People have a tendency to develop social relations based on a universal need to belong. The basis for these relations require frequent personal contact, and generally a “relationship marked by stability, affective concern, and continuation in the foreseeable future” (Baumeister & Leary, pg 500). The very function of social media sites facilitates these needs little effort from the individual participants. Even individuals with few or no primary attachments (family or close friends) can be satisfied with a heavy attachment to a community or cause (Baumeister & Leary, pg 500). The primary requirement as Baumeister and Leary suggest, is for “regular social contact with those to whom one feels connected (pg 501).
I find this research particularly interesting as we begin to create new relationships on virtual platforms, perhaps even more often than we do “off line”. Where proximity often dictated the people we associated with in the past (Festinger, Schachter, and Back (1950) as noted in Baumeister & Leary, pg 500), the relationships that we choose to foster online, says a lot more about who we are, and what we care about, because we can connect based on common interest rather than common geography.
In my own world, my offline social groups often come from work environments or friends of friends. Typically we have very different viewpoints on the world, but it’s easy enough to get together for dinner and chat about general topics. However, in my online world, my friends and fellow group members have similar opinions or share common interests, which keep our conversations specific and engaged. In both situations, I feel connected to my groups, whether I see them regularly or not.
I think that social media is taking us far beyond keeping up with our distant cousin’s and friends from far away places. It’s reorganizing our culture. Issues that are considered culturally important to the masses are being pushed to the forefront of everyone’s discussion, such as the earthquake in Haiti, or the current economic crisis. It’s also becoming a cultural indicator of what our population thinks of certain people or ideas, collectively. Whether we love Michelle Obama or dislike Sarah Palin, there are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags and YouTube videos to fuel the discussion on either topic.
Social media is the long awaited “talk-back” response to traditional media, government and corporate organizations. If we (the masses) don’t agree with what they are doing, we can tell them, and the rest of the world our grievances. It’s also a tool for policy change, as we no longer have to stand in front of the local Trader Joes to collect signatures. Now we can go right to the communities that support our agendas and virally promote policy change from our living room sofa.
It will be interesting to see how social media organizes and influences culture over the next 3 to 5 years. I imagine it will look much different than it does, even now.
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
Scholz, T. (2007). The Participatory Turn in Social Life Online. [PowerPoint ] Retrieved February 19, 2010 from http://www.slideshare.net/trebor/the-participatory-turn