The year ahead in 2016: Social media

‘The Maltese won’t get nicer on social media’ - Dr Alex Grech, strategist and senior lecturer in digital culture

'No, I don’t think the Maltese are going to get any nicer in their use of social media in 2016. We continue to develop our taste for anonymous trolling on village ‘zekzik-style’ surveillance blogs and mainstream media sites. Let’s face it, all media are ‘social’ now.'
'No, I don’t think the Maltese are going to get any nicer in their use of social media in 2016. We continue to develop our taste for anonymous trolling on village ‘zekzik-style’ surveillance blogs and mainstream media sites. Let’s face it, all media are ‘social’ now.'

In 2012, the Dutch scholar Geert Lovink wrote: “We need to investigate the slippery nexus between the internet’s reinforcement of existing power structures, and parallel and increasingly inter-penetrating worlds where control is diffused.” 

The relationship between messages, people, networks and culture on social media is getting complicated. 

In theory, social media provides us with the means to rapidly connect, communicate and circulate information horizontally, seemingly without the permission of others. Social media do not rely on any particular medium. We should consider it as a practice, or set of practices, for using media socially. What matters is not the medium, but our use of it. 

Yet on the cusp of 2016, there’s nothing to indicate that we are using social media mindfully. Social technology and society continue to feed off each other – and in the process change each other. We discover new online content via a toxic dependency on apps and the stream from our social media of choice, served to us on our mobile phone. 

The stream dominates the way we receive information on the web. We discover fewer dedicated web pages via organic search since we are now fed a constant flow of information that’s selected for us by the complex and secretive algorithms from a few software houses like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. The content we are served is dependent on a cocktail of the votes we cast on social media: the likes, the plusses, the stars, the hearts are actually more related to cute avatars and celebrity status than to the substance of the content that is posted online. 

We consume content on the basis of its newness and popularity, as served by the stream on the basis of our social graph – what the algorithm believes that we will like and share, as opposed to mindful content. We are now all slaves to the ‘popular’ and the most-recent: we live in online echo-chambers. 

The sociologist Anthony Abela once astutely observed that Malta is a ‘city island’. Throw in our eclectic mix of Mediterranean clientelism, political polarisation and love of gossip and you start to understand how the reflexivity between technology and society gets amplified in our local context. 

No, I don’t think the Maltese are going to get any nicer in their use of social media in 2016. We continue to develop our taste for anonymous trolling on village ‘zekzik-style’ surveillance blogs and mainstream media sites. Let’s face it, all media are ‘social’ now. 

What will it take for something to change in our relationship with social media? Perhaps some well-publicised, tragic incident as a consequence of online bullying. The outing and shaming of local, persistent online trolls. Ideally, and most importantly – a much-needed education drive to raise awareness on digital literacies in the classroom, the boardroom and the home. We need to understand how technology both enhances and constrains pre-existing cultural practices. The sooner we do this, the better if we still wish to put our so-called social media to good use. I’m not sure we do.

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