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Social Networking

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According to The history of social networking talking about everyday life of Americans, “It has been only a few short years since the terms “social networking” and “social media” first entered our vocabulary”( The Visual Academy). The term “social networking” may be understood in a number of ways depending on the context. In modern parlance, however, this term typically refers to an online or digital media service deigned to expedite and facilitate the construction and maintenance of social relationships. It includes friendship, employment or shared-interest networks were both individuals, public figures, and private companies communicate. It is the definition that will be employed in the current paper.

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Online social networking is a phenomenon that has arguably revolutionized both interpersonal communications, with far-reaching consequences for diverse areas, such as marketing, government, and even toilet use (Oremus, 2012, Srinivasan, 2012 & Ryan, 2011). This essay will seek to explore the phenomenon in the three ­­­­sections. In the first section a brief historical discussion will provide an overview of the development of this novel form of communication. In the second section its effects will be analyzed at the level of the private individual, focusing specifically on social networking and teenage cyberbullying. In the final section the impact of social media on the large-scale interactions between citizens and their government will be reviewed with the Arab Spring as a case study.

It is important to mention that because of limiting ourselves to such specific aspects of social networking, each element will receive only a cursory treatment.

Section 1: The development of online social networking

At its core, online social networking may be understood as simply a form of computer-mediated discourse (CMD). It can be augmented in various ways depending on the particular service, but with each service sharing the common characteristics of persistenceof a dialogue and/or an action. The word “persistence” here refers to the recordability of a text or action. The fact is that a statement made by a participant may remain accessible long after that statement is made, as by scrolling up through chat logs to review old messages (Herring, 1996).

Understood in this way, social networking has its roots in services nearly of an age with the Internet itself. Usenet and LISTSERV, for example, were early 1980’s services that employed message boards and mailing lists respectively. With the development of the world-wide web, the formats for digital interaction, as well as the goals of the participants, had increased dramatically in number and variety. CompuServe, for instance, popularized the widespread use of e-mail and pioneered file sharing. 

Even more portentous was the advent and growth of the America Online (AOL), “the Internet before the Internet” (Goble, 2012). This service resembled modern social networking to a much higher degree than any of its contemporaries. It facilitated the creation of communities “complete with searchable member profiles, in which users would list pertinent information about themselves” (Goble, 2012). A multitude of sites and services are subsequently proliferated, often interest-based or demographically driven. They offer to help individuals forge or re-forge connections between old classmates or members of certain ethnic groups.

Shortly after the new millennium, the modern incarnations of social media began to move to the forefront of online interaction. In 2002, Friendster, with its unique “Circle of Friends” visualized the connections between members of a network. He popularized the idea that real community interaction, genuine friendships and even romance could develop even between geographically disparate members of interest groups. A year later, LinkedIn and MySpace were launched. The first one focused on facilitating career-oriented network, while the second one strongly emphasized the sharing of entertainment and popular culture among its members.

The company that would come to define the face of online social networking, however, was not launched until 2004. Facebook, which started as a network for students attending Harvard College, expanded within months to several other Ivy Leagues. It is a service in which members create profiles, develop friend networks, and communicate largely via the site’s internal messaging system. By May 2005, millions of dollars had been invested in the site; seven years later, it boasted one billion active users and was the most used social networking site worldwide. 

Today, the dynamic of digitally-facilitated social networking has evolved as well.  Indeed, the practice is no longer restricted to a seated location or even a computer: nearly half of Facebook’s users access the site by means of a mobile device. Thus, we see that individuals are increasingly engaging in networking activities simultaneously on-and- offline. The definition of “social networking” we adopted at the beginning of this paper likely still remains a valid interpretation. In spite of this, it is more than possible that in the near future the line between digitally-facilitated and face-to-face networking will be blurred. It will be blurred to such extent that the categories and methodologies of study that accompany them will have to be drastically modified. 

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In sum, the story is in no way complete. The development of online social networking is a dynamic field with myriad applications and consequences, from data mining to political protest, from child abuse to law enforcement. The future of these applications will undoubtedly play a significant role in the way our lives will run into the indefinite. The following sections will begin to explore the consequences of some of these applications. They should in no way be considered exhaustive; rather, they are definitively introductory. Again, it would be exceedingly difficult to place too much emphasis on the dynamic and changing nature of this fascinating field. 

Section 2: Teens and social networking

One of the surveys (2009) found that the vast majority, nearly three-quarters of online teenagers, make use of social networking sites. Thus, there are many possibilities for positive applications, especially in the fields of education and learning. However, as indicated above, there are also potentially serious risks such as stalking, cyberbullying, and identity theft (Molony, 2013). Similarly, far ranging effects that do not easily fall into categories of good or bad must be considered. They include the difference in teenage behavior online rather than in face-to-face settings, for example, especially with respect to identity development. 

Teens typically employ a variety of social networking services in ever-changing proportions; one recent study found that teens now favor Tumblr over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (Ed Carasco, 2013). It is important, of course, to note that each of these services offers both unique benefits and, unfortunately, unique liabilities. It is not within the scope of this paper to parse the finer distinctions between them. However, since we will treat them as a unit, it is important to proceed in a qualified fashion. In order to limit the scope of this discussion, we will focus on the specific problem of cyberbullying within the general world of online or digitally facilitated social networking.

As Patchin writes, “A new permutation of bullying has recently arisen and become more common: Techsavvy students are turning to cyberspace to harass their peers” (2006). While cyberbullying is a form of violence which could potentially occur in any population, teenagers are especially at risk due to their emotional vulnerability and the relatively unsupervised nature of their online interactions. In essence, cyberbullying occurs when one person employs technology to harass or bully another person. Thus, we can fall under this category many actions, including, but not limiting to:

Sending mean messages or texts posting harmful or threatening messages to social networking sites, posting hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages; stealing a person's account information to break into their account and send damaging messages; pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person; taking unflattering pictures of a person and spreading them through cell phones or the Internet; sexting, or circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about a person. (Bullying Statistics)

Approximately 50% of teens have been victims of cyberbullying at one point or another, but only one-fifth of victims ever alert a parent or other authority figure of the abuse. The vast majority of this abuse occurs by way of cell phone. Furthermore, a recent study that employed multiple focus groups to determine perceptions of cyberbullying among “student populations found that students, particularly females, view cyber bullying as a problem, but one rarely discussed at school, and that students do not see the school district personnel as helpful resources when dealing with cyber bullying.” Unsurprisingly, most instances of abuse occur outside the school day (Agatston, P.W., Kowalski R. & Limber S., 2007).

The problem, then, is clearly increasing in severity, and methods of combating it have yet to be comprehensively developed. However, some techniques do exist to limit the damage bullies are capable of inflicting. The National Crime Prevention Council, for instance, suggests both formal and informal responses when students are bullied. With respect to informal responses, one can attempt to block communications with the cyberbully, perhaps by deleting messages unread. Talking to a friend about the bullying is suggested; victims are strongly discouraged from seeking revenge against the bully. In terms of formal responses, victims can contact Internet service providers, website moderators, school officials or even law enforcement. In this context, the aforementioned persistence of the content of this strain of CMD can play an extremely significant role. As compared to traditional face-to-face bullying, the evidence of cyberbullying is easily retained and produced by a victim (NCPC, 2006, Magid, L. & Collier A., 2007).

Perhaps, more important than strictly playing defense, however, is prevention.  Teenagers should limit the degree to which they make their personal information available online. They should never meet someone face-to-face with whom they have only interacted online. They should be as open as possible with their parents regarding online activities. 

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Section 3: Social media and the Arab Spring

As it is visible, social networking have profound impacts on the lives of individuals and vulnerable populations. Because of this it is reasonable to be curious about the possibilities where an even greater power differential exists, as between citizens and an authoritarian government. 

The Arab Spring was a series of protests in the Middle East, largely taking the form of concerned citizens dissatisfied with the performance of their respective governments. The protests were highly effective, toppling multiple dictators, initiating reforms and sometimes resulting in the creation of new and historic democratic institutions. These protests famously employed social media as an organizing tool that was arguably critical to their success.

With this in mind, however, Srinivasan argues that:

Activists and politicians in today’s Egypt have now fully embraced the tools of social media not just to support the creation of political capital but also to subvert the competition. Technologies to spy, hack, and leak are all part of the environment, and all actively used by the different political activists with which I spoke. The all too easy narrative that liberal/leftist youth and their technologies are out of the game simply doesn’t stand up to reality. Instead activists understand that their longer and shorter term strategies must both exist, and that they must engage the digital and physical worlds to achieve their goals. (2012)

It is important to keep in mind that the power of social media is a two-way street; the response of governments to the Arab Spring was largely unpracticed. The tools employed to silence the uprisings such as attempting to shut down Internet access for entire nations were exceedingly blunt. The autocratic regimes become more accustomed to the way in which this new tool is used in situations of mass protest or popular revolution. They will become more adept not simply at countering it, but at appropriating it for their own purposes.

Conclusions

This research paper has made tentative exploration of a handful of areas currently undergoing fundamental changes as a result of the increasing popularity of online social networking. No section is complete; doctoral dissertations could be and have been written about each of them separately. Furthermore, the areas that are being altered by this new development in communication are almost unlimited. It is reasonable to assume that every aspect of our lives, from where we eat to how we vote, could one day be deeply intertwined with social media networks. 

In conclusion, the author can only strongly counsel: keep your eyes open. It is likely that we have not even begun to see the far-reaching and radical changes. The digitally mediated changes of social networking will produce on our lives and on the world in general.

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