Social media is a common communication means in the Internet era. As people become accustomed to it, which is also quietly transforming their daily life. Some would argue that information on social media hold the key to knowledge and changes. However, it is the medium form that brings about radical revolution whether they are positive or negative. Postman (1982) puts forward ‘the disappearance of childhood’, meaning human growth is influenced by the media evolution. Thus, this essay will argue that it is social media, rather than contents that make a difference to human society. I will firstly focus on the power of this medium form itself. Then I will go on to explain how social media change human spiritual life and behaviours. Finally, I will set out evidence that social media have a profound impact on the whole society in terms of three different dimensions: political, economic and cultural.
Social media as a medium form, plays an important role in communication and social advance. The content is meaningless if it is not disseminated. Mankind tries to convey information from now and then throughout their history in order to push forward production and life. According to McLuhan (1964), it is the transformative medium, rather than the diverse content, has an influence on human interaction. That is to say, in the process of communication, no matter how rich it is, information carried by certain medium is nothing without the carrier. Referring to social media, what matters is the output of online platforms, instead of users having a couple of ideas and keeping them in their minds. If the contents do not spread, they would lose their values. From the evolution of media, different medium initiates a fresh epoch of social interaction. In the system of oral communication, sound symbols were spread within a limited area and they faded away with time went by. Entering the literate era, the carriers of text broke the geographical restriction and brought text information to remote places. Volumes of text in print age popularized knowledge to ordinary people instead of elite. Spreading information across time and space was made a reality during the electronic age. Social media born current in digital age make media convergence a common sense, which could not only keep functions of main media in the past but also surpass them as social media can export diverse information including texts, images, sounds and videos beyond time and space. This is a breakthrough change in human communication. Judging from the history, what media convey is inferior to the medium itself. McLuhan claims that the technological nature of media plays a part in social advance (ibid). To be specific, social media connect residents all over the world and share digital resources openly. It is because the way people getting access to information is altered, could they have the chance to get large amounts of resources. In terms of human interaction, the distance between different groups has been reduced drastically. As McLuhan foresees in 1962, the world is small enough to become a Global Village. The power of media technology enables human to enter new civilization, which is a valuable message compared to the actual information.
New forms of media have been changing the psychic life of the community. The first point to note is that social modes have transformed from offline to online. It takes an average person 116 minutes a day to use social media, and nine hours for adolescents, Asano reports in 2017. It seems that youths are always waiting for connection. One reason why internet users keep turning to social media is that they could use broader channels while communicating with others, such as blogs, microblogs, vlogs, message apps, dating tools, online forums, websites with social function. There is a bunch of choices according to diverse social purposes although some of them take up the dominant market. Regarding digital life at present, a tendency to socialize everything subconsciously has come out. For instance, a child who is accustomed to communicating by social media with digital products might expect other things to be digitized. Apart from customs, social media also affect ways of thinking. Information on social media is full of fragments, which enable users to communicate in a convenient way. As a result, people tend to type incompletely such as using many abbreviations, which firstly intend for saving time and in the end a lot of original expressions are forgotten. People now prefer consuming abundant fragment materials on social media rather than spending time reading printing books, whereas deep reading and thinking is superior to inefficient hardworking. Accordingly, the ability to concentrate is also decreasing. On one hand, people turn to social applications frequently while dealing with affairs that are irrelevant to any social tools and end up enjoying surfing the Internet. On the other hand, as the essay points out previously, lots of fragmented information overwhelms daily life, which leads to a situation of being nowhere and unable to focus on some point. Additionally, social media also impact the relationships of real life. It is argued that people’s feelings are neglected in online life and they lose faith in others (Turkle 2012). Thus, social media seem to broaden contacts of a person but in fact add to loneliness. Real emotion is hidden in this virtual environment. It is usual to see the scene that friends and relatives sitting together while not talking to each other but focusing on smartphones of themselves, which Turkle calls it ‘alone together’. While people show alienation to their acquaintances, they present an active character on social media such as express condolence to the dead. It costs little to show sympathy for famous figures who just passed away and this to some extent weaken respect for death as social platforms have made mourning easier. The phenomenon of keeping away familiar contacts and showing rich emotions towards the unfamiliar might finally impair the ability to communicate face to face.
Social media lead to social change in the political, economic and cultural dimension. Firstly, users develop democracy through social media, which empower ordinary users to publish first-hand news. This kind of news production is called citizen journalism and it challenges traditional news report. Online campaigning is another example. MeToo, the movement against sexual harass, was spread through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which swept the Internet and the collective voices incur the collapse of certain elites. Sunstein states in 2018, Social media are used to recruit people sharing the same interest and they may have the power to incur a war someday. Minority groups are free to set up communities to gather each other and fight for themselves. In this sense, social media create a public sphere that is comparatively open and equal, blurring class boundaries and empower ordinary citizens. From the economic perspective, social media bring new commercial modes. Considering as an independent industry, social media could export media products, depending on which self-media users are making a living. For other industries, which regard media as part of propaganda, social media have now become an important means to boost brands. Renders (2017) states that it is now pervasive to see social media stars hired by brands to promote products. They are effective not only in advertising but also in crisis management because they could report to the public in the first place whenever needed. Finally, social media shape ways of cultural consumption. They create a kind of cultural experience that, users could contact people they know or do not know. Karinthy proposes ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ in 1929 that a chain could be made to connect any two persons within six steps. The theory shows its value on social platforms, whose users bear a desire to contact the world. Entertainment is also a cultural experience of social media. They have been promoting the function of entertainment to many users. Video platforms like TikTok offer a mass of less-than-one-minute clips set to music, which are funny and addictive. Most of these clips are meaningless but remain the power to amuse viewers. As Lorenz (2018) says, it is easy to make fun of the bizarre style in TikTok, however, the new form of interaction that is not too serious bring it to success. When it comes to identities of these cultural consumers, social media strike the mainstream culture due to the rise of grassroots. Human consumption regarding culture has diversified ever since the emergence of social media because people have received rich information sources as well as had their cultural choices.
Human history and current usage of media have proved social media’s value, which McLuhan calls as the message. Consequently, this essay has argued that it is vital to realize the radical function of medium to society. Applying on social media, it changes communication fundamentally, leading to a new state of human history. It also affects people’s mental life deeply and the interaction between each other tend to be superficial. Lastly, social media shape the world due to political democratization, economic enrichment and cultural entertainment. The real message contained in a medium is the power to trigger a change. It is suggested in later research to focus on new forms of medium since they hold the key to possibilities.