chapter  5
26 Pages

The internet and social networking: Natalie Fenton

ByNATALIE FENTON

The growth in social networking sites and their usage has been phenomenal. In 2011 Facebook was second only to Google as the world’s most popular website (http://www.hitwise.co.uk) and it gained this status in a remarkably short time. Nielsen research (2010) shows that 22 per cent of all time spent on the internet is now spent on social networking sites. Other research shows that the average global daily time spent on Facebook is 25 minutes, as compared to 5 minutes for a popular news site (www.alexa.com, September 2009). In 2010 Facebook had over 500 million users – one in 13 people on earth – with over 250 million people logging on every day (http://www.onlineschools.org/blog/facebookobsession/, April 2011). Social networking is an activity that is more popular with the young: 48 per cent of 18-to 34-year-olds check Facebook when they wake up, with 28 per cent doing so before even getting out of bed (http://www. onlineschools.org/blog/facebook-obsession/, April 2011). The popularity of and time spent on these sites and others that encourage active production and are characterised by a high level of interactivity have brought about new rituals of communication and prompted media theorists to reconsider the traditional contexts of mass communication and the traditional (and previously often separate) concerns of production, text and reception. In this newly communicative context the audience is described as ‘prod-users’ (Bruns 2008) or ‘pro-sumers’ (Tapscott and Williams 2008: 124-50), to account for the creative and interactive nature of much online activity. Digital media, and the internet in particular, are transforming our means of

gathering information and communicating with each other and contributing to both these practices through creative production. In informational terms, use of the internet clearly has the potential to influence the capacity of ‘ordinary’ citizens and resource-poor social or political groups to gain information and expertise through vastly increasing the range of information that is freely available to any internet user, on virtually any subject imaginable (Bimber 2002). In communicational terms, sites like YouTube (the video-sharing website) or MySpace (the home page-creation website) have acquired billions of users in only a couple of years, largely by ‘word of mouth’ – or, at least, via millions of communications has

more than 500 million people active on the site – connecting with others, sharing thoughts and discussing concerns, forming groups and joining forces with others in mutual interests and activities. Twitter – the site that allows people to connect to others and follow their stream of thought through linked communications no more than 140 characters long – currently (December 2011) has over 100 million active users, with over 250 million tweets being sent every day attempting to prompt a particular ordering of information and the prioritising of certain subject matters (Infographic 2010). These social networking sites are also claimed to break down the barriers

between traditionally public and private spheres of communication, putting power into the hands of the user and thereby giving the details of private concerns a public presence and enabling the public domain of the official political and institutional realm to be more easily monitored by the private citizen (Papacharissi 2009). Hence, social networking brings forth a means of communication that is for the public, by the public (e.g. Rheingold 2002; Gillmor 2004; Beckett 2008; Shirky 2008). These theorists proffer positive interpretations that refer to social networking sites or person-to-person media or mass self-communication (Castells 2009) as both supporting the maintenance of pre-existing social networks while also helping strangers to connect on the basis of shared interests, political views or activities. In this manner social networking sites are heralded as novel, pervasive and conferring agency. On the other hand, there are those who propose a more critical assessment,

viewing the form and nature of communication on display as no more than an incessant version of a ‘daily me’ (Sunstein 2007) that personalises and depoliticises public issues and simply re-emphasises old inequalities while feeding corporations the necessary data for online marketing, business promotion and the exploitation of private affairs – a specifically anti-democratic turn leading to civic privatism. This approach emphasises political economic concerns, reminding us that the internet does not transcend global capitalism but is deeply involved with it by virtue of the corporate interests it supports and the discourses of capitalism and neoliberalism in which the people who use it are drenched (see Chapter 4). In this manner social networking is claimed to further inscribe the neoliberal production of self in forms of mediation that are deeply commodified while also being conducive to sociality. In other words, in developed Western democracies, where social media exist within social and political contexts that foreground individualisation, embedded in technological developments that encourage pervasive communication and an ever-connected online presence, social networking sites are seen as extending neoliberal ideology rather than contesting it. Situating a discussion in a sterile binary framework, with the optimists on one

side and the pessimists on the other, is often how debates on new technologies begin (whether referring to the radio, television or the computer). But both approaches in isolation are reductive (either in relation to technology or in relation to largely political economic factors) and can never fully appreciate the approach

misunderstands the nature and impact of the media (in this case, of digital social media) on the social and political contours of contemporary life, and in doing so misunderstands the nature of the social and the political and the complexity of power therein. Part of this misunderstanding comes from a media centrism that resists a deep and critical contextualisation of social and political life. As Couldry (2003) has suggested, once the media (in any form) presents itself as the centre of society and we organise our lives and orient our daily rituals and practice towards it, we run the risk of falling prey to ‘the myth of the mediated centre’ (2003: 47). Media rituals not only stress the significance of media but also allude to the importance of being ‘in the media’ and of being able to communicate your message to others – whether this be for financial, political or social gain. The more powerful and influential you are, the better placed you are to get your message across. The internet and social networking push this argument one step further. The millions of people who use social networking sites inhabit a mediated world that offers the possibility of more control than mainstream media, is mobile, interactive and holds endless creative potential, but is nonetheless mythic. The claimed ubiquity of the internet and social media stresses the significance of always being tuned in and online. The seductive power of this mythic centre circulates around social life and serves to obscure the reproduction of the dominant values of neoliberal society. Once this is appreciated it has ramifications for media theory – in particular

in situating the destabilisation of the old producer/consumer divide in a broader and deeper context that can recognise and take account of communicational life without fetishising the media forms that may enable it. In resisting a fetishised media centrism we are also encouraged to rethink the relationship between structure and agency, between political economic approaches and their relationship to those that emphasise the constructive ability of individuals, the importance of subjectivities and the relevance of identity. It is in this critical contextual frame that we need to understand mediation and its relationship to our social and cultural practices. In the rest of this chapter I offer a critical consideration of the four main arguments that seek to place the internet and social networking at the centre of this mythology.