15 March 2017

FUTURE TRENDS - Social Media is Changing How we Communicate

Social media is changing the way we communicate, and there are some valid fears about what that means.

But the changes are not all bad, and many isolated or vulnerable communities are finding ways to use social media to overcome their barriers to connection and health.

Aside from the business benefits of social media, including marketing, branding, and networking, social media is also having positive impacts in a range of small communities.

One example of an isolated group using social media effectively can be found in Canada’s First Nations communities.

2014 research published in the Canadian Journal of Communications found that “members of First Nation communities in the Sioux Lookout zone are frequent users of social networking sites” and that social media use “is contributing to social capital, strengthening both bonding and bridging networks within and among the communities, and providing an important avenue for sharing information and stories that support the development and preservation of culture.”

For these users, although issues of hateful comments by anonymous users are still a concern (a concern that is found on social media sites across the web), the benefits of connection, community, and cultural preservation are often worth the risk.

Another example of vulnerable and isolated users finding community online is among the elderly.

Although users in their 80s and 90s faced a learning curve when engaging online, once they started sharing stories and photos, their sense of isolation decreased and they found a valuable outlet for social connection.

This is important, because social isolation among the elderly is linked to significant health risks.

Social media has also been beneficial for autistic individuals seeking community, and for their families.

There are a lot of people online, and a lot of people using new technology to find communities that they couldn’t access when they were limited to the groups within their physical area.

LGBT people, people with chronic or mental illness and, of course, people of colour (and especially women of colour) are finding connection and community through social media.

There is even an organization using social media to connect homeless individuals with their families and mitigate some of the social isolation that can accompany homelessness.

When it comes to youth, the issue is complex.

Young people in Cape Town, South Africa have used social media to challenge stigmas and stereotypes, find volunteer opportunities, and network into careers that they might not have been able to access otherwise.

But many other young people find themselves the targets of vicious cyberbullying, and a recent study found that 73% of middle and high school students had been bullied at school at some point, and 44% had been bullied in the last 30 days.

Girls were more likely to have been bullied, which is not a surprise given what research has already demonstrated about misogyny online.

This highlights the complexity of social media’s impact on communities.

Those groups most in need of connection – the vulnerable, isolated, and marginalized among a population – are also the most likely to face the ugly side of social media.

A recent study on hate speech online is a poignant counterpoint to the benefits found by Canada’s First Nations communities – 48% of hate posts analyzed targeted race.

There’s safety and connection online, but there’s also hate.

Although there is significant good being found, and built, on social media platforms, there is work to be done.

The final article in this series will examine ways forward for social media users and providers.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a published academic, an editor with the Editors Association of Canada, an independent scholar and researcher, and a self-care and narrative coach. She is particularly interested in the intersection of technology and identity - how our tools shape our selves and change our stories, and in how the nature of work is changing as we incorporate more technology into our daily lives.

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