Recently, the great Polish Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman gave an interview to El Pais (full text here). In this interview he discussed his thoughts on Social Media and the manner in which they are affecting communities. His response is below:
Q: You are skeptical of the way people protest through social media, of so-called “armchair activism,” and say that the internet is dumbing us down with cheap entertainment. So would you say that the social networks are the new opium of the people
A: The question of identity has changed from being something you are born with to a task: you have to create your own community. But communities aren’t created, and you either have one or you don’t. What the social networks can create is a substitute. The difference between a community and a network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish. You are in control of the important people to whom you relate. People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But it’s so easy to add or remove friends on the internet that people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go to the street, when you go to your workplace, where you find lots of people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid controversy… But most people use social media not to unite, not to open their horizons wider, but on the contrary, to cut themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice, where the only things they see are the reflections of their own face. Social media are very useful, they provide pleasure, but they are a trap.
This poses a few problems and questions for me as a researcher of digital media.
The main and most alarming point is that Bauman ties the concept of social skills to the offline world alone. He suggests that online, due to the ability to play an interactive role in curating the community and its membership, ‘people fail to learn the real social skills’. This idea downplays the increasing importance of the use of Social Media as a social skill in modern society. The ability to navigate and curate a plethora of Social Media is increasingly important in society, and is having increasing repercussions on the way we act and interact offline as well. It is clear the Bauman is aware of this change, but the value label he applies to it as being less worthy than previous social skills is worrying as it disregards the importance and usefulness of these newer skill sets.
As McLuhan famously wrote, the medium is the message. Undoubtedly, new mediums will change the skills we prioritise and hold as useful socially. McLuhan provides many examples of this being the case, for example, the move from spoken oral communication to written communication provided an emphasis on different skill sets, and the move from bow and arrow to gun similarly emphasised and prioritised different social skills. The same is true of the internet and Social Media. It is a different beast, a different medium, and therefore, there is a different message. We as a society are prioritising different skills and using different skill sets, bought on by this new medium.
Importantly (and many scare mongering social panics seem to miss this point) different doesn’t equal worse, just different. We need to be careful when applying value labels to changes in social skills and social ideals. Just because the previous system is the system you use doesn’t mean the different skills and ideals of the new method are worse. We as sociologist need to attempt, however naïve (that’s a whole other discussion on objectivity and bias in sociology that I’m going to glibly avoid here) to view new systems without pre-arrived conclusions about the best method of socialising. Far too often we are told that language is evolving incorrectly. That the kids today don’t know how to talk. That language change is lamentable. Change is inevitable, attempting to keep a language static is foolish and elitist (see the continual disconnect between the Académie Française and actual spoken French). Attempting to do so to social skills is equally as futile. We need to document what is happening in society, not attempt to be the gatekeepers of correct socialising.
The idea that ‘people fail to learn the real social skills’ necessary just because we are interactive in curating community values is bizarre. These are social skills! These are necessary social complex skills that many sociologists are attempting to understand, document, and unpack. They are increasingly complex and increasingly necessary in an age where the vast majority of peers are online using the same skills to socialise (See PEW stats for exact figures of users!).
Similarly, community as a concept has evolved, and continues to evolve. Many early online sociologist have written about the move away from a geographical based community towards a sense of community based upon shared ideals (Redhead 1990, Muggleton 2000, Miles 2000, Chaney 2004, Robards and Bennett 2011). Instead of communities being created on shared geography, new mediums, (phones, internet etc) have allowed us to create communities with people with whom we share ideals, regardless of geography.
The word ‘subculture’ is often used to define online interactions (though often without reference or definition), and presents online interaction and culture as lesser than real culture. In this interview, Bauman attempts to use the word network to distinguish the type of community found online to those found offline. Again this does a disservice to online communities. This differentiation between online and offline communities only serves to hold up offline communities as ‘proper’ communities, and to ‘other’ (see Fursich) the online communities as being lesser or less substantive/real than offline communities.
This idea of online being less real is a constant plague when dealing with internet interactions. We see this echoed heavily in the ongoing fight to have online abuse treated substantively and properly, both legally and socially. This can be seen in so many cases of online abuse, in which the reality of the abuse to the person being abused is downplayed, to the detriment and harm of the person being abused. There are a growing plethora of examples of this, such as an example this weekend of online abuse towards women treated as different to offline abuse (https://t.co/4unQZuRzOY). Digital abuse is not lesser because of the medium. Yet the idea pervades that online abuse is not as affecting, or that there’s less culpability due to the medium. We need to treat online abuse seriously, & understand that the digital element does not make it any less abusive, threatening, or real.
Similarly, we need to understand that online communities are not any less real, and that they are affecting. Digital communities are not lesser than offline communities merely because of the screen involved. They are no less real to those who are part of them, and are increasingly an important aspect of modern society. To attempt to view them as lesser than offline communities again provides a disservice to the many advantages and recompenses to those involved. As Bauman rightly points out, culture can no longer be considered a reflection of class and geographical background as subcultural theory suggests (Hebdige 1979, Brake 1985) but is instead a product of individual choice and is highly reflective and malleable. Today, we have the ability to forgo fixed collective identities set along traditional class and geographical location and instead creates personal paths (see Hodkinson & Lincoln 2008). This does not mean, as some researchers have gone on to assume, that because, due to the internet, communities are different, online cultures and identities are separate to offline cultures and identities. Nor that the internet offers the freedom to become whoever the user wants to be. We are still linked to offline ideals, offline realities, offline Discourses that pervade the potential blank slate of the internet; we bring our social baggage with us online.
The notion of community bought about online is different, with different ideals. Community can considered as less place-bound and more a “process of social solidarity, material processes of production and consumption, law making and symbolic processes of collective experience and cultural meaning” (Fernback 2007: 50). This does not mean as Bauman seems to suggest, and as has been argued using Beniger’s (1987) notion of pseudo-community, that online communities merely simulate stereotypical personalised communication to personalise the mass communication of the internet. Online communities are their own beast that draw upon the offline established ideals and methods, but adapt for the new medium. They are communities in their own right, and need to be treated and analysed as such. Although community is enacted differently due to the different modes available and differences in communication, these are nonetheless communities with different skills and ideals, and are just as real and impactful to members of the communities.
Social Media isn’t a substitute for offline, it is an evolution of offline. These are real and evolved communities.
Or, TL:DR, the medium is the message.