Johannes Gutenberg and Jack Dorsey have a lot in common. Both are technological revolutionaries, and both changed communication forever. While it’s true that in the past five and a half centuries the world has certainly changed immensely, the printing press is perhaps the earliest precursor to Twitter, but the information people are circulating is drastically different. The Bible may have been Gutenberg’s pick for the first printed book, but Dorsey took a different approach to the circulation of information to the public. The Twitter founder sent out this first profound message to the world via his social media start-up on March 21, 2006 in under 140 characters: “just setting up my twttr.”
Not only was this turning point in history about something relatively simple and somewhat unspecific, but also, the man couldn’t even be bothered to type out the entire word Twitter. This first tweet eerily seems to forecast the way Twitter would come to be used on a regular basis by millions. There seem to be two types of Twitter users: A smaller group who uses the medium as a giant consumer base, taking the opportunity to advertise products or web content, push traffic to a website via links, or further brand recognition; and the majority who treats the site as a public activity log of their personal life. In the article “Intrinsic vs. Image-Related Utility in Social Media: Why Do People Contribute Content to Twitter?” Olivier Toubia and Andrew T. Stephen acknowledge these two types of users.
Although some contributors to social media are able to derive advertising revenue from their content (using, e.g., platforms such as Google’s AdSense; see Sun and Zhu 2013), social media platforms rely predominantly on the benevolent contributions of millions of individuals as “content providers.” Publishers’ incentives in traditional media are well understood and are typically a function of the number of “eyeballs” reached by their content, but motivations to benevolently contribute content in social media are not well understood (368).
The latter variety of user has essentially no limitations on what they can or should post, and as Toubia and Stephen point out, why people choose to publicize particular details about their lives is a relatively unexplored topic. As the social networking medium has evolved, society has gained new freedoms and opportunities to partake in the discussion about public issues, but users of the social networks have also, willingly or otherwise, given up an element of personal privacy – a fact that has yet to be deemed wholly positive or negative.
Twitter is not the only social networking site that allows users to publish any thought that might pop into their heads. Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Foursquare, to name a few, all allow users to publish personal status updates, photos, videos and check in at locations. And posts don’t simply jet off into cyberspace; one can track how many followers or friends subscribe to their accounts and therefore have an idea of how many people are seeing their posts.
Though they acknowledge that the motivations of many social network users have not been studied, Toubia and Stephen suggest two potential reasons behind such postings:
Intrinsic utility assumes that users received direct utility from posting content and leads to “the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence” (Ryan and Deci 2000, p.56). Image-related utility, on the other hand, assumes that users are motivated by the perceptions of others … Image-related utility is also related to status seeking or prestige motivation … (369).
With the advent and rise in popularity of these social networks, a cultural shift has occurred in our society. More and more people are connected through these networks, but they are not necessarily connected in reality. In other words, a given social network user might have 1,000 plus friends or followers who subscribe to their account postings, but on an average day this same person might only interact with 10 to 20 people. As these social networks expand their reach, users become increasingly entrenched in these virtual communities, and therefore, actual human contact lessens. Time previously spent socializing with others in the physical world is exchanged for time spent online, but the innate human desire to interact remains. Social networking brings that interactive element to the Internet. Before the proliferation of social networking, surfing the web was a task to be done alone, but using these sites, one can share their online activity – or all their activities, for that matter – with others.
Since human interaction has been added to the equation of Internet use, the preexisting issues of interaction with others seem to have evolved with the times. For instance, a person who might seek approval from a group of friends in a social setting will still seek the same reassurance in the virtual community of social networks. Through Twitter and other social networks, popularity can be measured not by how many people you verbally speak to, but by how many people have liked your latest post. Since these networks have become so widespread, people’s dependence on public assurances via “likes,” comments and retweets has increased, because the entire practice of social networking has come to replace a portion of the interactions that humans crave.
The connections made through these social networks are not limited to average peer interaction, either. Public figures have become much more visible and accessible though mediums like Twitter. Often celebrities and other prominent figures have accounts or official fan pages, and just as users can choose to follow people they know and have actually met, they have the ability to do the same with these figures. The same interaction that exists between the average users also exists between average and celebrity users; users can publicly or privately message public figures and see all of their updates. The gap between the average person and these prominent figures is much smaller than it has ever been, but this begs the question, what is the point of this interaction? Typically, celebrities will not respond to every follower and no actual relationship will ever form, so the connection is one-sided and is more of an illusion of connectivity than anything else. The only difference is that users see a side of these figures other than the one portrayed in the media.
While it might be interesting or useful for these public figures to send out messages to their fan bases via social networks about anything related to their career, many do choose to post personal information. This practice is not necessarily the norm, but it can make users feel more connected to these figures and more aware of the fact that they are not very different from any other people. However, the fact that people follow the accounts of these celebrities and figures in order to catch glimpses of their personal lives is indicative of a disturbing trend in our culture toward an almost voyeuristic obsession with others. Public figures are influential, whether they are trying to be or not. In the same way that an average person might look for approval from people they know in order to justify or feel secure in their actions and feelings, people now look to celebrities to reaffirm certain aspects or their lives, or at least point them in the direction of what is trendy or socially accepted and praised.
In addition to the seemingly closer relationship between average social media users and prominent public figures, users are also able to participate in collective discussions about current social events. This engagement with the larger social community, as opposed to the more self-focused online presence that many social media users pursue, seems to broaden national and global discussions. The use of hashtags and tagging enables discussions on the same subject to be consolidated and grouped together, creating an expansive representation of the wide array of opinions and beliefs held by an enormous sampling of citizens. The information accumulated by these online discussions on social networks is even referenced as an indicator of general opinion toward a topic in the media. For instance, if a topic is “trending” it may be newsworthy, or vice versa. Twitter is even developing a way to measure conversations about television in order to gauge viewer interest in different shows.
However, the fact that these opinions that users express are public also puts pressure on the user to develop a public persona or at least craft somewhat coherent postings on these issues that will not incur negative judgment from their virtual peers. This self-consciousness is by no means a new concept, but prior to the permeation of social media in our culture, one’s social persona was never available for public viewing in writing and saved forever on a massive database. To add to the complexity of establishing a unique online presence, the lines between the public self and the private self seem to be blurred by social media. For instance, a user can post their opinions on the government shutdown and promptly follow it up with a message about what they are having for breakfast. It seems that a user’s online identity is now an all-encompassing representation of who that person is, even though in reality, a social media page, depending on the user’s posting frequency, is a relatively small and carefully selected sampling that person’s qualities, opinions, feelings, etc., which in the past have been somewhat personal and private notions of self. In a way, technological changes have been the catalyst for changes in ideas of privacy as well. Thoughts and feelings that were once kept private unless involved in a discussion typical among a few people – not the entire Internet – are now up for consideration and criticism by anyone and everyone, imposing a new pressure on a social media user’s own convictions to be acknowledged and affirmed by society. The question is whether the decline of this inner privacy is appropriate, or even healthy.
Social networking has provided a unique and useful outlet for citizen participation in social thought and public conversation on all issues. But in exchange for increased social awareness and access to different opinions, we have traded social boundaries that had long been in place before the advent of the Internet and social networking tools. Social interaction has fundamentally changed because of these new technologies, and the idea of what qualifies as appropriate in terms of what people reveal about themselves is up in the air. Whether the expansion of the public self and the diminishing of the private self is a positive change remains to be seen.
However, regardless of whether these changes and their consequences are ambiguous, it is necessary for users to maintain a general awareness of social media use. It is up to individuals to decide how much they share online, but to mindlessly post without considering the impact or the point of such information is not productive. If postings on social networks are not ultimately to serve a purpose –whether it is to express ideas, contribute to a discussion, or inform in general – then what are they for? People are entitled to write and share whatever information they choose, but to do so without any specific intentions defeats the purpose of social networking. Constructing an online presence is not something to be done passively. Though this fact might not alter the content of social network users’ postings, an understanding of this idea would at least somewhat support the integrity of the social networking medium.