By: Dr Hamdullah Mohib
What is Social Media?
When we hear the term Social Media, most of us imagine social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterst, etc. But long before these networks were created, social media existed and it changed the world.
Social media has different definitions for different people but the one common thing about them all is that it empowers you to publish your thoughts, whether that is through written articles, through blogs, videos or even simply voicing it across the telephone. In the most basic form, a mobile phone is one of the most effective social media tools we have; with a simple text message we can reach a large audience in a matter of seconds. In its state of the art form, the smart phone has all the tools to be socially connected at your fingertips from micro blogging to video broadcasting.
How has Social Media affected our lives and how has it revolutionised the development of public opinion?
Before social media arrived, opinion makers were those with the power and position to dominate broadcasting services and print media. They were in a unique position to set the agenda, and strongly influence the public’s opinion on important social current affairs, from race to gender to class issues. Citizens had no or limited platforms for participating or challenging these agendas – you were a consumer. There was a one-way relationship between the media and consumers. This at times made for a dangerous situation. For example, when governments and dictatorships abused media platforms to push violent agendas, such as in the case of Hitlet’s Nazi Germany in World War II, and more recently during the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.
Social media gave people the outlet to participate and challenge newsmakers, public opinion makers, governments, etc. Social media is fundamentally inclusive and non-discriminatory because it gives each and every citizen, with internet access, a platform from which to air their opinions. It brings people together to discuss a range of issues – society, politics, economics, entertainment, culture, etc.
Social media gives you the ability to connect with people with shared interests and allows you to ‘follow’ those interests. And that is what makes social media relevant. For a villager, the well near his house might be of far more importance than the building of a 40-meter wide highway in the capital city. He can focus, follow and voice his concerns about the things that are a priority in his life, not issues which are a priority for his country’s elite. This has allowed the user to either push back against a system or participate in it. Think of TV/Radio shows today – they almost all have consumer participation mechanisms built in.
You can communicate your message through several types of media – from blogs for long articles to videos for visual demonstrations, and text messaging multicast for short and instant delivery.
You no longer have to wait for someone to spot your talent. The world is your stage to showcase your creative genius (examples can be found here and here). If one person likes what you are doing, he/she will share it with his/her network and if they like it, they will share with theirs, and so on. Your recommendations are no longer restricted to a small geography. Its limits are only defined by how great your work is and how many other people are interested in what you have shared.
One example of this trend of global audiences challenging traditional media is the publishing of news articles. Today, it doesn’t matter where an article is published – in your country’s newspaper, on your blog or in a third country media outlet – if you have something interesting, people will read it. So restrictions from local media are no longer able to stop people from spreading a message that could be controversial.
The first and most pressing problem for Afghanistan is that if you don’t have internet access, you get shut out. While the developed world has solved this problem, in the developing countries, such as Afghanistan, the price for having internet access [97 USD per MB] is still out of the reach of ordinary Afghans. In such countries, only the rich and middle class will benefit from social media, since those classes are the ones with internet access. This problem of internet prices and inequality in education are expected to hinder the usage of social media on a large scale for many years to come.
The other problem is that social networks have famously brought down political regimes through revolutions, the main example being that of the Arab Spring. It can be argued that social media has yet to make a significant contribution to building a country. While this is true to some extent, the counter argument is that building takes a lot longer than the traditional revolution.
Internet is a revolution, mobile phones are a revolution, Khan Academy is a revolution, Wikipedia is a revolution, Ushahidi is a revolution. They took years to build, not weeks or months. The latter two are good examples of global participants making something great. There are over 4 million articles on Wikipedia in English alone, all contributed by people across the world – all by independent unpaid volunteers! If we want to make a difference, social media gives us the tools to work across the world with teams of like-minded individuals.
Today, geographically dispersed teams use social media tools, from WhatsAppto Asana to work on group projects remotely. The number of formal meetings that happen over Skype is rising by the day. Google Hangout is now commonly used by even mainstream TV channels for group discussions.
For those of us lucky enough to be able to afford internet access to use social media, we must remember that with power comes responsibilities. We now have control over what we say and our messages are no longer censored by dictators and media moguls. It is our responsibility to be constructive. We are no longer mere listeners; we are participants in shaping public opinion. We can use social media to either build the next Wikipedia, or bring down a government. The choice is ours. As humans, it is in our nature to experiment with new things. And social media is still in the experimental stages, even though it has matured faster in some countries. And as with everything, increased quality comes with persistent experimental trial and error. When the printing press arrived, it was a revolution, but we did not see scientific journals immediately after its invention. It will be a while before social networks such as ResearchGate become as popular as Facebook. For social media it is just the beginning. But it has still given us a power; let’s learn to use it responsibly.