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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/123456789/560

Title: Exhibited in the global digital cage: on the functions and consequences of social network sites in complex societies
Authors: Geser, Hans
Keywords: Public reputation
Media coverage
Web 1.0
Web 2.0
Instant messaging
Thematic Category: Information and Communication Technologies in Public Relations
Issue Date: 2008
Publisher: University of Zurich. Institute of Sociology
Abstract: While most media technologies are originally conceived as devices for transporting information, they tend to turn increasingly into tools of reciprocal communication. Thus, the telephone was first designed for delivering operas and other acoustical events to private homes, before it became exclusively dedicated to (mostly bilateral) verbal discourse (White 2003); the French Minitel was introduced in 1981 as a technology for making available phone numbers, and other institutionally produced information, before hackers turned it into a tool of decentralized interindividual exchanges in 1988; since decades, radio stations have taken leave from strictly monological emissions by reaching out to their listeners by phone; and TV channels have activated their formally passive viewers by drawing them into interviews, talk shows, or casting productions. Similarly, the early Web 1.0 was primarily used as a one-to many broadcasting device paralleling the conventional channels of Radio/TV emissions and the press: a ready instrument of governmental and commercial organizations for distributing their messages with more speed and much less variable costs. In these years, interactive Net usages have been banned into Email and Usenet applications based on rather low-level bandwidth and software that provided only spartanic possibilities of purely text-based exchanges. However, empirical studies soon showed that despite the fascinating Multimedia features of the WWW, most users were primarily attracted by these more modest interactive functions. When so many people are now habituated of spending about an hour or more every day on the Internet, they don't do this because of mere subjective appetite for WWW surfing or for retrieving any kind of information. Instead, such behavioral regularities are stemming from the constant need to check and answer Email: a need highly stabilized by social norms and interpersonal expectations (Kraut et. al. 1998). In today's emerging Web 2.0, decentralized interactivity and interaction has shifted to the very center of the Net: e. g. in the form of "Blogospheres" which occupy an increasingly central place in the whole of public discourse and deliberation; in the file sharing exchanges where the conventional client-server model is increasingly substituted by decentralized peer-to peer transmissions in which every user plays the role of provider and recipient at the same time; in the huge play worlds and "metaverses" like World of Warcraft and "Second Life" where subscribers are invited to adopt avatars for participating in almost any imaginable social activities and transactions; and finally in the boosting "Social network Sites" (SNS) where all users can easily become active NET-coproducers by feeding in their personal profiles and by cultivating their networks of acquaintances and friends. Especially for younger age cohorts, the Net has become an almost universally accepted and indispensable dimension of social life: a polyvalent tool for initiating and cultivating bilateral relationships as well as wider networks, groups and communities which provide individual comfort and identity acknowledgement as well as potentially unlimited capacities for instrumental social exchange and cooperation. Being instrumental exchanging a manifold of information and discussing a broad range of topics (on private matters like movie tastes as well as public issues like presidential elections), SNS have a full range of positive effects on various dimensions of "social capital": increasing life satisfaction and felt interpersonal trust on the one hand and civic involvement and political activation at the other. (Valenzuela et. al. 2008). As the most mind-boggling Web 2.0 entity hitherto found on the WWW, MySpace had more than 110 Mio active monthly users in Jan. 2008 who maintained about 10 Billion friendship relations and processed about 50 Mio Emails per day (more than Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail by Google). At this same month, about 300 000 new users have signed in and up to 8 Mio new images were uploaded every single day (Owyang 2008). It is followed by Facebook with about 70 Mio active users in April 2008 (with 250 000 new registrations per day since Jan 2007) who are organized in about 55 000 networks mostly based on high schools colleges, work places or other territorially located institutions (Owyang 2008). Currently, SNS usage is most ubiquitous in Canada where 53% of all Internet Users participate, followed by Great Britain (39%), U.S. (34%) and Japan (32%). In continental Europe, involvement varies between 22% in Italy, 17% in France and 12% in Germany.1 As the Fox Interactive Media Study of 2007 (involving about 3000 young American Internet Users) has demonstrated, about 70% of all respondents in the 15-35 year age group are active Social Network Site users who upload texts, pictures, videos or sound files on the WWW. Generally, SNS activities go along with an increased overall online time per week (11 instead of 8.7 hours) as well as with a heightened usage of interactional media like Email, mobile phones or IM, while the consumption of conventional unidirectional media (like TV) is significantly diminished. (Fox Interactive Media 2007: 11). As Cassidy has found, two thirds of all Facebook users log in at least once a day and spend there about 20 minutes of their time. (Cassidy, 2006), and according to a survey including 2400 Danish youngsters between 12 and 18, about 60% of all users between the age of 12 and 18 spend more than one hour a day on SNS (Larsen 2008). Even most nonparticipants have a strong opinion on SNS: being conscientious objectors" who take distance for ideological reasons or family-related concerns (boyd 2007). The current boosting of Social network Sites contrasts conspicuously with the decline in human offline sociality and the erosion of social capital as it is often postulated by theoretical arguments and also readily found in many empirical studies. 1) On the most intimate level, there seems to be a shrinkage of very close social networks within most segments of the population. According to a nationwide study based on the U. S. General Social Survey covering the period between 1985 and 2004, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people who had no confident to talk to, and a spectacular shrinkage in the overall size of such intimate networks (from 2.94 to 2.08) (McPherson / Smith-Lovin / Brashears). Even more spectacular is the regularity that the most pronounced decline has occurred in the sphere of non-kin confidents: so that the most intimate relationships are more than ever focused on spouses and family members. 2) In the wider realms of everyday social life, modern technologies have evidently made it possible for all of us to survive and to do almost all daily activities without entering into social interactions. Thus, many people live a lonesome life disconnected from almost everybody living nearby, because they have no instrumental need for interpersonal contacts: neither for getting and preparing food nor for participation in cultural activities or getting relevant information. In addition, interaction with kin is reduced because relatives live far away. “Building a shelter is no longer a communal effort requiring an extensive network of close personal ties, but rather a commercial one requiring only a good relationship with a bank. Acquiring information about current events or how to do something no longer requires maintaining social ties and engaging in conversation, but instead simply watching the news or typing a query. Markets and commercial services have in many ways replaced cultivating connections. It is perhaps ironic that at the point in history when people have the greatest ability to stay in touch with each other, they are the least dependent on personal relationships for daily survival.” (Donath 2007). 3) On the most encompassing levels of public encounters and interaction, the recent loss of save public space makes adolescents look around for virtual spheres for "hanging around". “Teens have increasingly less access to public space. Classic 1950s hang out locations like the roller rink and burger joint are disappearing while malls and 7/11s are banning teens unaccompanied by parents. Hanging out around the neighborhood or in the woods has been deemed unsafe for fear of predators, drug dealers and abductors.” (boyd 2006a). In addition, today’s teens are more and more involved in highly institutionalized settings. Instead of playing or just lingering in public places, they visit fitness centers, take Judo lessons, or stay in public locality densely controlled by video cameras, body guards, bay watchers and the like. “Additionally, structured activities in controlled spaces are on the rise. After school activities, sports, and jobs are typical across all socio-economic classes and many teens are in controlled spaces from dawn till dusk. They are running ragged without any time to simply chill amongst friends.” (boyd 2006a). The increasing scope of formalized institutions may create a need for a new radicalized informality and highly uncommitting interactions as they are opened up by new unobtrusive digital media like Email; Chats, Instant Messaging or SMS which "..allow teens to participate in unregulated publics while located in adult-regulated physical spaces such as homes and schools." (boyd 2007). The online world provides an exit option even when staying physically in densely controlled settings: e. g. in the case of adolescents tightly tied to class attendance and still living at their parents’ home. Compared to most offline relationships at home, in school, work settings or leisure environments, such digital relationships tend to remain “underdetermined” because the participants have no clear ideas about what to expect and what purposes to pursue. This lack of specification implies that such contacts have an unknown potential that may evolve rather unexpectedly in the course of mutual disclosure: e. g. when the partners notice that they share the same acquaintances or likings for music, eating and vacation activities. In a functionalist perspective, SNS may be thus be interpreted as a compensation for losses of conventional forms of sociality as they are particularly experienced by younger age cohorts subject to the manifold simultaneous challenges of exploring their personal identity, building their personal social network, leaving home and migrating between educational institutions.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/123456789/560
URL : http://socio.ch/intcom/t_hgeser20.pdf
Pages: 37
Appears in Collections:ICT-Working Papers

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