How The Internet and Social Media Are Changing Culture

It is no doubt that the Internet and the social media are powerful instruments for mobilization of people. However, it is not its own technological imperative that allows the social media to play a prominent role in social protest.

Throughout human history new technologies of communication have had a significant impact on culture. Inevitably in the early stages of their introduction the impact and the effect of such innovations were poorly understood. Plato used the voice of Socrates to raise the alarm about the perils posed by the invention of writing and of reading. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato denounced writing as inhuman and warned that writing weakened the mind and that it threatened to destroy people’s memory.

Also the invention of the printing press was at its time perceived as a threat to European culture, social order and morality. “Ever since they began to practice this perverse excess of printing books, the church has been greatly damaged,” lamented Francisco Penna, a Dominican defender of the Spanish Inquisition. Similar concerns have also been raised in the aftermath of the ascendancy of the electronic media—television in particular has been often represented as a corrosive influence on public life.

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Plato’s reservation about the influence of new media on culture continues to influence the current deliberation on the influence of the Internet and of social media. For example, Maryanne Wolf, an American cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain frequently draws on Socrates to reinforce her argument about the debilitating effect of the Internet on the so-called reading brain. Her extensive discussion of Socrates is linked to her conviction that his warnings about the risks posed by the written text are particularly relevant for thinking about the transition from print and digital media and its impact on children. She wrote that “Socrates’ perspective on the pursuit of information in our culture haunts me every day as I watch my two sons use the Internet to finish a homework assignment, and then they tell me they ‘know all about it.’”1

Apprehensions about the impact of the social media on children’s brains readily intermesh with alarmist accounts of predatory hackers and pedophiles, internet trolls, identity theft, phishing scams, Trojan horses, viruses and worms. The Internet serves as metaphor through which wider social and cultural anxieties are communicated. That is why for so many of its critics its impact on offline culture appears in such a negative light.

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Predictably the Internet is also an object of glorification by its technophile advocates. Time and again the public is informed that the Internet is transforming human life towards a more enlightened and creative existence. The public is constantly told that Big Data and the Internet of Things are about to revolutionize human existence. Claims that digital technology will fundamentally transform education, the way we work, play and interact with one another suggest that these new media will have an even greater impact on our culture than the invention of writing and reading.

Technology and Culture

There is little doubt that the digital technology and social media has already a significant impact on culture. Towards the end of the 19th century artists sough to capture their subjects through portraits of individuals who were absorbed in the act of reading a book. Today, it is the pictures of people standing in the middle of a crowd, captivated by what they are reading on their smartphone that best symbolizes the 21st century subject.

The Internet and social media are very powerful tools that can influence and shape human behavior. The social media has played a significant role in recent outbreaks of social protest and resistance.

The mushrooming of Occupy protests, the Arab Spring, the mobilization of resistance against the Government of the Ukraine or in Hong Kong was heavily dependent on the resources provided by the social media. Many observers have concluded that in a networked world the social media possesses the potential to promote public participation, engagement and the process of democratizing public life.

That the Internet and the social media are powerful instruments for mobilization of people is not in doubt. However, it is not its own technological imperative that allows the social media to play a prominent role in social protest. Rather the creative use of the social media is a response to aspirations and needs that pre-exist or at least exist independently of it. This technology ought to be perceived as a resource that can be utilized by social and political movements looking for a communication infrastructure to promote their cause.

Read related article Traditional Media Overwhelmed by Tsunami of Social Media by Adam Černý

Take the example of radicalized jihadist youth in the West. In many cases the Internet has been represented as a powerful technology that incites young Muslims to become radicalized. Often the term“sudden radicalization” is used to highlight the power of social media to swiftly convert otherwise confused young Muslims into hardened extremist jihadists. Yet there is considerable evidence to suggest that young Muslims who go online to visit jihadist websites have gone through a process of self-radicalization. They are already drawn towards radical Islam and are looking for a medium to express their ideals and interact with those who share their sentiments. What these websites do is to affirm, deepen or harden sentiments that their visitors already possess. Their experience of the Internet may encourage young Muslims to move in unexpected radical directions but these individuals have already developed attitudes that disposed them to embark on such a journey.

The relationship between the social media and radicalization is both an interactive and dynamic one. The social media provides a medium through which pre-existing sentiments can gain greater clarity, expressions and meaning. It provides a medium for the kind of interaction that can throw up new ideas, new symbols, new rituals and new identities. In this sense it has helped stimulate the emergent Western jihadist youth sub-culture and arguably its online expressions have exercised an important influence on its offline trajectory.

The Internet and Everyday Culture

The culture of everyday life has become entwined with the Internet. The flourishing of online dating offers a striking example of how the construction of significant relationships can draw on the resources provided by the social media. In many Western societies online dating has served as a provisional solution to the problems thrown up by a more individuated and segmented social setting. The stimulus for the cultivation of these online relations is the search for solutions to some of the problems confronting life in the offline world. However, the growing popularity of virtual encounters has had a significant impact on the way that men and women conduct their everyday affairs. The intermeshing of the virtual with the “real” is part of the reality of contemporary culture.

The influence of the Internet has been most significant in the way it has transformed the lives of young people. Their digital bedroom symbolizes a childhood that is significantly mediated through the social media, mobile phones and the Internet. Friendship interaction and peer-topeer relations are increasingly conducted online or through text messaging. Such interactions have had major cultural consequences. Texting and online communications have influenced the evolution of language. They have thrown up new rituals and symbols and have had an important impact on people’s identity—the young in particular. Mediated exchanges often shape and reinforce people’s status and identity. Consequently what happens to people through their online interactions really matters to the way that people perceive themselves offline.

As with the case of political mobilization, the digitalization of childhood can be interpreted as a response to a pre-existing need for new technologies of interaction. The digital bedroom emerged as the outcome of the growing tendency to relocate children’s activities from the outdoor to the indoor. Risk-averse attitudes which verge on paranoia emerged as one the defining features of contemporary child-rearing culture. Apprehensions about children’s health and safety, particularly regarding sex predators have led to new limits imposed on children’s freedom to explore the outdoors. This confinement of children indoors has been associated with the growth of a phenomenon frequently described as the bedroom culture. So the main driver of this process was not digital technology and the social media, but the prior development of an indoor childhood culture.

The Bedroom Culture

Bedroom culture is the product of two interrelated and sometimes contradictory developments. On the one hand the confinement of children indoors is the outcome of adult initiative. Surveys frequently attest to the fact that children would rather be outdoors and in particular they would rather be playing with their friends. For example, a series of interviews carried out with English children indicated that they would “prefer to be outdoors: hanging on street corners, shopping, at the movies, or playing sport, than indoors using the computer.” At the same time the specific form that bedroom culture assumes is frequently shaped by children’s desire to create their own space and enjoy a measure of independence from adult control. Arguably it is through the medium of digital technology that some people seek to regain some of the freedoms that they have lost.

Bedroom culture represents the antithesis of the family-centered television viewing in a common room. Media usage has become increasingly privatized and children play an influential role in the construction of the new media home environment. Many children’s bedrooms are media-rich environments—a growing proportion of children have computers in bedroom with online access. Highly motivated to create a separate autonomous space where children can experiment and develop their personality, youngsters seek to evade parental control. The flourishing of bedroom culture encourages the privatization of media usage as young people attempt to forge a world that is distinct from that of their parents. Through pursuing the project of self-socialization, young people attempt to personalize their media to ensure that it directly relates to their interests. This project tends to be pursued in isolation from other family members.

The repositioning of childhood into the indoors has not led to the consolidation of intergenerational ties. On the contrary, the rise of bedroom culture reflects the trend towards the privatization and individualization of family life. Children regard the new media as vehicles for setting themselves off from their elders and for attempting to forge links with their peers. They also seek to protect their interaction space from the monitoring of adults. From this perspective, media technology is not something to be shared but is something to be customized, personalized and consumed privately out of the sight of adults.

Through the Internet the segmentation of social experience is refracted and given greater momentum through its powerful technological dynamic. This amplification and intensification of social trends constitutes the immediate impact of the Internet on the everyday culture. If the experience of printing serves as a precedent, it is likely that digital technology will not simply intensify prevailing cultural trends but also provide resources for reinterpreting its meaning.

Frank Furedi

Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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