It is evident that social media and the internet holds immense power on many aspects of our lives now. Fuchs (2014) notes that all the computing systems, web applications, and other forms of media can be considered social as they “store and transmit human knowledge that originates in social relations in society”. However, not all the computing systems and web applications initiate and support the communication between humans. Often, the internet and social media manifest itself as tools for creation, cognition, information, participation and communication. There are many claims about social media’s power in today’s world. For example, some claim that social media like Facebook and Twitter has revolutionized the communications and participatory culture (Fuchs, 2014). Similarly, Shirky (2009) states how social media has transformed how the political campaigns work and give a way to communication between politicians and public.
Power as participation:
If I was asked what one most crucial advantage of social media is, my answer would be the power of participation. Clay Shirky argues that social media result in bringing the world together, he calls it “wiring of humanity” and lets us use our free time as a global resource that can be utilized for designing new kinds of “participation and sharing that takes advantage of that resource” (Fuchs, 2014). Shirky claims that the world has over a trillion hours a year of free time and talents to commit to shared projects, which work as cognitive surplus (Shirky, 2010). Such projects represent that world’s population has an ability to collaborate and participate in global projects by volunteering. Similarly, Fuchs (2014) defines participatory culture as ‘involvement of users, audiences, consumers, and fans in the creation of the culture and content”. A few examples of social media platforms that are based on participatory culture are Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, and YouTube. All these platforms are running on the basis of user generated content, the content which is owned or generated by user or participant and not by social media corporation itself. Fuchs agrees that even though there are multiple advantages of participatory culture, he highlights some critical aspects of such practices.
Fuchs (2014) provides an account of Henry Jenkins and argues that in participation or participatory culture, the companies that dominate the internet exploit the users by the commodification of user’s activities and generated data. To some degree, I agree with Fuchs’ analysis of participatory culture. The content of these websites is mostly user generated, however, users do not see any profit from it or do not get to make any decisions related to the use of their content; Jenkins calls this digital labor. Jenkins argues that participatory culture promotes the cultural diversity, but disregards the fact that “not all voices have the same power and that produced content and voices are frequently marginalized” because the most powerful actors in the media landscape such as media corporations can manipulate and decide who is more or less visible in digital spaces (Fuchs, 2014). Shirky also addresses the concerns related to the power of participatory culture, he explains that “The people experimenting with participation don’t have legislative power, and the people who have legislative power are not experimenting with participation” (Shirky, 2012).
Power as communication:
In the information age and network society, internet technologies and social media have empowered the communication without a doubt. It has become impossible to communicate without these digital platforms, from communicating with your friends and family to communicating at work and school, the digital platforms and social media play a crucial role. Shirky discusses that social media has completely revolutionized how we communicate on a daily basis; from telegraphs to real- time voice-based conversation; the digital technologies has brought the world closer. Fuchs (2014) provides an account of Manuel Castells by explaining his views of modern time communication. According to Castells, communication via digital technologies and social media dominates the modern society. He explains that digital communication platforms have given access to people for communicating globally at the expense of “surrendering their privacy” and “becoming advertising targets”. Castells also addresses the role of digital communication in “challenging corporate power, dismantling government authority, and changing the cultural foundations of our aging/aching population” (Fuchs, 2014). He provides examples of movements that sprung on the basis of internet communications and emphasized its mobilization capacities such as “Occupy Movement” and “The Arab Spring”. Even though the social media lets people communicate with each other easily, what about those who have respectable standing in the society misuse this source of communication to spread misinformation? For example, since being elected as a 45th president of United States, Donald Trump has posted many tweets that are filled with misinformation or accused media corporations of wrongdoings when they haven’t. In such cases, these communication tools can often prove to be harmful than useful.
Power as economic labor:
When social media platforms and other digital media platforms became popular in the society a decade back, they also created millions of job opportunities. However, did it create different labor classes internally? Fuchs (2014) explains that the internet and digital technologies contributed to the global division of labor. As discussed before, the users of the social media platforms provide their free labor for the profits of the corporations. Fuchs (2014) states that “corporate social media use capital accumulation models that are based on the exploitation of the unpaid labor of internet users and commodification of the user-generated data”. This data is sold to advertisers with or without user’s knowledge. Fuchs (2014) explains that this exploitation has created different internal labor classes in the internet corporations. For example, the labor classes like “the salaried bourgeoisie of highly paid workers in internet companies, the low paid knowledge workers, unpaid internet users, highly exploited workers in developing countries, and slave laborers extracting minerals that are used as raw materials” (Fuchs, 2014). Consequently, these classes indirectly decide the distribution of power in the society. However, Clay Shirky perceives the free labor differently. In his Ted Talk, he describes that putting in free hours of labor and by volunteering, we can create civic value, as a result changing the society we live in. He claims that civic value is created by a few people but enjoyed by the whole society.
Both Shirky and Fuchs may have contradicting views about the power of social media over society. However, we cannot deny that these digital technologies are here to stay and we have to find a moral middle ground to take complete advantage of it. At this point, I have lived half of my life with digital technology as my medium of participation and communication. In fact, this course wouldn’t have been possible without such technologies. I understand its value and it makes me wonder what the world will be without its advantages? However, the Fuchs’ writing also makes me wonder how we can come to a point when the power of social media is evenly distributed in the society.
Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: a critical introduction. Los Angeles: SAGE.