Social Media

Social Media is the new Opium & Change the only Constant

We live in magical digital times. Everything is constantly changing all around us. It is a misnomer to call ourselves as “digital natives” anymore. We are immersed in a digital culture. All the eye-rolling cynicism over teenagers about having an umbilical attachment to their phones is pointless. We are constantly hooked on social network. We are in a time of depression and detachment–a world where no attention could ever be sustained. We no longer pause or reflect. All of us are just constantly looking for instant dopamine hits online.

Facebook is 15 years old; YouTube is 14, and Twitter is 13. These popular social media sites are barely in their teens—but their influence has completely changed the way we deliver and view content. Media is practically unrecognizable from even two years ago and changing everyday with new apps, new updates, new platforms, and new ways of customizing content.

It is only a decade ago when launching Digital Channels was going to be the biggest change ever in the Cable industry and when Sony and Microsoft were embroiled in a battle between BluRay vs. HD DVD.The days when everyone read the newspaper or tuned in to the 6 o’clock news bulletin seems such a distant past. And the future looks scary with newer technologies combined with artificial intelligence taking over and disrupting every sphere of communication and life at large. 

According to industry figures, 87 percent of millennials are always hooked to their smartphone and 92 percent of them browse on other devices while watching TV programs.  Now, Facebook and other social media platforms are offering whole new ways of interacting with TV and media live, as it’s happening. Multiple media consumption simultaneously is becoming a new mania.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg feels “We believe it’s possible to rethink a lot of experiences through the lens of building community — including watching video. Watching a show doesn’t have to be passive. You’ll be able to chat and connect with people during an episode and join groups with people who like the same shows afterwards to build community.”

Reflecting on the current trend of digital media and how it has disrupted and hooked people worldwide—I am reminded of a recent happening in the U.S. that sums up our present “connectedly-disconnected” world.

On October 8, 2013, a gunman entered a crowded San Francisco commuter train and drew a .45-calibre pistol. He raised his weapon and aimed at the passengers. None of the passengers noticed. They were attending to something far more interesting than the present reality. They were immersed in their smartphones and by the network beyond. These were among the most connected commuters in all of history. On the other side of their little screens, passengers had access to much of the world’s media and many of the planet’s people. But they were disconnected to the moment or to one another in the train. Only when the gunman opened fire did anyone look up. By then, 20-year-old Justin Valdez was mortally wounded. The only witness to this event, which took place inside a train, in front of so many people, was a security camera, which captured the scene of connected bliss interrupted.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported district attorney George Gascón’s stunned reaction– “These weren’t concealed movements—the gun was very clear, these people were in very close proximity with the gun man, but nobody saw him. They were just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They were completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

The event is an eye opener of our times of digital media disruption. Of the “Connectedly-Unconnected” new world. People are engrossed and connected worldwide but disconnected to their surroundings, to the people and happenings around them.

However, there is no escape from this new, interactive media. And we must be prepared for change every single day. Technology has become cheaper, user friendly and expanded our horizons and allowed us to learn about the world in ways we never would before. Breaking news is breaking faster. Television shows are accessible to phones and tablets in even the most remote corners of the world.

Communication has come a long way from the days of the early cave men. Men have always been communicating with each other since the dawn of civilization in some way or the other. For centuries people were not really aware that they were part of Media and communication—like they know today. People read newspapers, listened to radio and watched television. Over decades, Media contributed to the general knowledge and awareness of regional, national and international news and views relating to current events besides political, social, entertainment and economic developments. People also followed and subscribed to advertisements of products and services. But modern media is a different ball game altogether with unique challenges. There is no sphere of human life that remains unaffected by the invasion of digital media—beginning from domestic to international affairs, from business to education to entertainment to the most intimate relationships and family.

It would be appropriate to quote Melva Benoit, executive professor of digital media and entertainment. Benoit has over two decades of television and media experience as a research executive at FOX Broadcasting, NBCU, MTV Networks, Disney & ABC TV Networks. Benoit says “While earning my communications degree, I was taught that media is communicating via television, print, and radio. The idea or content could be in the form of video, print, or audio and it could be fiction or non-fiction. It could be professionally or non-professionally produced.  I think that definition still applies to the term media in the digital age, but it has been expanded to include online and social media. The two key developments are –the internet enables publication of massive user-generated content and Social media enables one-to-one communication, as opposed to the one-to-many communication structure of traditional media”.

The advent of new media with practical and ideological changes of traditional media has impacted social change and subsequently transformed the world communication canvas. It is evident that there is a perpetual need to understand and evaluate the impact of media communication that is increasing in line with technological development. Likewise, as the audiences now are more proactive in seeking information, they have the power to voice out their desire and have the capability to create space for social and cultural change in society. Transformation is inevitable with a constant demand for agility, adaptability, and efficiency from communication professionals worldwide.

Media and Communication is the world’s fastest growing industry. Media delivery is today a unique phenomenon.  The days of broadcast, radio, music, information or entertainment media being limited to one device, one screen, or one delivery system are gone. The 80s were marked by the advent of computer revolution bringing in changes in every sphere of life but communications and new media coupled with communication technologies have brought about a profound transformation in the way people communicate and share knowledge and information, opportunities for public participation and engagement and the use even further. 

Communication has been around for a long time as a paradigm in development theory but as the times are changing, so are the communications for social change paradigms.  People are increasingly mobile and urban. Geographical, political and social landscapes are changing. All of these have impact on the way we communicate. These changes have posed valid questions to the existing paradigms in communication for social change.

The costly and centralised system of mediated message dissemination from one-to-mass is a passé.  Democratization, government deregulation of policies and pluralism have encouraged the decentralization of information production and dissemination. Horizontal, people-to-people processes are replacing vertical, traditional lines of communication. Participatory approaches have paved the way for community-based ownership and use of various communication media. Media is becoming increasingly cheap, niche and technology friendly. The change has been rapid as digital technologies have removed the barriers associated with traditional media. The format, location, distance and time are no longer considerations, the transfer of content and information can be instantaneous from and to anywhere in the world.  In today’s world anyone with a networked computer, sitting in any remote corner of the globe, has the power to become a major influencer and a media agenda setter. The ubiquitous smart phones are quickly becoming high-powered wireless computers in their own right. Google, Amazon, Craigslist, and Facebook have become religion.

The internet has opened the possibility for all creative content to be published along with even the most casual and amateurish ones. Of all the digital content out there, what constitutes media? Some say it’s all the content that’s published, others argue it’s only the content that has a certain level of artistic quality or viewership. Media can be the message itself, especially for those who create and own rights to content. In the continuum of professionally produced content at one extreme, and user-generated, amateur content at the other extreme, what constitutes media?

As Benoit says: “Content is king. All content is media, whether it is of great quality or not. The information on your website, a show on Netflix, comments in your Facebook feed, or a video of your kid on YouTube are content and can be monetized. If you get enough traffic on your website, then you can put advertisements on it. If you get enough views of your video of your kid on YouTube, they send you a check.”

So, professional or amateurish – it is a level playing field. If it can draw eyeballs, hits and clicks, if it sells—its media. Some industry pundits, however, differ. They feel a creative content, depends on the degree to which the content can be monetized. They draw the line at a certain level of artistic creativity, viewership, or revenue potential. But then, professional production using top artists is no longer the sole guarantee of success. Rather, if media is to be held to a standard, consumers increasingly play a key role because viewership in the form of clicks, streams, and downloads have the biggest leverage towards monetization. A catchy viral, amateur video may get more viewers than a professionally produced video. Content creation is today an accessible medium that many can participate and express themselves in ways that no one ever thought possible.

Benoit reflects: “As advertising evolves creatively, the lines between content and advertising are often being blurred. For example, it is not always clear that the carefully placed messages and products in a television show is an advertisement. Procter and Gamble has a YouTube channel to promote its brand. I would argue that advertising is in itself a form of media.”

The information revolution today resembles the invention of moveable print in the fifteenth century or to the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society in the nineteenth century. Economic liberalization has concentrated ownership of the global media in the hands of a few large companies leading to monopolisation—this is off course a point of concern.

The combined effect of these trends is altering the competitive landscape in communications and giving rise to new business models. The key among them are:

Open and Free: This model features companies that offer one to- one communication services, but through an open Internet platform and at no or very little cost. These services potentially threaten profitable traditional services, such as long distance calling and mobile roaming.
Gated Communities: Companies using this model focus on many-to-many communications, rather than point-to-point, within telecom-controlled environments. They are, essentially, a “walled-garden” for operator-led collaboration services and are likely to appeal to users and enterprises that desire secure and reliable communication environments.

Shared Social Spaces: This rapidly growing model facilitates collaboration on the open Internet. Key players include social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. These providers have the potential to become de facto integrated communication platforms, bringing together social networking, voice communication, e-mail, instant and text messaging, as well as content. They are drawing attention away from traditional Telco’s and contributing to the fragmentation of the market.

Media globalization cannot be stopped. It is a result of new communications technology. It is also the prerequisite and facilitator for all other forms of globalization. Multi-national media is critical to global industries. Many feel that we ought to enjoy the benefits of media globalization, such as global communication, rather than fearing and attempting to avoid the consequences – which ironically include hindrance to free speech. Traditional media theories also do not have the analytical capacity and explanatory power to make sense of the new media and communications phenomena, but we may usefully apply concepts from globalization to understand these new forms of the local and global.

For those who want to make a career in the changing field of Media & Communication there can be no advice really. Because no one has the “crystal ball” to look into the future or predict anything. In fact, in these times of quick-paced radical changes–no one knows what the future will be. There is just one thing that can be said – to maintain relevance and worth in this business one has to be open to change and constantly learning new things. One also needs to be ready to jump in on new opportunities when they are presented and constantly brush up on the technology speak or skill sets.

Future employers also have to be open and ready to invest sizeably in order to cultivate and train talents in-house or through external agencies. They would need to rethink on talent acquisition models, trying outlets and models of outsourcing in ways that this industry is not accustomed to. Even be open to driving new culture changes along the way.

It is no denying the fact that the new trend is here to stay, changing constantly –bringing in newer and more efficient technology. And there no escape but to use it to reap benefits.

But there is huge point of concern. The fast decline of conventional mediated media has hugely endangered free speech and internet freedom of the common man—the biggest victims of the unbridled digital media invasion.

How free are we on the net? The answer is scary indeed.

“Freedom on the Net 2019” report by bipartisan watchdog and think tank Freedom House says free speech and privacy on the internet declined globally for the ninth consecutive year.  The two main reasons for the decline being –increased online election interference — by government and civilian actors alike — and increased government surveillance, both of which are spreading on social media platforms. “In addition to facilitating the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation during election periods, social media platforms have enabled the collection and analysis of vast amounts of data on entire populations,” the report reads. Of the 65 countries the report assessed over the past year, in a record 47 countries, law enforcement arrested people for posting political, social, or religious speech online, 40 countries featured advanced social media surveillance programs and in 38 countries, political leaders employed individuals to shape online opinions.

“The future of internet freedom rests on our ability to fix social media” the report concludes. Now, who bells the cat—is the million-dollar question.

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