Social media has become a critical aspect of the social discussion, communication, and display of status at the cost of gratification and influence which inherently disrupt traditional boundaries of media content and communication. From a sociological perspective, the technological development and widespread popularity of social media offer a unique perspective of human interaction and the creation of new behaviours as previously private aspects of life are becoming increasingly public. Technological capabilities to provide new methods to fulfil social needs and gratify a craving for relationships, now on an increasingly global scale.
Social networking is a concept which is based on people-driven media which results in a conscious change of human experience and behaviour (Cole, 2017). This paper seeks to use digital sociology to comprehend the deeper influence which social media has on individual behaviour and forming a network society.
The Internet and wireless communication do not fit the definition of media in a traditional sense. Instead, they are a means of interactive communication, which are blurring the standards between mass media and other forms in the modern world. The Internet with its widespread applications is used for an exchange of information and communication. More commonly than ever, Internet and social media are used for access to mass media as well as establishing a communication fabric of society on all levels, ranging from personal to professional and public discussion (Castells, 2011). Social media has changed the manner in which individuals and organizations interact.
The social media platforms can be used to create and exchange both user-created content and general information creating a virtual community. Participation provides the benefits of not only more comfortable personal communication but also allows to build a reputation, providing career opportunities, and generating monetary income (Ngai, Tao, & Moon, 2015).
Social media has widespread use in society, with statistical data demonstrating a high penetration. Individuals use multiple forms of social media, both in combination, as well as replacing each other as platforms lose popularity. Types of social media usually offer differing tools of communication that users adopt to their purposes and needs, focusing on the platform with the highest public penetration and popularity (Quan-Hase & Young, 2010).
Mass communication theories such as the hypodermic needle theory indicate that mass media has an immediate and general influence on individuals. They become ultimately susceptible and unable to demonstrate personal opinions. It was an assumption that such exposure to cultural standards will lead to a homogenous and unresisting population, that can be controlled through mass media.
Social media has a similar impact, instead, the content is now provided by users as well, its production and distribution. This inherently provides gratification for users, as peer influence and social connectivity drive individuals to join these platforms. For many people, particularly younger age groups, the social network is a source of information for trends and influences that the social pressure exerts individuals to adopt (Quan-Hase & Young, 2010).
In a manner, it is a similar method of influence as generated by mass media. Except such platforms now share the benefit of rapid distribution and peer pressure that is not as actively seen through traditional forms of media. In order to feel included and experience gratification, individuals blindly follow popular trends and attempt to create their own. The perception extends to brands, influencing consumer perception. This is why companies attempt to actively market on social media as the user-generated social communication leads to brand attitudes and subsequent purchases while people want to demonstrate themselves as being a part of a whole (Schivinski & Dabrowski, 2014).
One could argue that from a sociological perspective, social media is a natural development and a positive occurrence. The Habermas public sphere theory can be applied to social media, since the notion that public information is open to all is closely associated with the concept of community. The public sphere described by Habermas is characterized by open access, a formation of public opinion, and unrestricted rights to conference including speech, assembly, and expression of opinions. Habermas underlined that political communication and political economy are part of the public sphere, and therefore, the task of the public is to engage in critical debate (Fuchs, 2013).
This can be directly reflected on social media as meeting the characteristics of the public sphere. Social media helps to build networks and mobilize information which are supportive of political sharing on various platforms. Furthermore, studies demonstrate that there is a correlation between online and offline political activity, suggesting that the digital public sphere influences individuals to engage in political activity (Halpern, Valenzuela, & Katz, 2017).
Although the idealistic political interpretation of Habermas theory may not fully apply to the concept of social media, a cultural-materialist understanding in the context of political economy may be fitting. In the public sphere political economy, its users control the resources. Therefore, they serve numerous economic roles of a capitalist, entrepreneur, employees, and consumers. Public information and content which presents humans in varying social roles and individuals function as part of the media system present cultural content (Fuchs, 2014).
The Goffman theory of presentation of self argues that humans, in the presence of others attempt to create a beneficial impression. Individuals attempt to convey an impression which demonstrates certain characteristics, allowing to maintain control of one’s influence and perception. This is achieved by modifying the context of the situation. Almost universally, research on social media argues that people attempt to present themselves in a better light on social platforms than the reality of real life. An online identity is more imaginative and glorious as people attempt to simplify their complicated and conflicted life (Qi, Monod, Fang, & Deng, 2018).
As a case-study, Instagram can be examined which allows to share images and use visual-based communication that strong influences public opinion. Social media maven is a term describing an individual who sets trends on various platforms through large numbers of followers who see them as authoritative figures. These individuals rose to fame and employ a similar process on each image. By posting, they begin a self-promotion cycle which attempts to gain as many views and likes, thus raising their popularity and marketability. The visual content must be powerful and appealing, with social contexts, such as wealth, usually having more influence than the object or person in the photography (Alshawaf & Wen, 2015).
The rise of social media has inherently affected public and digital sociology by changing methods of communication, allowing for people to express and visualize their public image, and leading a concept of “measuring” public life (Healy, 2017).
Such influences have changed social behaviour and perceptions, with both consequences and positive aspects of the status quo of social structure. The public has become significantly dependent on social media trends, guiding individuals’ behaviour and becoming a source of gratification. However, social media has become a reflection of the public sphere, incentivizing active participation in political activities and political economy. Finally, social media platforms are where individuals demonstrate the best aspects of their life and visualise themselves in a manner that would make the best impression. Overall, social media has changed the paradigm of social interaction and community reflected in the new social values and behaviours that have emerged as part of the global technological expansion.
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