of ‘Friends’ or ‘Followers’ respectively. Both titles suggest far more than they actually are, although some words had to be used to designate those who subscribed. It is a little alarming, though, that some people start to compare themselves with others according to the number of people tailing them, as opposed to the quality of people. Jesus only chose twelve special followers, and one of them turned out bad.
Of course whenever unregulated communication takes place there is potential for harmful malice. Incidents of cyber bullying, trolling, and abuse of privacy can take their toll on certain individuals in our society. Cases of freedom of speech getting people into trouble with employers on the Internet, expressing certain opinion or talking about someone or something or a particular organisation in a certain way are of concern. Many journalists turn to soundbites from Twitter for responses to events. Bizarrely, this way you end up with Lady Gaga being quoted when some other celebrity she will have never met dies, such is the effort made to fill column-inches.
Yet social networking is not a confined to the young. Many older adults take part in social networking, but, being more cynical and worldly-wise, usually as a means to an end. Typical example might be to socially network in order to get a walking group together and to plan outings. Self-organised clubs and groups are made easier by social networking, as mundane chores of communication can be facilitated by people with similar technology access. Stamps and phone calls can often be rationed. One thing remains clear however, that older adults do prefer to meet face-to-face. Social networking in its real form is a most important factor in well-being.
Over a decade ago, former Prime Minister Tony Blair once promised he’d get the whole adult population in the country connected within 10 years. This of course was just political rhetoric and did not happen. However there has been a surging popularity of social networking that has moved the country forwards, but it is not the only thing that matters. What Blair seemed to ignore were the processes of evolution and also the fact that one size does not fit all. Every revolution will have its detractors. Every pastime has those for and against. And some leopards will never ever change their spots.
Another thing Blair seemed to ignore, was the fact that as with anything in life, human choice as to whether to buy into the opportunity was going to prevail. The fact is to have social networking in your pocket with you at all times costs money and not everybody wants to spend the money in the same way. Adoption of the telephone took decades and decades. Adoption of television, let alone colour or digital television has taken a long time. Even then, some people decide they can do without. This is always going to be true of any service that will have some element that involves expense. Water and power are essentials in this country, but trying to create essentials out of products is always going to divide people.
Sadly glad also ignored the fact that some older people simply did not want to risk the technology knowing that eyesight will fail and deteriorating physical capability won’t make things any easier to use technology. This is why are they have to step out of a utilitarian dream that it suits the majority and therefore forget about the minority and recognise that people are individuals and their real needs will not be replaced simply by saying the technology is good. In any number of organisations I have got to know through my research, for some people there is an acceptance that evolution creates both those who grease the wheels and those who turn the wheels – not everyone uses the oil can. That’s a fundamental understanding of adult human beings.
For some people, Utopia is less rather than more and a sum of its parts.