Information and communication technology has seen a lot of changes and advancements since the year 2000, key among them being the development of social media as a societal influencer. The fast development of mobile technology has played a key role in shaping the impact of social media, particularly the speed and scale with which it’s used for interacting and sharing information. This is evidenced by the 2015 KPCB Internet trends report, which shows that the use of mobile phones for accessing digital media is higher than the use of computers and laptops.
A look at why people share information is perhaps the best place to begin when trying to understand the effects of social networking on people and societies. The New York Times consumer insight group conducted a survey among 2500 online sharers and among the motivations that participants cited for sharing included: participation, for interaction, passing information, making an impact and demonstrating individual values.
These very reasons have propelled social networks from being used merely as tools for keeping in touch with friends and family to being used to shape politics, business, world culture, education, careers, innovation and much more.
Below is a look at how and to what extent the impact of social media can be felt by individuals and social groups:
Research shows that the importance social media in political campaigns has increased tremendously over the years in comparison to other methods.
The impact of social media on politics was most felt in 2008 Obama campaign, where sharing brought in the views and opinions of different people to one place and thus served to either strengthen or weaken voter opinion.
This trend is also evident in the 2016 USA presidential campaigns where candidates have been promoting their agenda and battling each other through tweets, Facebook shares, streaming on periscope, instagramming, among others. Political gaffes have become something for everyone to feast on, thanks to presidential aspirants sharing and resharing everything their opponents say on or off the campaign trail. Not only has this been entertaining, but candidates who’ve mastered the flair of sharing issues while they are still hot have done better in the polls than their counterparts.
This new trend means that politicians without an active social media presence will find it increasingly difficult to wow the electorate now and in future campaigns.
The viral nature of social media has encouraged more responsibility and accountability amongst world leaders and has even made it possible to expose oppressive political regimes with one click of the share button. The Arab Spring of 2010/2011 is a perfect example of an instance when the world felt and appreciated the full effects of social networking, as was evidenced by the toppling of several tyrannical governments.
Without social media, social, ethical, environmental and political ills would have minimal visibility. Increased visibility of issues has shifted the balance of power from the hands of a few to the masses.
The flipside: Social media is slowly killing real activism and replacing it with ‘slacktivism’
While social media activism brings better awareness about societal issues, questions abound as to whether this awareness is translating into real change on the ground.
Antagonists of social media activism argue that social sharing has encouraged people to use computers and mobile phones to express their concerns on societal issues without actually having to engage actively with campaigns in real life. Their support is limited to pressing the ‘Like’ button or sharing content but that’s pretty much all they do.
This, apparently, is a very human reaction when people are given a platform that absolves them from responsibility. A 2013 study by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business found that when people are presented with the option of ‘liking’ a social cause, they use this to opt out of actually committing time and money to a charitable cause. On the contrary, when people are allowed to show support in private, they are more likely to show meaningful support in terms of financial contribution.
The researchers explained this tendency by saying that giving in public is mostly an action meant to satisfy public opinion whereas people who give discreetly do so because the cause is aligned to their desires and values.
The impact of social media has been so much that today, it’s unusual to find a company that does not reach its audience through one social media platform or another. Companies have come full circle in their perception of social media as a tool for interaction between friends, to seeing it as important for shaping businesses and building revenue.
Businesses that have leveraged on the need for people to constantly seek and share information have a lot of knowledge which they can use to generate insights and create product offerings that are more targeted. Not only is this important in traditional brick-and-motor businesses, but also in the e-commerce world where success is defined by a company’s ability to constantly anticipate what its customers want.
A 2012 report by McKinsey Global Institute shows that sharing information improves productivity in business settings. The study suggests that enterprises that fully implement social technologies can raise interaction and create highly skilled and knowledgeable workers, hence raise productivity by up to 25%. The report also points out that greater potential, and indeed maximum impact of social media, can be felt by using social platforms for knowledge sharing, enhanced communications and building greater collaborations within companies and across enterprises.
The flip side: Low number of social ‘shares’ can lead to negative social proof and destroy business credibility
Interestingly, though use of social sharing has become the norm rather than the exception in business, some companies, after experiencing firsthand some negative effects of social media, have decided to go against the grain and remove the social sharing buttons from their websites.
A case study performed by visual website optimizer to gauge the efficiency of share buttons on conversions found that Talon.com, an ecommerce retailer from Finland noticed increased conversions by up to 11.9% when they removed sharing buttons from their product pages.
These numbers point at the double-edged nature of the impact of social media, as when products attract a lot of shares, this could reinforce sales but when the reverse is true, customers begin to distrust the product and the company selling it. This, is what Dr. Paul Marsden, psychologist and author of ‘The Social Commerce Handbook’, referred to as ‘social proof’.
19% of hiring managers make their hiring decisions based on something they found on social media. This is according to a 2013 report by staffingindustry.com.
Professional social networks such as LinkedIn are important platforms for anyone looking for to stand out and get noticed in any profession. They allow one to create and market their personal brand.
By engaging in dialogs and sharing content on such platforms, you can demonstrate the level of your knowledge and even engage directly with potential employers.
A survey conducted by Pearson learning solutions found that compared to 2013, there was a 21.3% increase in use of social media in learning than in 2012. 59% of educators who were interviewed in the study agreed that social sharing encourages interaction, providing an environment that fosters learning.
Blogs, wikis, LinkedIn, twitter, Facebook and podcasts are now common tools for learning in most educational institutions. When talking about the impact of social media on education, we cannot fail to appreciate that it has contributed to the increase in long-distance online learning as the afore-mentioned tools have served to increase teacher-student communication.
Though there have been issues of lack of privacy and increased in instances of cheating among long distance learners, this has not deterred social platforms from being used on education.
The need for teenagers to fit in, to be popular and to outdo others are very synonymous with growing up. This process is already difficult and complicated without social media. Add Facebook, twitter, snapchat and Instagram into the mix and you suddenly have teenagers being subjected to ridicule or feeling the pressure to grow up too fast.
Michael Hamm, a researcher from the university of Alberta conducted a study to show the effects of social media on bullying. 23% of teens in the study reported that they’d been targeted by bullying and 15% said they’d bullied someone on social media. Teenagers constantly use sharing platforms to spread rumors, share videos aimed at destroying reputation and to blackmail others.
b. Lack of privacy which often leads to costly mistakes
Stalking, identity theft, personal attacks, misuse of information are some of the threats social media users face. Most of the times, the users themselves are to blame as they end up sharing content that should not be in the public eye. There’s also an element of ignorance involved arising from a lack of understanding of what private and public profiles are supposed to do.
Unfortunately, by the time private content is deleted, it’s usually a little too late and can cause problems in people’s personal and professional lives.
One of the effects of social media is encouraging people to form and cherish artificial bonds over actual friendships. The argument that social media builds interaction and helps people to have a social life is quite controversial. The term ‘friend’ as used to refer to social media lacks the intimacy identified with conventional friendships, where people actually know each other, want to talk to each other, have an intimate bond and frequently interact face to face.
It’s always been said that information is power. But without a means of distributing this information, people cannot harness this power. Hence the importance of social media, a key player in the distribution of content in today’s world. Mediums such as Facebook, LinkedIn, twitter and others have made it possible to access information at the click of a button.
Research conducted by parse.ly shows that the life expectancy of a story posted on the web is 2.6 days, compared to 3.2 days when a story is shared on social media. That’s a difference of 23%, which is significant when you consider that over 2 billion people use the internet daily.
This means that the longer the information is available in circulation, the more talkability it generates and the greater the impact of social media gains for a brand.
Though granted, the world would be a much slower place without social media, it’s done some harm as much as it’s done a lot of good. However, the positive impact of social media are astronomical and far surpass the ills associated with sharing. Brands should therefore not hold back as they can always create internal ways of mitigating against these risks. The amount of effort required to implement a sharing strategy is also small as compared to the benefits that will be reaped.
At the end of the day, sharing is about getting people to see and respond to content. As long as content is still relevant and the need for information still exists, it’s always worthwhile for any organization using social media to keep pushing it into the hands of readers.
How and to what extent the impact of social media can be felt by individuals and social groups.
Maryanne Gaitho holds a degree in Sociology and writes on a wide range of topics ranging from technology to business and social issues. She has a background in IT and Relationship Management having worked for a multi-national mobile manufacturer and a multi-national bank respectively and has been involved in several high impact social projects through NGOs. Some of the topics she has written about and that have been published include; big data, project management, online Marketing and Salesforce.
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