It has become difficult to distinguish online from offline in today’s society when they are mixed and integrated into each other. We often forget that as much as we shape the online reality by incorporating our offline lives there, the existence of digital technologies affects our relationships and communities, our identity creation and our experience of presence. But how does social media affect our social relations?
Digital technology and its potential have different implications for communities and relationships. Digital media enables people to reach each other regardless of location and time. In virtual communities, the individual can choose in which community to participate instead of being bound to the physical community in the place where one is. As such, virtual communities help like-minded media users from different countries and continents to gather around their common goals and interests.
Before digital media, people’s behaviour and relations used to be formed by the physical places where people were located. You cannot just un-friend someone, because you will continue meeting him/her in your town, school or work and it can be awkward. Virtual realities make this much easier. As the media expert and sociologist Vincent Miller explains, when there are no social bonds as in offline communities, the feeling of ‘group-ness’ is not so strong. As such, to unfriend someone on Facebook can be seen as a result of increased individualization, less sense of responsibility and greater choice. What is more, as Miller points, there is no longer the certainty that ‘we will meet again’. It’s easy for many to ‘throw out’ a facebook friend because when the communities are virtual and independent of location, we feel less guilty or afraid of any consequences when we meet the person. To ‘throw out’ a friend is not that difficult also because there are plenty of Facebook friends and many social media users have thousands of friends. Most of them they never meet. The individual’s identity in social media is often restricted only to a facebook profile – a button. Therefore, it is easy to press a button and throw out a friend.
To ‘unfriend’ someone on facebook is part of settings that help users adapt their experience to their needs and tastes. But to avoid or ignore someone or something does not remove the actual problem. To unfriend a person who shares racist posts, might help one skip seeing racism on Facebook but racism in society doesn’t disappear.
Social media has also impact on creating positive or negative feelings for others. As we know, language influences reality. When using a positive or negative language against individuals or communities in social media, positive or negative feelings are created against these. Reality can be affected negatively when those who ”produce” language use hate speech. ”We against them” thinking is created and individuals or groups are presented as enemies which can lead to people excluding them. Such exclusion can even lead to violence and harm. This means that if someone wants to spread hatred in the digital era it will reach much wider audience through the means of social media.
Social media and internet have an important role in contemporary society. They are often perceived with information development, global connectivity and a positive effect on group community across borders. On the other hand, social media affects our lives in different ways, such as political, social and economic, and can even lead to inclusion or exclusion. What is the role of social media and internet for community and exclusion depends on how it is used. Internet and social media have led to the improvement of our perception of community because we are able to socialize with people from around the world and often this is despite their culture, religion, interest or other orientation. Our societies have become more open, tolerant and multifaceted, in some way. Yet, it depends on the people sitting behind the screen and their intentions.
Article: Antonia Trigueiros