Social media- an evolutionary perspective

Throughout history, every time there was a new breakthrough in the way we communicated with each other, it marked a new leap in the progress of mankind.

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The development of capacity for language- the ability to produce intelligible sounds that could be combined with each other to describe and communicate about vast number of things had differentiated the early man from animals. This capacity to communicate complex concepts and ideas made man the dominant species of the planet. Through verbal language he could give names to other people and things, share knowledge with others and develop social networks. Anthropologists say that the development of social networks by homo sapiens, which helped them source resources when in need from other places, determined their survival during the cold yearsb 40,000 years ago. Our genetic cousins Neanderthals could not develop such networks and so they became extinct.

The next breakthrough in communication was the development of our ability to write down language by assigning written symbols to our verbal sounds. Around 4000 BC, in the cradles of civilization of man like Mesopotamia and Indus valley, the issues of administration and trade had become very complex. Relying only on memory and verbal communication was not sufficient for carrying out transactions and for governing civic life. Writing was developed as a solution to this problem. Now language could be given a permanent form which is more objective and can be communicated without distortion and message could be delivered without the physical presence of the person who was ‘speaking’. One significant advantage this development offered was, now humans could sustain and hold together vast empires in China and India because of the ease in governance offered by writing.

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Gradually more sophisticated languages were developed with permanent grammar, an elaborate alphabet systems and sophisticated word play. Religion had taken great advantage of writing as it could spread the gospel and the ‘word of God’ more rapidly over vast geographic areas. Even Buddhism was propagated in to other countries of Asia mainly due to recording of Buddhist literature in writing.

With the advent of the practice of writing on paper, communication became easier and cheaper. Paper’s main advantage is it’s longevity, it could be preserved well and could be mass produced. This helped in the spread of education to common people.

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Next came the invention of printing. The Chinese were the first to develop the technique of printing which helped the empire run administration effectively and provide education. Printing was also extensively used in the spread of Buddhist literature in China. Hundreds of years later in 15th century, a German called Gutenberg further developed this printing technique to invent a mechanical movable printing which began the ‘printing revolution’. This is now regarded as the greatest invention of the modern world as printing became the catalyst for the advent of the ‘age of enlightenment’ and the scientific revolution. Ironically, from then written language became the enemy of the church as books and pamphlets became the tools to challenge religious dogmas in the west.

Mass printing of pamphlets using the press, helped Martin Luther in 16th century in spreading his opposition against Roman Catholic Church, which led to reformist movement in Christianity. This reduced the hold of the Vatican on western Europe which had many far reaching consequences for the history of the world. This include, emergence of new denominations in Christianity, the development of modern nation-states and the raise of secularism which separated state and church.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

The practice of printing and reading newspapers began during the thirty years’ war in 17th century, Europe. People of Europe wanted to know about the latest events about the war which had great significance for their lives. The newspapers catered to this need and brought the latest news about the war and beyond. Gradually people made newspaper reading as a daily habit. With this, the power and influence of the ‘press’ grew and they began to play the role of a watchdog to the government. People began to become socially and politically conscious. Newspapers were soon used as platforms by intellectuals to debate issues of individual liberty, questions on faith and democracy. This helped in spreading the ideas of liberalism, secularism and democracy to all of Europe and later to all of the world.

LeMondeArchiveThe British Raj by 18th century had become the largest empire the world had ever seen. The role of the innovations in communication through postal networks and telegraph in this empire building and in its sustenance is far reaching. The modern post system they created, had allowed even private individuals to communicate with each others for a small charge. This made making transactions easier, cheaper and faster. This helped in the growth and spread of commerce over long distances and import-export trade grew, turning the whole world in to a single market place. This directly impacted the growth of capitalism through out the world.

Since the scientific revolution, the frequency of breakthroughs in the evolution of new form of communication has increased rapidly. New technologies are being invented at an exponential pace. Soon telegraph, telephone and radio came on the seen.

The telegraph and the telephone made communication between long distances instantaneous. It was as if one talked to the other person face to face. Life of humans became faster with the pace of communication becoming real-time.

The invention of communicating messages with wireless technology was nothing short of a revolution. Communication was now not limited by absence of cooper cables which acted as the messengers. Through radio, one could reach millions of people from any where in the world.

tv

TV and radio redefined the age of mass communication. TV completely changed how people consumed news and entertainment. By involving images and video content, TV made communication more effective and influential. People who controlled media suddenly became the most powerful people on earth. People began to spend more time listening to TV than talking to their friends and family.

The next big leap was the development of Internet by CERN scientists. Internet has affected every part of human life. It is now impossible to imagine a world without internet. It had turned the world in to a global village. Communication is now almost free, it can be conducted in real time and can reach any part of the world.

The next stage in this technological evolution of communication, is the development of social media. By combining the tools of social media with the the smart phone revolution that began with the launch of the first iPhone, we now have a very powerful tool for communication.

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Social media is developed using the tools of Web 2.0, where users are not just passive readers of content on a website but can interact with the website, with other users and can even contribute to it. This is a new breakthrough in how communication is conducted via a media. All communication until now had been a one-way street like newspapers and televivion, or between two persons as in the case of a telephone or email, but using social media, millions of people across the world can have simultaneous conversations in real time like in twitter.

How does social media marks a new leap in human progress:

As we had seen in the past, man’s progress had always been depended on how fast, how efficient and how cheaper the new communication method he develops. Social media had again made communication faster, cheaper and more efficient and so it is bound to affect how people lead their lives in all spheres. We are already seeing influence of social media on politics, economy, culture and the threats it can produce.

With social media, the communication is not only instantaneous but also continuous. Through mobile phones, one is always ‘connected’ with the online world and is permanently ‘logged’ in. It is like a never ending phone call with all our contacts, with intermittent silences!

People are being empowered through social media. For example, many small businesses are using Facebook to market their products. People who are in need are soliciting blood for their loves ones through social media and they are getting instant response. Many NGOs are reaching out to like minded people especially youth to enlist volunteers. The Ugly Indian campaign for example is run entirely through social media.

Human progress had always been depended on the strengths of our social networks-how we share our resources and pool them to fend off our common threats. The virtual social networks like facebook and twitter are bringing people from all over the world together and helping them form strong social networks. Through them people are meeting strangers, collaborating with them and discovering new things.

Using mobile phone to communicate on social media is opening for all, new possibilities on how news is published and read. For example, citizens are turning in to journalists by clicking images that they see on their phones and writing their thoughts and immediately posting on different social media for others to read and share their opinions. If the news is worth reading, it gets shared and the more popular ones are being mentioned in traditional news channels. For example, the lady who turned the ice bucket challenge in to ‘rice bucket’ challenge went viral on fb before getting traction on national media. Later she was even recognized by UN for her creative gesture.

The monopoly over news by big organizations during the era of television is breaking up. It is said that US had ‘won’ the cold war as much from the influence of CNN(US news channel) as from CIA. Now state propaganda by any country will be less effective as millions of voices can repudiate their lies. That is the reason why some countries are putting restrictions on the access to social media.

The world had already seen the potential of social media in bringing revolutions during the protests of Jasmine revolution in Tunis, during Shahbag protests in Dhaka and even during the protests in the aftermath of december 2013 Delhi gang rape case.

It is redefining how people consume entertainment. Already some YouTube celebrities have attracted global following. The phenomenon of ‘going viral’ on social networks through likes and shares have given instant celebrity status to many people. The south Korean pop star, Psy whose Gangnam style had become a global hit is a great example for this trend.

Wikis like Wikipedia and Wikia are transforming how knowledge is created and shared. Knowledge is being democratized and is being made free. People are sharing their knowledge for free and for the benefit of all. Today there is no need to go to elite schools to learn. Every thing that needs to be learned can be done through internet, if we know some basic search engine skills and have the time.

Another phenomenon is ‘crowd sourcing’. It is not a new concept, but with the advent of social media, crowd sourcing is being used for unique purposes. For example, using social media many projects like films and social entrepreneurship are being ‘crowd funded’, people from all over the world are collaborating to solve complex mathematical problems and theorems, and social media is also facilitating citizen science-where common people can contribute to science by collecting local information which is especially useful for zoology and for other environmental sciences.

The unsocial media:

Despite the numerous advantages that social media offers for communication, it is also being used by people who are trying to halt the progress of mankind.

The biggest example for this trend is the use of social media by terrorist organizations like ISIS which are using it to propagate their violent ideology and for brain washing young people by twisting facts. Ironically, these organizations are taking the same advantages that social media offers to communication.

Another problem that people are facing is the ‘culture of trolling’. The anonymity that social media offers is being taken advantage by trolls on the internet. The basic civility and manners that are expected from fellow humans are forgotten in the realm of cyber world. Cyber bullying is also another manifestation of trolls taking advantage of anonymity.

There is another worry that, as people are being hooked on to their laptop and mobile screens, they are spending less time with ‘real people’. Social interactions are getting affected due to this.

There are also psychological effects on excessive use of social media, especially social networks. We tend to constantly compare our lives with others. When all our friends only post positive things about themselves on social networking sites, by comparing with them, youth and especially teenagers are being affected by depression. However, we tend to forget that people mostly ‘post’ only good things about themselves online.

As we had gotten most of our knowledge from reading printed material, we tend to give high credibility to printed words. So anything, that we read on our screens are also believed easily by people. This leads to propagation of falsehood and people may fall victims to rumors- as happened in Bangalore in 2012 when north east students after falling prey to rumors fled the city en masse.

Conclusion:

The web had completely changed the way people communicate and there by how they live. Social media, especially through mobile phone is the next step in that evolution of communication. Social media offers all the advantages of the previous communication methods developed by man and much more. Viewing social media from this perspective, the $19 billion that Mark Zukerberg paid to buy out WhatsApp does not sound so preposterous.

The possibilities for the future driven by social media are immense and we are just starting to discover what they are. However there are also numerous new challenges that the human kind faces with the negative impacts arising from social media. But there is hope that mankind is wise enough to recognize these ugly trends and create new solutions to these problems.

We should not see ‘social media’ from the prism of Mobile vs Web but each should be seen as distinct and complementary evolutionary stages of communication which man has developed and they will surely propel mankind in to the future.

PS: I am participating in the #SMWBangalore activity at BlogAdda in association with Social Media Week Bangalore

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