Saturday, 15 November 2014


AWriter’s Notebook
No.52, November 2014
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Social media: Does it warrant the fuss?
Poems: February by Alison Prince

What used to be a monthly blog has suffered slippage. This comes about by considering oneself superman rather than an ageing scribbler, saying Yes instead of No and then being lumbered with two mightyish revisions of books it might have been better to leave behind. Both are academic, of long standing, their subject-matter the media. Both will be reissued in 2015, the 4th edition of Media Communication: An Introduction to Theory and Process from Palgrave/Macmillan; the second, written with Anne Hill, the 9th edition of The Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies, from Bloomsbury.

The work, in each case, has turned out something more than a touch-up. Reading what had been written for the last editions confirms the experience of slippage, in terms of time but also with regard to content. Retirement from teaching begins to show itself within days rather than weeks: you discover you are out of touch, and this is especially true of the fields of media: new terminology, new developments, more recent events clamour for mention and analysis, for adjustment or even  deletion.

Three editions ago the Dictionary had no entry on social media, yet in the past three years it has become the headline-scooping attraction of the digital age. What follows is a modified entry for the 9th edition of the Bloomsbury book. It is a definition and a comment in time which might in turn be on its way to obsolescence before it appears in print.


Thanks to Alison Prince whose poems continue to enrich The Writer’s Notebook.


Social media: Does it warrant the fuss?
The Internet rapidly fulfilled the prophecy of media guru Marshal McLuhan that electronic communication would turn the world into a global village; indeed it can be said that, with the growth of social networking, it has become a global backyard. Basically, social media is hundreds and thousands of people e-chatting and message-exchanging via the Net and sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Foursquare, Tumbir, Flickr and Twitter, not, that is, people actually meeting face to face; more likely squaring up to their own isolation.
      In the opinion of MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011), summarising years of research findings among young people,  relying on the mobile phone, texting, exchanging messages on Facebook substitutes machine communication for the real thing; we are connected but alone. ‘We would rather text than talk,’ and in doing so we ‘sacrifice conversion for connection’.

Pressures to conform
 We might nod in appreciation of such possibilities but we continue, in the words of Jill Walker Rettberg in Blogging (Polity Press, 2010), to submit to ‘our instinct for collecting’. Rettberg says, ‘Once enough of your friends have joined a social network site, social pressure can make it very difficult not to participate’.
Social network analysis has become a rapidly expanding field of study, producing a new generation of commentators and gurus matching optimistic with pessimistic visions of the impact of social networking on users. The optimism of American writer Clay Shirky shines through the title of his book published by Allen Lane in 2010, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. In an interview with the UK Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead (‘If there’s a screen to worry about in your house, it’s not the one with the mouse attached’, 5 July 2010), Shirky says the popularity of online social media proves that ‘people are more creative and generous than we have ever imagined, and would rather use their free time participating in amateur online activities such as Wikipedia – for no financial reward – because they satisfy the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness … Instead of lamenting the silliness of a lot of social online media, we should be thrilled by the social activism also emerging’.

Net delusion?
For every Shirky there is a worried pessimist (or cyber skeptic) who has a basketful of concerns about the impact of social media representing as it often does unbridled freedom of expression and consequently its subversive potential, for good or ill. One of the skeptics is Evgeny Morozov. His book The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (Penguin, 2011) sees network communication as a whole as being under the threat of, on the one hand, censorship (chiefly by governments), on the other, appropriation by big business.
     Morozov comes down heavily against optimistic claims that the Net is too big to be censored, for the very act of online social intercommunication is subject to surveillance that tracks who we are, what we are doing, where we’ve been, what sentiments we’ve been exchanging. In short, once we step into forums of social media, once we give information about ourselves, we have taken a decision to deliver up our privacy.

Democracy or surveillance?
While Morozov focuses chiefly on the threat of authority to the freedom currently experienced by online communicators, Robert McChesney fears for democracy itself, seeing corporate power, often in partnership with government, as encroaching on, indeed appropriating the Internet for commercial purposes in the same way that public services (such as broadcasting) are privatized. In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New Press, 2013), McChesney acknowledges that in the early days of the Net, grasping it – exercising control over it – ‘was like trying to shoot a moving target in a windstorm’.
     Today sophisticated technology tracks Internet activity as never before, and it does so in the interests of control (the perspective of those in authority) and monopoly (corporate ambition); in each case, McChesney argues, the path to equality, the foundation stone of democracy, becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate. He writes, ‘What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets’.
     Capitalism of the neoliberalist sort, he believes, has ‘conquered the Internet’; it ‘has been converted into an advertising-based medium’.  In addition, McChesney looks with concern at an Internet that is ‘swarming with mostly anonymous and unaccountable companies  tracking anything that moves’.

Power of the collective
In contrast to this bleak picture, evidence of Net citizens, in small action groups or in the mass, has demonstrated empowerment with regard to social, political and economic issues. Public opinion remains a key factor for both governments and commerce and where the publics use their collective power via the Net to bring about change much can be achieved, in democracies and even authoritarian states. The danger remains, that those who take action, who surrender their anonymity for a public cause, have been noted, their personal details classified in the massive databanks of the state.
    Further, the current ‘openness’ of the Net permits more than government agencies to pursue questionable agendas: industrial espionage, cyberwarfare, hacking, DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service), pornography, identity theft, malicious impersonation, trolling, rape videos, falsification of information, online fraud, paedophile  rings, spam emails, stalking and bullying in their many forms, render the Internet ‘backyard’ a place of danger with potentially destructive powers.

Women as targets
Most worryingly is the cyberwar on women (see @StopWebBullying).A June 2014 report by the think-tank Demos, Misogyny on Twitter found more than 6 million references to the word ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ used in English between 16 December 2013 and 9 February 2014. In conversation with Time online (7 October 2014), Danielle Keats Citron, author of Hate Crime in Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 2014), argued that ‘Getting us to see online abuse as the new frontier for civil rights activism will help point society in the right direction’. However, a number of social media platforms have been reluctant to take down expressions of cyber abuse, apparently on grounds of freedom of speech and expression. Such libertarian arguments prove difficult to sustain in face of the personal suffering that hate crime causes its victims, this, in a period when the number of suicides resulting from cyberbullying is on the increase.
For some commentators, idealism prevails. In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky talks of the ‘civic value’ of Network activism, seeing it as potentially revolutionary. He predicts a time when ‘we are slowly going to set up islands of civil discourse’ in which norms are established that encourage people to use their real names or some well-known handle. The challenge for social networking is how ‘to maximize’ the Internet’s ‘civic value’.

Comments on Social Media are welcome, around 300 to 500 words. Please mail to



Alison Prince                      

Lower the gangplank, lad – maybe the dove
meant business with that twig. Go steady, now,
it’s treacherous. Dad, look! Dear God, a tree!
Unbolt the hatches, Missus! We’ll release
the armadillos, peccaries and bears,
parrots and accountants, mountain goats,
architects and bees and three-toed sloths,
yes, free the whole complaining lot. There’ll be
no biscuit ration handed out tonight,
no brackish water lapped, no whinnying,
no roars, no yelps, no threats that they will sue
on Health and Safety grounds. We got them through,
we kept the ark afloat, we have endured
storms and seasickness, we even hung
tinsel in the holds for Christmas cheer.
It’s February. It’s done. Until next year.