Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Effects of Social Media on Communication, Culture, Personal Relations and Private Life in Zambia
Social media has become an instrument of social transformation. Social media refers to “websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or participate in social networking” (www.oxforddictionaries.com, undated). Ivy Wigmore, in an article posted by Margaret Rouse (www.whatis.com, July 2014), adds that “Social media is the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content sharing and collaboration” through “forums, micro-blogging, social networking, social bookmarking, social curation and wikis”. Each of these terms denote certain activities that take place on social media with specific significance on communication, culture, personal relations and private life in Zambia.
If one studied all the major websites whose examples include Facebook, Twitter, Google plus, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, Reddit and Pinterest, and to which the concept of social media may be closely applied, we realize that we are dealing with a complex field of human living that could be constructed in myriad ways. The technology, upon which this social media rests, is not value neutral. We need to understand its fundamental elements and their impact upon modern living under the new digital culture in Zambia.
Social media however understood, is unarguably a product of what many experts in the electronic sector would dub as a “digital revolution”. From a scientific perspective, all such revolutions, including political ones, start with the basic question: “Does it have to be this way?”
From the 1960s self-actualization movements with their emphasis on “connecting with one’s inner self”, emerged a 21st century individuation and progressively, a broad search for meaning in life and knowledge of other cultures. By 1993, when the World Wide Web came into being, the disconnectedness of life had become too much to bear. People needed new ways of connecting not just to self, but to others (William J. Mitchell (1999:12). The reproduction of the New “Post-Corporate Society” (Korten, David C., 1999) required penetrative capacity for a new “global” social system reproduction based on at least four factors. The first is the means of access actors have to knowledge in virtue of their location. The second involve the modes of articulation of knowledge. The third are the circumstances relating to the validity of the belief claims taken as “knowledge” (a sort of vision of a new global village). And the fourth are those factors to do with the means of dissemination of available knowledge. The Silicon Valley provided all these conditions to the world through a spark ignited by the World Wide Web.
The bounded nature of physical space, forced the need to create “virtual communities” such as those on Facebook. In these spaces, “persons” interact with the presumption of intimate knowing of each other. And yet, we know, as marketing chat rooms reveal, the “John” who enters the chat room to answer your questions about buying a used Japanese car, is a robot! The human experience of communication has changed. Two separately married people in the same room with others can have a private and intimate conversation on Chat or Whatsapp, which may be in violation of sexual and fidelity norms of our Zambian society.
Social media is big business in Zambia’s digital revolution. It started with the University of Zambia’s sponsored Zamnet Ltd as an internet provider around 1994. The ingredients of this ‘incendiary brew’, as described by Mitchell, include “digital information storage, transmission, networking, and processing hardware, together with the associated software and interface capabilities” (Mitchell, 1999:13). Mitchell says, the key element in this digital revolution which is information “has become dematerialized and disembodied; it is now whizzing round the world at warp speed, and in cortex–crackling quantities, through computer networks” (Mitchell, 1999:13). In Zambia, experts have emerged in this industry who were never there before to harness this digital technology as IT (Information Technology) business.
Indeed, the dematerialization and disembodiment of information, has led to the emasculation of identities of the users of this information. We can illustrate this by studying the changing profiles of users of Facebook and LinkedIn. The same person can take two quite different descriptions. Fr. Jonah Lynch and Michelle K. Boras (2012) in a book entitled, Technology and New Evangelization Criteria for Discernment (p7-11) touch upon this point. They observe that in the digital world, “we become what we think, what we see, what we read and what we do”. In Mitchell’s vision of what he calls “E-Topia”, he challenges us to think of brains in this digital world “as a kernel surrounded by successive electronic shells operating as sensory organs, to transfer information back and forth across the carbon silicon” ( Mitchell, 200:66). Smart phones, now in vogue in Zambia and other “wear ware”, have transformed us into bodynets of information storage and retrieval. With the use of “touch or swipe” gadgets including cellular tablets, you can copy information with your finger by touching the sentence, word or phrase and paste it by pressing the same finger on another section or page in the same application even two days or so later. That information is retrievable as bits from our own bodies.
More Zambians are imaging themselves according to the mores projected on social network communities to which they belong. This has profound impact on culture, the invisible organizing fields of society. Language forms, used on these social media platforms apply new codes of signification. These are filtering through everyday language of the young generation with significant impact on human communication and cultural behavior (Korten, 1999:33, Lynch and Boras, 2012).
Our digital experience through which we are “wired” together by platforms such as social media, is an imaged world which can modify us, for better and for worse, creating or strengthening new social connections, weakening or eliminating others (like in “unfriending” someone on Facebook). Social media form us in “the image of our actions, thoughts, desires, and tools” (Lynch and Boras, 2012:11).
Dating on social media with “friends” we encounter while surfing the Web is common in Zambia. There have been stories of Zambian women travelling to meet their Facebook dates in Europe who looked like film stars on “profiles” just to find wheel-chaired, funny looking nerds!
Privacy, that feature constructed by the physiognomy of space (Hall, T., Edward, 1969) has been fractured by gadgets like Smartphones which both reveal your location and do more. This information is retrievable. States big and small, like corporations, are busy tapping into this cyber world for multiple reasons from marketing to tracking terrorism. A sort of colonization of mass culture is taking place. Privacy on a social media platform like Facebook is technically untenable.
In conclusion, social media, so indispensable to our lives now, dictates its own language form or codes. Competent users easily adopt this digital jargon. Most messages are in codes. In this practice, a kind of secrecy is maintained in relationships which breakdown the mores of social control that for instance, parents exercised over friends of their children. This transformation of family relations has far-reaching cultural implications including, alas, communication which social media is supposed to celebrate.
Culture, that invisible organizing field of society is being so dramatically reconfigured that we become fast communicators of low quality information to our social media friends or communities. As easily as we can connect with these communities, we can also disconnect or “unfriend” them. The concept of intimacy in human “friending” has been disfigured by the absence of co-presencing in human interaction (Giddens, 1984:64; Goffman, E., 1959:1) As Giddens writes, “The social characteristics of co-presence are anchored in the spatiality of the body, in orientation to others and to the experiencing self” (Gideens,1984:64). In virtual communities created by social media, space has been fractured into digital broadband. We enter into Chat rooms with another person whose body language we cannot read. Consequently, because language is beyond the written sign, the meaning of our communication is gravely syncopated. The “general text” of social media is “virtual reality”, imaged truth only understood perhaps by interactionists thinkers like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, the authors of The Construction of Reality (1967) and by Derridian students of Deconstruction (Culler, J. 1982). The human need for real communion as Lynch and Boras (2012) observe, is sabotaged or rather modified. In today’s world, we need many friends with whom we share less of us.
Berger, P., and Luckmann, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Doubleday/Anchor.
Culler, J., (1982). On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.
Giddens, A., (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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Korten, David C., (1999). The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Lynch, J., and M.K. Boras (2012) Technology and the New Evangelization: Criteria for Discernment. San Francisco: Knights of Columbus.
Mitchell, J. M., (1999). E-Topia: “Urban Life, Jim-but not as we know it”. London: The MIT Press.
Oxford Dictionaries (undated). Social media. http:// www.oxforddictionaries.com, retrieved, January 28, 2015.
Rouse, M., (2014). Social media, Wigmore I., (ed). http://www.whatis.com, (posted July 2014) retrieved Jan 28, 2015.
Chiengi, January 2015