Written communication has gained a new evolutionary phase with the popularization of social networks. Technical attributes which either limit or shape the structuring of written messages through these mediums have added to and improved the efficacy of the information being communicated by forcing a user to trim the unnecessary pieces of information from the communication. Limits placed on the length of messages have forced a distillation process into the construction of these pieces of information. The ability to append contextual meta-data in the form of tags has added a new dimension to the information. The use of hashtags especially has added this meta-data element directly to a communicated message, giving the piece of information its new dimension of depth and context. Through distillation and meta-data, social media has given written communication an evolutionary push. However, with this change in how we communicate, a number of negative side effects have emerged. Seeking personal contact has declined. Sexting has reared its head as a significant problem among our youth. Cyber-bullying has taken bullying to a new level of extreme, leading to numerous suicides. Through the onset and popularization of social media, the ways in which we communicate have changed greatly.
The length of a tweet (a post on Twitter), to the popular dismay of many users, is limited to 140 characters (Twitter). This was established not arbitrarily, but rather to be compatible with mobile phone Short Message Service (SMS, also known as a text message) limitations, the service which was the inspiration for Twitter. The notion was that Twitter updates would be posted while on the go via mobile phone (Miller). By being forced to shorten messages, users were trained to distill their information into the most potent form, shedding extraneous complimentary and decorative data. For example, one could initially wish to say, “@Zoe: Jayne, Simon, River, and Mal are meeting at that little pub on East and Washington at 8. Can you arrive fifteen minutes early and get everything set up?” However, this message has a character count of 158, going 12 characters over the 140 character limit. Instead, one could shorten the message by trimming extra information and employing a hashtag. “@Zoe: Jayne, Simon, River, Mal meeting at 8. East & Washington. Please arrive 15 early for setup. #pubmeetup” This message conveys the same key data points and communicates the desired information, but brings the message size down to 108 characters. The character limit which Twitter has imposed on its users has caused the information to be conveyed in a more efficient manner.
Meta-data is a piece of information used to describe another piece of information (Newnes). With the rise of keyword related web search, blogging, and link services such as del.icio.us, tags have become one of the most prominent forms of meta-data in our culture. Tagging is the appending of content with descriptive meta-data. This is a means of organizing information by subject and simplifying the search process. A content creator can apply or insert tags related to his or her posting to both add context and make bottom up searching for the content more efficient. This replaced the previously dominant web directory model. Tags have been one of the most useful means of processing information for relevance on the internet.
A hashtag is a # symbol used to note the subject or topic of a message. It originated on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks to separate chat subjects called channels. There they remained the standard. Hashtags very rapidly grew into the public consciousness when users of Twitter began using them to inject a topic or subject into posts. It is widely accepted that this began as a proposition in a tweet (a tweet is a message posted on Twitter) by Chris Messina (Messina). One could then create a specific conversation or follow a certain subject by searching tweets based on the inclusion of the hashtag. This has come to be adapted to add context to a piece of information as well. To illustrate how this works, I will use the hashtag #firstworldproblems. (This tweet can be found at https://twitter.com/withindusk/status/274315480301461504.) “@withindusk: My left mouse button died and the trackpad is following. #firstworldproblems” (Frank). The initial body of the message is a complaint. The hashtag #firstworldproblems is used to provide the perspective of relatively unimportant problems in the first world in contrast to more serious problems in third world nations, and to note that the complaint is acknowledged by the author to be trivial. Through the inclusion of this meta-data, the author is letting the reader know that this complaint is not to be taken too seriously.
Hashtags found great use during the Arab Spring of 2011. Protesters used Twitter to relay information to one another about security forces in Egypt, as well as to notify the rest of the world (Gustin). It began with the protests in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, with the hashtag #Jan25 (Smith) and Twitter posts reporting on the Egyptian government’s threats to cut internet service in a communication black out. Due to its wide support and the swiftness of communication, the event went from a protest, to a revolution, to the full resignation of President Mubarak inside an unprecedented 18 days. In that time and thereafter, the modern world was able to “watch” the events as they unfolded, as reported by the protesters themselves, by following the #Jan25 hashtag on Twitter.
Despite these communicative advantages, the convenience of social media has detracted from conventional communication. Where once people actively sought out telephone and personal contact, they now heavily prefer impersonal contact through text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, and other such services. This brings with it a number of negative effects. Social filters all but vanish, leaving people to uninhibit communications they would normally apply social filters to in person. Sexting, the act of sending a person nude or suggestive photos via text message, is a widespread and quickly growing problem. One study had a number as high as nearly 20% of its sample group having had once sent a “sext” (Strassberg). Cyber-bullying is on the rise and considered one of the worst social problems in America today. One need not look further than the case of Amanda Todd (CBCNews) to see how serious this matter is. While social media has brought improvements to written communication, it also bears negative side effects.
In my own experience, impersonal communication through social media and electronic services removes the social filters which would normally be present when interacting with someone in their presence. Without that face-to-face confrontation, or even vocal feedback via telephone, our brains don’t inhibit us to our various social codes when interacting electronically. This leads to people taking activities further than they otherwise would, not immediately recognizing the social feedback as real.
Sexting, the act of sending a text message containing sexual content, often a suggestive or varyingly nude image, is a growing problem with youth in the US. According to a survey published in Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 28% of respondents have sent a nude sext (Temple). I hypothesize that this is a concrete sign of how modern culture is sexualizing our youth. Long before they are emotionally or mentally prepared to engage the sexual phase of their lives, they are bombarded with social pressures to be sexually attractive and mature. Striving to be more grown up, teenagers adapt to this pressure by acting out sexually. The easiest way to do this is through impersonal communication via social media and electronic devices. Practically unsupervised and from the false safety of their own room, teenagers dive face first into experimentation through sexting. While they may normally engage in some form of personal experimentation at that phase, it is amplified through the impersonal feel of electronic communication and inhibitions may be relaxed. This being a new phenomenon, the long term effects on the psychology of the current youth participating in these activities remains to be seen.
Cyber bullying, like sexting, is what happens when traditional bullying meets the internet and is wed by the aforementioned removal of social filters. The effect is monstrous and difficult to combat. The actions are similar to traditional bullying: verbal abuse, false rumor spreading, and intentional humiliation under persistence, but the execution is amplified and more intrusive. Harassment on social networks, character damage through impersonation, mockery, denigration, and persistent written abuse through messages and posts are some examples of ways in which cyber bullies attack a victim (Embrace Civility).
In conclusion, by adding new dimensions to written communication, social media has driven the evolution of information. A combination of length limitations and added dimensions of context have increased the potency of the communication. However, with the improvements have come the negative side effects of lessened personal contact, sexting, and cyber-bullying. The impersonal characteristic of social media and electronic communication has led to an amplification of both the positive and negative effects. There is no doubt that social media has forever altered the ways in which we communicate with one another.