Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Are social media, social? (Part six)

The previous sections of Are social media, social? have examined a variety of sometimes complex and often simple elements within the world of social media. Let me now turn to one of the most important issues in this growing phenomenon.

What do we mean by social? Social is one of those words that is used in so many different ways and in so many different contexts that its meaning is now as variable as the individuals who make use of it. Of course, the literal meaning of social seems to be obvious, that is people associating with each other to form groups, alliances or associations. A secondary assumption in the use of social is descriptive and it is about people who ally with each other and have enough in common to identify themselves with a particular group.

Social as a term is about relationships and relationships are inevitably about boundaries. Think of it this way. Groups for better or worse mark out their identities through language and their activities. Specific groups will have specific identities, other groups will be a bit more vague in order to attract lurkers and those on the margins. All groups end up defining themselves in one way or another. Those definitions can be as simple as a name or as complex as a broad-based activity with many layers and many sub-groups.

Identity is the key here. Any number of different identities can be expressed through social media, but a number of core assumptions remain. First, I will not be part of a group that I disagree with and second, I will not want to identify myself with a group that has beliefs that are diametrically opposed to my own. So, in this instance social comes to mean commonality.

Commonality of thought, ideology and interests which is linked to communal, a blending of interests, concerns and outlooks. So, social as a term is about blending differences into ways of thinking and living, and blending shared concerns into language so that people in groups can understand each other. The best current example of this is the Tea Party movement in the US. The driving energy in posts and blogs among the people who share the ideology of the Tea Party is based on solidifying shared assumptions, defining the enemy and consolidating dissent within the group.

In this process, a great deal has to be glossed over. The social space of conversation is dominated by a variety of metaphors that don't change. Keep in mind that commonality is based on a negation, that is, containing differences of opinion. And so, we see in formation, the development of ideology — a set of constraints with solid boundaries that adherents cannot diverge from, or put another way, why follow a group if you disagree with everything that they say? Of course, Tea Party has its own resonances which are symbolic and steeped in American history.

The danger in the simple uses of the word social should be obvious. Why, you may ask should we deconstruct such a 'common' word? Well, that may become more obvious when I make some suggestions about the use of media in social media. Stay tuned.

Part Seven 



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