How did you come to read this article? Did you come here by going to the New Statesman home page and clicking on the headline?
We know from our in-house traffic stats that you probably didn’t. Most of us (including us here) discover what to read because we saw somebody we know tweet it, or post it to their Facebook timeline, or even – this does happen – share it on Google+.
That we’re comfortable with this, here in 2014, reflects just how profound the shift in media and culture has been over the ast decade (and can you believe that Facebook turned ten years old this year?). In 2004 you could still take part in a pub quiz and be sure most people wouldn’t be cheating. TV shows were watched on TVs. A person who read the morning edition of a national newspaper every day and tuned in to the news every evening would be considered well-informed of current affairs – imagine how starved most of us would feel, if restricted to such a light media diet.
What we have to thank for this is not the internet, but the social media that has been built upon it. Though defining what counts as “social media” can be a bit tricky, because the internet has been a social medium as long as it’s existed – it being a network that grew out of a need to share information, to help researchers around the US (and then the wider world) collaborate with each other more easily. That noble purpose gave us the world of cat videos and memes.
Just as it no longer feels necessary to clarify that we’re talking about “Web 2.0” (the buzz-term invented to describe the new web where sites talked to each other), and it feels redundant to clarify “phone” by adding the word “smart” to the beginning of it, the individual life augmented by social media feels to be the new normal, the default setting. Whatever “social media” is, it was codified sometime over the last decade-and-a-bit, at some point from the launch of Napster, through to social networks from Livejournal to Tumblr, Bebo to Facebook; the addictions to virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft, through to the launch of the iPhone and the modern itch that comes from knowing you have to maintain eye contact with the person you’re having dinner with while also knowing that you really, really want to check Twitter.
Social movements which used to require physical activity can now take place entirely online. It means that “friendship” has been redefined as something that doesn’t require meeting each other in “meatspace”. It means a government can be brought down by a civilian population that can spread dreams faster than they can be crushed. It means that many of the things that we consider necessary to well-lived lives are found online, where advertisers can make money from our thoughts and off-hand remarks. It means that our perception of reality is shaped by the timelines that we read, featuring the 15-pixel by 15-pixel faces of the people we choose to follow. It means the definition of “cultural gatekeeper” has changed, from someone in power to someone we choose to trust. It means that it’s not enough to speak on behalf of someone any more – we have to let them speak for themselves.
In ten years Facebook has gone from an experiment in a Harvard dorm room to a near-$8bn revenue company that can, if it chooses, conduct psychological experiments on a significant proportion of the world’s population at will. Go back to the turn of the millenium and imagine explaining to someone that, in 14 years, the most well-known member of the shadow cabinet will be a man who accidentally said his own name, and that every year some people celebrate “Ed Balls Day”. Then try telling them that that search engine with the stupid logo has not only taken over most of our digital lives, but is pushing out into driverless cars and computers you wear on your face.
This week on the New Statesman site we’re going to be running several features looking at what social media means, now that we’re stuck with it. From the friends we’ve made to the worlds we’ve explored, to the new knowledge we’ve gained to the lols we’ve enjoyed, there’s a lot to love about our new digital lives.