|By Syed T Ahmed, United Nations ESCWA.|
I – Introduction
Conceived as a tool to aid social interaction in our ever-growing, busy and transient lives, ‘connecting’ through social media is generally considered a fun and harmless pastime. The development and evolution of social media technologies however, have become synonymous with advocacy, exposure and organising mass movements. The levels of accessibility, communication and organisation which such technologies provide, pose potential security threats to some governments and large institutions, in terms of mobilising people for mass riots and protests, often reflecting negatively on the platforms themselves. Taking the recent London riots into account where many authorities and public figures called for a clampdown on social media, or during the Arab Spring when Egypt encountered an Internet blackout, which was considered a move to disrupt social media networks.
There are many social media platforms used globally and within the region. In order to identify trends, draw valid comparisons and analyse patterns in behaviour and interaction, it is important to establish the context and environment in which such technologies are used. This includes focussing on the main social media platforms used globally and within the ESCWA region, and their relative usage statistics, to highlight emerging trends or whether the region has, or will, bypass or surpass certain trends altogether. The study ‘Media consumption & habits of MENA Internet users’, highlighted Facebook as the most common social media platform with 70% of respondents claiming to use it. Other figures included kooora.com (22%), NETLOG (18%), Maktoob (13%) and Twitter (9%), amongst others in the region. Based on these results, Facebook would seem the most appropriate social media platform to analyse and draw conclusions from.
II – Culture, trends and evolution
With a growing number of people having online profiles, many traditional identifying traits such as race, religion, political views and gender are becoming less and less apparent, consequently less applicable to online communities. This may even be leading to less obligations, expectations or desire to adhere to traditional, societal and cultural norms. Online social networks, as a result are shaping their own identifying traits for users, such as how many friends someone has, how many photos they have, do they share their pictures with everyone and so forth, thus giving us other dimensions on which to profile or define one another. This form of interaction can arguably be considered a culture in its own right (the ‘social media culture’), irrespective of nationality, background, political views or socio-economic status.
“Online social networks… shaping their own identifying traits for users… giving us other dimensions on which to profile or define one another.”
The study ‘Social networking sites and our lives’ by the PewResearchCenter provides some insightful trends. Although representing a cross-section of the American population, these trends present interesting comparative analysis when considering a country which has a high number of internet users (79%) and high Facebook penetration rate (46.2%). Despite the cultural differences (with the United States) which may have influenced these trends, this can be considered negligible if analysing within the context of the aforementioned ‘social media culture’. Findings have been summarised in the box below:
|Box 1. Overview of Social Media Trends
The above trends, in some societies, could imply that having little or no social media presence would deem an individual’s social behaviour questionable. This is particularly so, for people who judge a person’s character through the friends they keep, their transparent nature and their private interests. The lack of such information could almost certainly imply that they have something to hide. However, the notion of social transparency is a delicate issue when balanced with the right to privacy, ultimately impacting upon social development.
According to a recent survey, the top three online reasons for ‘unfriending’ someone on Facebook where down to unimportant, inappropriate and frequent posts by that person, and the top three offline reasons were down to personality, behaviour or wrongdoing. As a prominent academic, in a growing number of many, highlighting the negative social effects of technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor (of the social studies of science and technology) Sherry Turkle, elegantly summarises this notion in her latest book:
“These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.”
Within the current ‘information society’ generation, there are many who grew up with email, short message service (SMS) and may even remember virtual pets such as Tamagotchis, maturing alongside the evolution of communicating through technology. This being a highly developed form of communication in its own right, requires high emotional intelligence and the ability to interpret words on a screen, ‘reading between the lines’ about what can be implied and deduced, through the comprehension of text. Consequently, learning to communicate through modern technologies presents a steep learning curve in understanding the essence of communication, and potential for knowledge gaps, when developing one’s communication skills.
The demographics for social media use in the Arab region shows, that Facebook usage is still popular amongst youth (between the ages of fifteen to twenty nine), despite this figure dropping from 75% in December 2010 to 70% in April 2011. Although this drop indicates a slight increase in the number of users over the age of thirty, it is difficult to establish whether this increase was due to Facebook users ‘ageing’ over time, or an influx of new users above the age of thirty, without further investigation. One fact is clearly established however, the generational gap between Facebook users is definitely decreasing.
III – Socio-economic development
Looking at social media from an educational and psychological perspective, according to Lloyd Humphries, intelligence is defined in terms of:
“…the resultant of the process of acquiring, storing in memory, retrieving, combining, comparing, and using in new contexts information and conceptual skills.”
This would invariably imply that social media technologies, which provide the ability to acquire, store, retrieve, combine and use information, are in many ways intelligent systems, and those who use such systems are themselves meeting the criteria of perceived intelligence or functioning in ways which would seem intelligent. Giving rise to the argument, are such technologies making us smarter and in some way contributing to socio-economic development? Or are they taking over the role of human analysis and cognitive behaviour?
Education alongside, health and living standards, are key indicators for socio-economic development, as identified by the United Nations Development Programme within the Human Development Index (HDI). The Arab Social Media Report establishes a largely linear correlation between a countries HDI level and its Facebook penetration rate, showing that the higher the HDI of a country, the higher the Facebook penetration rate. However, this report does not provide any further analysis on the subject nor does it compare HDI and Facebook penetration levels over time, in order to investigate this correlation further. Therefore, it is very difficult to deduce and distinguish whether an increase in a country’s Facebook penetration rate actually increases its HDI level i.e. increased Facebook usage contributes to a country’s socio-economic development or vice-versa.
“…largely linear correlation between a countries HDI level and its Facebook penetration rate…”
IV – Social mobility, social inclusion and social integration
Social mobility is an interesting subject to consider when looking at social media. Traditionally associated with migration, social revolution (more rarely) or physically changing one’s social groups to move vertically up or horizontally along the social hierarchy, virtual social mobility is feasibly easier for those who use social media. A study into the correlation between social mobility and those who utilise social media, would no doubt present some interesting results. In the last few years, social media has been more and more closely associated with social revolution, taking the Arab Spring as an example of this associative peak. This episode exemplified the ability to bring people from various social groups, together in one space, under a common goal, through social media. Therefore, many would argue that the social media culture is conducive to social mobility, and is not obstructed by traditional barriers or defined by the usual boundaries for distinguishing between socio-economic groups.
Another study by the PewResearchCenter, found that people who maintain a blog are 95% more likely of having a discussion partner of a different race and people who share photos online are 61% likely to have discussion partners who have differing political views to themselves. So it is clear that social media can, in many ways, lead to improved tolerance, cohesion and integration along the lines of social development.
“…the social media culture is conducive to social mobility…”
V – Conclusion
Social media is a growing culture in its own right. Social media users can interact with one another without feeling an obligation towards their usual societal norms, pressures and constraints. By saying what we feel and sharing what we like, seeing how others are behaving online and commenting where we feel appropriate. Our understanding of social media is maturing along with our online social interactions. It is now perfectly acceptable to be friends with your family members when once this presented a genuine shock. The generational gap is decreasing and by potentially having a more diverse social support network we are aiding our own social and cognitive development in the best possible way, through sharing the experiences of others.
It should come as no surprise or embarrassment then to see our children touching and poking everything they come across, as they grow up around touch sensitive devices such as the iPad. The traditional stereotype of lonely children talking to a wall, or their pet fish, somehow seems perfectly natural now.
Media consumption & habits of MENA Internet users, Effective Measure and Spot On PR, July 2010.
 Social networking sites and our lives, PewResearchCenter, June 16 2011.
 Rate as at December 2010 according to The Arab Social Media Report, Volume 1 Number 1, Dubai School of Government, January 2011.
 Although the figures for MENA are comparatively lower, this comparison provides a benchmark, should countries be at similar internet usage and Facebook penetration levels, or have similar ratios between the two indicators. As an example, UAE has 54.4% internet users and a Facebook penetration rate of 45.4% according to The World Bank and The Arab Social Media Report respectively.
 Christopher Sibona, and Steve Walczak. (2011). Unfriending on Facebook: Friend Request and Online/Offline Behavior Analysis.Proceedings of the 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. (pp. 1-10). IEEE Computer Society. (conference paper).
 Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Basic Books, 2011.
 Tamagotchi is a virtual pet created by the Japanese company Bandai in 1996, a plastic egg with a screen and control buttons which players have to keep alive for as long as possible, by feeding, cleaning and playing with it – http://www.bbc.co.uk/cult/ilove/years/1997/toys1.shtml.
 According to The Arab Social Media Report, Volume 1 Number 1, Dubai School of Government, January 2011.
 According to The Arab Social Media Report, Volume 1 Number 2, Dubai School of Government, May 2011.
Humphreys, L. G. (1979). “The construct of general intelligence”. Intelligence: 105–120. Elsevier Inc, 1979.
 The Arab Social Media Report, Volume 1 Number 1, Dubai School of Government, January 2011.
 Definition of social mobility from the encyclopaedia Britannica – http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551322/social-mobility.
 Social Isolation and New Technology, PewResearchCenter, November 2009.