There are just a few weeks left in 2014, so perhaps it’s a good time to pause and think about ourselves and where we are, in relation to the rapidly developing technologies that surround us. Despite the fact that the Internet and social media has now been with us for some time, more recently joined by powerful smartphones, it’s as if we just can’t stop talking about it. This is because technology is developing at a much faster rate than we can get our heads around: an aspect of today’s world that makes some quite anxious, others quite excited, and most of us somewhere in between.
The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”― Isaac Asimov
While my own research looks at the human meaning and motivations that lie behind social networking and technology, new research is constantly emerging about what indeed is actually going on as this relationship with technology develops. Reports referenced in this post are by the Pew Research Internet Project and Buzzfeed and are hot off the virtual presses.
Mobile Smartphones are Changing Everything
While mobile smartphones and tablets are still relatively new on the scene (the first iPhone was launched in 2007), the presence of mobile technology has changed our relationship to the Internet and social media dramatically. Nary a spare moment is had without interacting with a smartphone. In fact, the Buzzfeed report notes that mobile has taken the lead as the primary platform for social and sharing. Sixty percent of time spent on social is by way of a mobile phone.
The report goes on to note that millenials, as expected, are the driving force behind the growth of mobile users spending 5 hours and 12 minutes a day as compared to adult’s 2 hours and 51 minutes. Hit content sites like Buzzfeed are read on mobile devices two thirds of the time – like Twitter, Buzzfeed can now be seen as a “mobile-centric” content provider. This is further evidenced by the fact that 2 times as many people share Buzzfeed information by way of their smartphones than they do by way of their desktops.
Despite their small screens, the convenience of a smartphone is a big draw with mobile now being the primary platform on which digital videos are consumed. While people were knocking each other over for wide screen TVs on Black Friday, they are more likely to watch stuff on a mobile phone that fits in their pocket. In any case, at least among millenials, online video is more watched than TV in any case.
Those who are watching TV (and there are still some great scheduled TV moments) tend to do so nowadays with a secondary device, as Google broke down for us in 2012 in their study on The New Multi-Screen World. Google reports that the prevalence of multiple screens in a household enable “simultaneous screening” of media, fundamentally changing the way in which television is now consumed. In fact, 81% of multi-screen time is used between a television and a smartphone and 66% between a television and a laptop (since individuals use both combinations, they do not add up to 100%). Furthermore, around 77% of any television time is accompanied by the use of another screened device – much of the device time is used doing some form of social networking.
This research goes to show that whereas television used to be a passive activity, today it is more active and interactive. Individuals engage with their televised entertainment in a socially networked way, sharing their feelings in relation to its content by way of social networking. This has lead to a “virtual water-cooler” where emotional reactions to televised material is shared instantaneously both with known and unknown others on networks like Facebook and Twitter. The use of hashtags and other search terms enable people to confine their attention to a particular subject matter (e.g. the X-Factor results) while at the same time tracking the feelings and comments of others from across the country and the world.
It’s not just entertainment that is capturing the world’s attention, but information too:
According to Pew’s just released poll, American Internet users are feeling more informed because of digital. While informed consuming tops the list with 81% of users feeling better informed about products and services, national and international news takes a close second:
A stunning 87% of online adults, according to Pew, say that the Internet and mobile phones have improved their ability to learn new things – more then half of them say “a lot”. About a quarter of these folks feel overloaded with a whopping nearly three quarters saying that they like having access to all this information. Facebook and other social networks are enabling most respondents to feel that they are better in touch with friends (67%) and family (60%). However, less than half feel they are better informed about civic and government activities (49%) and even more local information about their neighbourhoods (39%).
People are sharing their ideas but what of the filter bubble?
Pew also directs us to the fact that 72% of Internet users are feeling that their ability to share ideas with others has improved with more than three quarters of participants saying that the Internet is making both students and average Americans better informed.
This research will have to be looked into further because the numbers simply don’t tell us enough. For example:
- What kind of sharing is going on here?
- Are we seeing a kind of mass social confirmation bias?
- Are people really being impacted by the views of others?
The current state of political affairs, in the United States, anyway, would show that the US is more binary in its ideas than ever. Eli Pariser author of The Filter Bubble worries that the way we get information today blinkers us to the ideas of others. According to his rather compelling point of view, the more we get our information through our social media and Google, the more danger we are of not hearing the other side of the story. This doesn’t just ossify our ideas in politics, but may endanger our creativity too, by restricting us from encountering profoundly different but serendipitous ideas.
Pariser notes three things about the filter bubble that should concern us. First, we’re alone in it, second, it’s invisible (so we’re not aware of it most of the time) and third, you don’t choose to enter the filter bubble. It happens automatically – this could have some serious as yet unexplored consequences for how we’re actually doing this sharing and receiving our information.
In my own work, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self I have discussed how similar operations happen to us psychologically over social networks, because of the ways in which online social media sites interact with our psychological states.
On the eve of 2015, we need to take a harder look at these numbers and start asking the qualitative questions about what’s going on here.
It’s not good enough to know who’s doing what, if we can’t ask why they’re doing it, and what are the consequences of the doing.
More from me in my book, The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: connected-up instantaneous culture and the self.
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