Social media is supposed to be more than a bunch of people sharing picture about their last night drinking spree. Social media (ex: Facebook, Twitter) is also supposed to be an alternative source of information to traditional media (ex: CNN, FOX). User generated content means that information is no longer created by institutions, but by real people. With social media, reality becomes what people describe it to be as opposed to what they see on TV. After 7 years of social media use (since Facebook was launched), 2 big players have emerged as the dominant platforms. These are Facebook and Twitter. Let’s see how these websites measure up against the promise of being an alternative source of information.
The main advantage offered by Facebook is in the possibility of sharing pictures and status updates with friends and acquaintances. Most of these Facebook friends come from our immediate social environment. In other words, they are people with whom we can have face-to-face interaction and with whom with would have contact even if Facebook didn’t exist. In other words, Facebook doesn’t offer the possibility of receiving information that would otherwise be impossible to receive.
Of course, sharing and commenting news on Facebook means that we have to put less effort to let a lot of friends know what we think of a particular issue. However, if everyone of our friends share links and comment news at the same rate, we will be plagued with information overload. In such a scenario, the information that will be noticed by all and that will be recognized as a credible source will be the one posted by the initial source of news, namely traditional media. In such scenarios, Facebook converges with traditional media. Or worse, it becomes a source of narcissistic shouting, meaning that all that every single user cares of is getting his own view broadcast to as many people as possible without paying much attention to other users’ views.
Now, the fact that not everyone shares or comments news at the same rate might seem to indicate that information overload will not occur in practice. Everyone has an activist Facebook friend who comments vigorously on news. Naturally, his voice will be more present in his friends’ walls. But then, by being an activist, he’s just acting as another journalist in traditional media. He’s just another source of news among many available sources of news out there. What Facebook offers here is the possibility for an activist to reach a lot of people without having to spend great sums in terms of broadcasting techniques. Maybe the content created by an activist is not as professional or polished as the content created by a professional journalist, but the information dissemination role played by both of them is very similar. Again, if Facebook is all that social media can be, the reality of what can be accomplished through social media is far from what was initially promised.
Compared to Facebook, Twitter offers a slightly different communication model. Here, connections are week, meaning that there’s no need for mutual agreement between two people for them to be connected. In fact, connections can be one way, meaning that when one person follows another person, the former will be exposed to all the messages created by the latter. Obviously, those who have a lot of followers will be more influential and their opinions will be hurt by a larger proportion of users. But who are these influential and highly followed people? A quick look at the top followed Twitter accounts will shows that they are all celebrities. In other words, these are all people who already have a strong presence in traditional media. The single instance of a Twitter-made celebrity has still to come. Therefore, Twitter fails in giving the opportunity to promote discussions that are different from those that are already taking place in traditional media. Again, there seems to be convergence between Twitter and traditional media.
Some would argue that the Arab Spring is an example of how social media can lead to change. It is possible that in the case of authoritarian regimes, the use of social media leads to being exposed to views that are contrary to what state television shows. Social media becomes an alternate space where people can freely express their thought, which eventually leads to people realizing that they were not alone in seeing thing in the way they see them. However, if social media did really offer a new sense of reality to people who lived in those countries, maybe it was because state controlled media (the equivalent of traditional media in free society) in those countries did not do the effort of having a presence in social media. In other words, they have neglected the importance of convergence between traditional media and social media.
When it comes to having a strong presence in social media, the fact is that institutions dispose of greater resources to allocate than ordinary people. Institutions can hire professional social media optimization experts to make sure that they play a more central role in social networks. The same way they use resources to create content in traditional media, they can use resources to create more content and better quality content in social media. Also, the fact that they are already known as ‘reliable’ source of information gives them extra credit in social media. If the Internet displaces TV, main broadcasting corporation will have to switch resources from TV to Internet content creation and promotion. And if both sources of information coexist, the natural convergence described above will lead to the obsolescence of social media as an alternative source of information.