Social Networking Sites as Social Levelers?

On a Sunday afternoon, I heard a male talk show host saying Twitter has created a certain degree of equality among members of the society. I disagree. Social networking sites are non-social levelers.

Though social networking sites, are as their tags clearly reflect, instruments of communication installed in the burgeoning matrix of the new media, it is not safe to say that these spell as a ‘great equalizer.’

Erasing social inequality?

Putting this argument in context compels us to look at the material relations and conditions surrounding a society, which is stratified according to class and according to social rewards and benefits received, at least for the Philippines.

Let us not be hemmed in the school of thought of the mainstream by deliberately saying that a social site like Twitter or any social networking sites for that matter obliterate social inequality, at least on the basis of subscription.

Not all Twitter subscribers are celebrities. Not all are upper middle-class. Some are still in the episode of considering this a “trend,” or a “fad” — a reason that gave birth to an obsolete idea that having an account makes one “in.”

No free lunch

While it is true that everyone may have an account, say on Twitter because of its free sign-up offer, not all are able to receive the same attention celebrities and famous people are receiving from numerous followers and fellow subscribers. On that basis alone, how do we qualify equality within?

While it is true that everyone may have an account, say on Facebook, not all have the “willingness” and “ability” to maintain or sustain an account due to different valid reasons. And some of the reasons may be viewed at varying degrees and I’m sure you still have a lot to include.

A mother, who is a regular government employee working from 8am to 5pm may have less time to, at the very least check/open her account because of the time consumed by work plus other activities, which take away a lion’s share of her time being a mother.

A mother, who is a regular government employee working from 8am to 5pm, may also have less time to, at the very least check/open her account because of inaccessibility to network signal, or Interweb.

There is no free lunch. Having, maintaining or sustaining a particular social networking site requires Internet access, which most of the time is not free. The point is, not all have the ability to pay for Internet service.

Even establishments, which offer free wifi before, now have security features to omit excessive use of free internet from non-customers/ free-riders. Customers, before availing this free wifi service, have of course, already taken a fraction of their money to buy or purchase even the cheapest thing available in cart. Well at least to qualify as a “customer.”

Aside from these factors, we shall also consider the age bracket of subscribers and recognize reasons why they chose to subscribe:

1. Most number of accounts
2. Most number of “active” accounts
3. Class stratum having the most subscribers
4. Have registered an account because of peer pressure
5. Have registered an account because it is the trend
6. Have registered an account because it is needed (work related, business related, etc.)

HOWEVER, regardless of reasons and age bracket, it is still difficult to say that a social network is a social leveler UNLESS one makes qualifiers. Say, by mentioning a specific social stratum, in this case, as amongst the middle class.

“Overstretching” the purpose of the new media

When one says, Twitter provides a degree of “pagkapantay-pantay,” he may be referring to an idea that everyone “may” avail the free sign-up offer of a social networking site — regardless of gender, age and race, among others. However, NOT everyone “has the ability” to avail this free sign-up due to absence of enabling conditions (i.e. access to Internet service, literacy, etc.)

We recognize the positive ideals behind the creation of these social networking sites: smooth flow of information, information revolution, technological development and a new communication brand. No debate about these. It is important to note that the purpose of social networking sites is to connect people. Now, the problem is some subscribers themselves use the new media beyond the purpose.

Interestingly, I would like to share an argument presented by UP Mass Communication Professor Danilo Arao on the limits of Twitter.

He writes, “Since it is practically impossible to provide proper context to one’s 140-character message, a person’s tweet can only do so much to explain one’s point. It is not surprising that their respective Twitter wars did not resolve anything. They failed to raise discourse to a higher level since micro-blogging deprived them of explaining in full detail what they had wanted to convey.” (The Lobbyist, March 1, 2011)

A battle of discourse

While many say through Twitter, one develops the discipline (others say, an art) of short messaging, others are asking a quite reasonable argument, the 140-character message feature offered by Twitter gives premium, if not control to communication – opposing its principal purpose of “communication.”

In such situation, vulnerability to misinterpretation due to context-restricted statement is an all-time high.

Behavioral scientists may say Twitter is a reinvented text messaging in the Internet. Communication enthusiasts may agree that Twitter promotes “short-cuts,” thus allowing wrong word spelling. Philosophers may say this issue is permissible as long as two parties are communicating and are in the same language game. It is indeed a battle of discourse.

Let us go back to our nomenclature when these social networking sites are still hiding behind the curious minds of their creators, and re-examine how we existed using the basic “human” brand of communication — those times when the power of communication is still sharply utilized within our hands. Then, let us think.