Such buzzes have seamlessly redefined the idea of connectivity and restructured social media as a stage for mass participation. Activities in the virtual world empowered by the Internet are fast replacing social life. People are keen on getting connected with like-minded communities or individuals through chatting, sharing opinions and photographs, and bringing together masses under the same virtual roof. These online interactions and their impact over the algorithm and pattern of online activities have been observed and studied by many researchers.
Not just this. Educators are engrossed in new means to use the updated technology in their class rooms (or virtual classrooms). In an age when there are billions of users inter-connected through social media to extract various benefits from it, this has emerged to be one of the most powerful participatory medium of communication. In this scenario, you simply cannot choose to ignore it.
Social networking sites (SNSs) today are serving more as platforms for showcasing one’s talent than making new friends. And in the process, it is definitely expanding the social circle of its users.
According to a survey conducted by Social Networking Websites Review (2013), the Internet has converted this world into a global village in all its spirit and sentiment. All it takes is a single click to take us to any part of the world. These portals are widely being used as the media for sharing news and opinions. The same survey further rated Facebook, Twitter and Google as the best SNSs in providing unique interactive experience in comparison to their competitors.
And I am in full agreement with this rating. While in a physical world, we are still working our fingers to the bone to bridge several social gaps, what relieves me is that irrespective of the age, gender and background, these sites overcome all barriers and serve the interests of all, right from sharing of any music playlists, blogs or videos in an assumingly secure manner on the basis of their personal credentials like name, organization, etc.
Small sparks or a forest fire?
2011 was a tumultuous year as it saw citizen’s movements dismantling dictatorships, like the widely popular Arab Spring and its many versions. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s fall was stimulated by social media that helped citizens rally together for a cause. 2011 also saw a huge anti-corruption movement in India that was headed by an Aam Aadmi– Anna Hazare. This movement fueled mass participation in India on online media for the first time by mobilizing the Indian middle class, the same section of society with the maximum presence on the Internet.
On the other hand, the mainstream media — esteemed as the “Fourth Estate”, is increasingly using the Internet to strike a chord with their audiences, while seeking and disseminating information via third party social media platforms. Just to give a context, think about the 2014 elections in India. We witnessed a fine example of Indian politicians communicating with their followers directly, often tweeting messages, responses and opinions on Twitter, Facebook, Google hang-outs and YouTube video channels, bypassing the mainstream media. And a majority of us did feel connected, didn’t we?
Similarly, discussions igniting the social media platform enable journalists to tap into their audiences’ sentiments. Whether it was a crisis like the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, the 2011 anti-graft protest or the Delhi gang rape protests in 2012-13, dissemination of thoughts and opinions on the social media was very profitable for the Indian mainstream media.
So you see, everybody is trying to use the Internet to serve a definite purpose, either to meet community or individual goals. But what I wished to understand is what drives the continued investment of thoughts, opinions and most importantly- time on social media. And my Eureka moment was a sociological theory which led me to a palatable answer.
Uses and Gratifications revisited!
The Uses and Gratifications (U&G) model of media involvement was identified as a means for understanding individual media choices, including the use of specific types of media to strengthen social relationships and to assist with the development of group social identities.
Blumler and Katz, who formulated some of the earliest conceptualizations of the U&G theory tried to explain how people use media for their needs and gratifications. In other words, this is an audience-centered theory that states what people do with media rather than what media does to people to satisfy specific needs.
According to the model, individuals will choose to engage in media-related experiences if they believe that these experiences will assist them to gratify personal and/or social needs derived from and/or influenced by their social environment and psychological disposition.
For example, choosing a social networking site as the medium to share personal experiences and opinions creates a way for “self-representation”. A person posting a picture of his new car on Facebook would perhaps expect his friends to congratulate him or like the status. But a person tweeting an important political update might expect his followers to share it and circulate the information. And these expectations and perceptions most commonly arise from previous experiences with the medium itself and/or as a result of information provided by a third party.
But this is not it.
The adjustment model of Uses and Gratifications model identified by Blumer (1985) further states that individuals “accommodate to environmental constraints with the help of the media”. This means that a medium provides people with the means, not only to adjust to but also to overcome the constraints of his off-line environment. It provides a new social environment and in doing so reshapes the nature of the needs that they seek to gratify through online involvement, and their expectations of the medium.
Given that the number of Internet users and those seeking new SNSs is only going to rocket in the future, there is a lot more to be researched and written in relation to SNSs and U&G. But what the theory explains for now is that the selection of media is consistent with the social media context, where customers engage with the media and not just consume it.
At a time when mass media is slowly metamorphosizing into social media, it is only reasonable that we extend the application of U&G theory to determine the extent of this engagement and plot its behavior.
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