The Power of Social Media and The Internet

Everyone is well aware of the historical and revolutionary changes that the Internet and more specifically that social media has brought about recently. From the Arab spring to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, to the fact that voter suppression existed even in seemingly democratic countries like the U.S., the truth has been able to come to light because of the Internet.

The Internet and social media has given back the power to average citizens and has shown that censorship is not possible in a world where people have access to the Internet. In this video – Clay Shirky, famed consultant and thinker on economic and social effects of the Internet, explains how social media and the Internet is probably the biggest revolution that the world of media has seen in its entire history. He also uses powerful examples to show how huge political and social changes have been brought about by people through the Internet and social media.

History of media and communication

Clay starts off his talk by describing the occurrence of voter suppression in the U.S. Americans did not want to believe that such an undemocratic practice was happening right under their noses. To expose these practices, a website was set-up so that people could upload videos of voter suppression activities if they spotted any at their local polling booths. With this example, Clay points out that this idea of people becoming citizen journalists required social capital than technological capital. This means that people did not require advanced and rare technology to expose the truth.

He says that when technology becomes boring and commonplace, that people use it in more innovative ways. He also says that the current generations are able to be more proactive and socially innovative because of the fact that relevant technology is available to them and that they are able to take this technology for granted. He claims that the present generation is the most expressive set of people in the history of humanity with the most power to be expressive.

To back up this claim, he starts with the history of media. In the last 500 years, he says that only four events were revolutionary enough to change the media landscape. The first one is obviously the printing press. The second one was the invention of the telephone and telegraph, which allowed two-way communication over long distances in real-time for the first time. The third revolutionary event was the inventions of tools that allowed media to be recorded creating movies, recorded sound, etc. Finally, Clay talks about the inventions that allowed people to harness the power of electro-magnetic waves to send information wirelessly over very long distances like radios and televisions.

The limitations of this kind of media

According to Clay, these four events or changes in the media landscape did not allow full and open communication in both directions. The forms of media that allowed conversations did not allow the formation of groups and vice-versa. This means that people had to either broadcast one message to big groups or have one-on-one conversations with another person with the forms of media available in the 20th century.

The Internet era

Once the Internet was invented, this limitation was banished. The Internet was and is still the only form of media that allows conversations and the formation of groups at the same time. The Internet is the first form of media that allows the many-to-many pattern of communication. Another thing the makes the Internet a far better medium of communication is the fact that all the other existing channels of communication can be integrated with the Internet. For example, we can make calls, watch videos, read newspapers, etc. over the Internet.

Lastly, the Internet has allowed previous consumers of media to become producers of media. We no longer have to wait for journalists and news reporters to give up the news. Average citizens with access to the Internet can get breaking news out there to others much faster.

The latest revolution in media – social media

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc. allow two way communication between groups of people. Also, people can now get information right from the source much faster than from large news corporations. To bring out the power of social media, Clay uses the example of China and its strict media regulation policies. A few years back, there was a huge earthquake in the Sichuan province with a magnitude of 7.9 in the Richter scale. People who were experiencing the earthquake were reporting it live on social media sites like Twitter and were sending images, videos and text messages to the Internet. In comparison, the last time an earthquake of this magnitude occurred in China, the government took 3 months to admit that it had even happened.

The Chinese government was unable to control the news from getting out this time around. Images of China’s ineptitude and the extent of the damage were now visible to everyone. Major news corporations like BBC found out about the news from Twitter and citizen journalists. As people reported the news of the earthquake on social media channels, they began realizing that an unusually large number of school buildings collapsed, which led to the deaths of many Chinese children.

Chinese parents who had lost their children were furious and protests sprung up throughout China. Also, China’s one child policy ensured that many people lost their only child to the earthquake. All these protests were covered live by citizens and the Chinese government could not control the flow of news. In the end, the Chinese government cracked down and blocked access to Twitter itself.

For a long time, China was able to restrict media because of its great firewall. However, this firewall could only stop information being reported by major news corporation through traditional mediums. It could not stop information being sent live, by its citizens through social media channels.

Media is now social and cheap

As Clay points out, media is no longer expensive to produce and is no longer a one-way communication. The audience can now talk back and become media producers without incurring heavy expenses. The Internet has allowed audience members to talk to each other and amateur media producers have outstripped professional producers. Watch this video to learn more about the power of social media and the Internet and how they have revolutionized communication.