The sociology of social network revolution, By Omoniyi Ibietan

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Recently, in giving expression to my community duties as a fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR), and as a trustee of the Nigeria Institute of Social Media Analysts (NISMA), I was part of the faculty at the 2022 annual conference of the Public Affairs Division of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN).

Thematised on the fate of PR in an emergent digital environment, the conference of some 50 staff of the public affairs bureau of TCN operating from state and zonal offices as well as the headquarters of TCN (a company which took life from the unbundled NEPA), gathered at Tsukunda House, an imposing architectural landmark on Abuja’s Constitution Avenue, to unpack the social media as tools for organisational effectiveness in the vortex of an emergent, protean digital culture.

Through a presentation I made on “Communication Through the Lens of Social Media”, I shared my thoughts in simpler, relatively less academic daily expressions and in a PowerPoint format. As I usually do, I reserved some key points for extemporaneous delivery. That is the way I reward attentiveness – otherwise called receptive communication as emphasised in the communication studies curricula of two great universities in Nigeria, Uyo and Ibadan, where I had the privilege to study. My approach to knowledge exchange at the TCN conference was essentially sociological, and I have decided to re-story my perspective below.

I started by informing my audience that the public digital communication culture (PDCC) featuring, among others, the social media networks, is sequel to three earlier dominant forerunners of public communication systems. As captured by Fourie (2017), hitherto, humanity had embraced the Oral, the Written and Printed, and the Electronic Public Communication Cultures. While the three modes have not been replaced by the postmodern paradigm (the PDCC), the contemporary has become a carrier of all hitherto existing forms and indeed, a repository of media systems of communication.

The dominance of PDCC occurred for many reasons, but I recalled three, namely: the dynamism of communication technologies; the efficiency of automobiles including aviation (Rainie & Wellman, 2012), that has caused humans to travel to far-flung places and subsequently connecting with others in networks due to the opening of new vistas of relationships; and the increasing individualism or atomisation of the human community, a notable feature of the West that is snowballing globally. All these provided and underscored the relational basis for networking, thus enabling digital social mediation to flourish.

Suffice it to say, that, the PDCC, with its real-time delivery, self-mass communication character, sociality, stylistics and more, has revolutionised communication beyond what we could have envisaged, including the re-ordering of content production and consumption, democratising access by giving voice to people in a pattern, tempo and style never experienced in human civilisations. There is no gainsaying the fact that just two decades ago, public relations (PR) could not have envisioned the kind of tools ICTs have thrusted upon it to express its social functions.

Conscious of the considerably valid arguments of Fuchs (2017) in “Social Media: A Critical Introduction”; and Rainie and Wellman (2012), in “Networked: The New Social Operating System”, I reckoned that social (media) networks are not new. I interpreted Fuchs’ analysis in the context of notice boards on campuses as I had witnessed the phenomenon as a student.

For instance, a writer would post a content on a board and a reader would comment upon the paper with his or her pen with inscriptions such as, ‘This is correct’ or ‘You are stupid’, as feedback to the publication. To Rainie and Wellman, social network has been part of mankind ever since “Cain hung out with Abel”. So, the contemporary digitally-mediated social networks represent not an entirely novel mode in terms of “shift in technology” but a redefinition of people’s relational conduct, shaped by culture as Miller and Sinanan (2017) and their teams documented perceptively after serial anthropological studies of social media use at eleven sites in different countries and continents.

On the lingering issue of novelty of social networks, I reminded my audience that while the Internet is a product of Cold War, Karl Mark (1867/1868), in “Grundrisse” (an informed work in self-clarification which remained unpublished until 1939), had spoken to worldwide information networking phenomenon. What is however phenomenal in contemporary social networking is its technological component (but not necessarily technologically deterministic). Rather, it is structural interactions of technology and the human agency, a relationship in which I prioritised the human agency because it is what gives modern social networking its sociality – the interaction, the communication and the engagement that constitute the soul of digital social mediation.

The dual structure of social media is crucial to the reality of unimaginable complex of resources of the Web, pivoted on creation and co-creation of user-generated contents. It is the reason critical theorists like Fuchs believe the media are not necessarily technologies but techno-social systems. Fuchs describes the technology component of modern social media as “artefacts that enables and constrains a social level of human activities, creating knowledge that is produced, diffused and consumed with the help of the artefacts of the technological kind”. Anthony Giddens, the British Baron and Member of the House of Lords, but importantly, a rare sociologist noted for his works on structuration, had described the recursion to pragmatic symbiosis of technology and human agency in a 1984 classic, as ‘duality of structure’.

On cultural determinism of social media reality, I cited the work of the Canadian-American sociologist, the symbolic interactionist, Erving Goffman (1959) who proved astutely that all communication and interaction or sociality occur in cultural contexts and ipso facto, all communication are mediated. Therefore, whatever we do with technology must have been inherent in our humanity but possibly concealed until it was auspicious for it manifest. So, I told my audience that the centrality of culture in communication is the reason social media findings cannot be generalised until studies are replicated in different cultural contexts. In essence, it will be absolute falsehood to adopt hook line and sinker an inquiry on tweeting in Nigeria as global representation of Twitter.

I also asserted, that, it will be misleading to take as absolute statement that “the highest traffic on Facebook occurs on Wednesdays from 9.00am to 1.00pm”. This fact will be valid only in certain geographical context because that period of the day, does not exist concurrently in all places in every material fact. In another clime, that period would be midnight, yet, in another it may be early evening. So, if a post targets a Nigerian audience, a content creator needs to be sure how that fact relates to Nigeria contextually to be guided in her enterprise.

In another context, whereas social media apps and the formation of networks are driven by friendship or followership, I agree with Miller and Sinanan (2017) that definition of friendship varies, and it can be influenced by populations and culture. Suffice it to say, that, there are several problematics on issues we might have taken as normative or certitudes, and only an informed perception could make us to reap optimal benefits in using social media for any purpose.

So, in a more concrete sense, I reasoned that culture could make the difference in type of social media use and their effectiveness. For instance, as Ellison and Boyd (2012) documented, the first digitised social media, Cyworld, debuted in Korea in 1999 and operated its brand of friendship interaction and networking as a series of “concentric circles”, so much like the way kinship functions in Korea. Also, while I found in my study of social media political communication and voting behaviour, that WhatsApp was the most influential social media app that nudged people to take voting decisions in the 2015 presidential election, Miller and his team in 2017, found that a large section of Turkish women actually use WhatsApp more for romance. Just as Miller and his colleagues found great difference in photographic postings by young people in England and their counterparts in Trinidad.

Indeed, as Miller and his team also discovered, while the women of The Glades in the UK showed commitment to and flaunt motherhood, almost triumphally, the women in El Mirador in Guatemala somewhat ‘repudiated’ such attitude. In its stead, the Guatemalans love to maintain a glamorous image ‘untainted’ by motherhood. As a student at the University of Uyo, who visited Calabar very frequently, I found this Guatemalan belief, that, it is not vanity to look good and glamorous even when elderly, to be a special attribute of Efik, Ibibio, Annang, and Oro women of modern Cross River and Akwa Ibom States of Nigeria. I state this in a very positive and commendable sense.

Accordingly, to my audience, I made some conceptual clarifications. The most central being the confusion around the concept of ‘new’ and ‘social media’. The new media, as I informed, totalises the media culture that rides on the crest of dynamism of communication technologies and applications, and driven by the Internet. This classification will run the gamut of websites to email, to podcasts, blogs, to social networking sites. The list is huge and protean. But I made it clear that social media is a subset of new media, and the defining matrices are apps, subscription (by downloading the apps), solicitation of or invitation to friendship to form a node of networks, content creators, as well as sociality (engagement and interaction). Therefore, connection, interaction and collaboration are key for the purpose of building a community of friends, families, acquaintances, creators, co-creators, and modifiers through ‘user-generated contents’ such as jokes, memes, photos, sharing of news, and expositions on different topics and contemporary matters.

I raised rhetorical questions on who use social media, for what purpose, what form of communication do they engage with and what are the possible consequences? I shared copious statistics in response to these questions, including factual up to date graphs culled from, possibly the most reliable resource on social media use in Nigeria today.

On social media sociality, I raised key issues to justify social media use. I mentioned as Fuchs had argued intuitively, that social media are used largely for information, communication and community building, and collaboration and cooperation. In other words, latching on Fuchs’ typology and classificational use, I advocated three forms of sociality on Facebook – cognition, communication, and community-building. A contemporary extension of the communication value is what we have found in e-commerce and marketing.

As Statista revealed in 2022, e-Commerce consumer spending in Nigeria continued to increase particularly in Fashion and Beauty, Travel (including accommodation), Video Games, Electronic and Physical Media, and Furniture and Appliances. There is now 60 percent growth in shopping for food and personal care online. The leading apps in the shopping category are Jumia, Jiji, AliExpress, Wish, Alibaba and Amazon.

Expectedly, my discourse curated legion of challenges associated with the social media networks. For instance, people tend to make comments on what they did not read, often responding from mindsets and fixations. I argued that it is the inability to listen to others and process information rationally before responding that is at the heart of rude, uncivil, and unkind commentaries and interactions we find on the social media. I bemoaned how people make comments on posts long after they were made without taking into consideration the circumstances in which the headposts were created.

In addition, on the social media, many public figures have been misquoted, sometimes the misinformation comes in memes which would have gone viral with little or no objection thus allowing couriers of disinformation to get away with falsehoods. It is an interesting paradox that the social media have become beautiful repositories of the human experience and history, just as they have turned cesspools of lies, deceit and falsehoods. Even profile pictures are augmented out of reality and the bad guys are celebrated as their victims cried foul. Many times, the social media aided the revictimization of casualties of villainy. These challenges continued unabated even as the residual effects of the disastrous human and associative costs of COVID-19 are yet to completely thaw on all spheres to human activities.

Really, the issue of disinformation remains a saddening commentary on the reality of social media networking. Just recently, an organisation I belong, the International Institute for Communications (IIC), reported that “Disinformation Performance Worsens”, as social media companies have fell far short of compliance. The IIC noted that Vera Jourova, Vice President of EU Commission had lamented “a downward trend in reviewing notifications related to illegal hate speech by social media platforms”. Thus, Omdia, a global firm steeped in tech market research and consulting, recommended that the 2020s be declared “The Decade of Responsible Tech”. As Omdia contends, “the IT industry has to mitigate the negative effects of social, economic, and business challenges.”

Interestingly, the promises of the social media for knowledge, cooperation, brand development, as well as for socio-economic progress and expansion of democracy, remain strong and need to be harnessed. For instance, it is the reason 1.9 billion out of 2.895 billion Facebook subscribers are active daily, even though the network removed some 1.7 billion fake accounts 18 months ago.

By January 2022, just a year ago, 58.4 percent of the global population were on social media. There has been quarterly and annual increase of over 10 percent in social media use. In the period in context, average hours spent on social media was 2 hours 27 minutes. As early as age 13, people are already familiar with and using social media, and 54 percent of the users are male while 46 percent of the users are female, according to Hootsuite, a content management dashboard that supports analytics and scheduling of posts on multiple social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok.

Hootsuite also documented in a smart study that key reasons people use social media were to keep in touch with friends, fill spare time, seek content, look for news, sharing and discussing opinions with others, making new contacts, and to do work -related networking and research, finding celebrities and influencers to follow and enlisting in like-minded communities of interest.

The popularly used social media platforms, especially in Nigeria, include, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, and LinkedIn. At least 90 million Nigerians use WhatsApp, 32 million are active on Facebook, over 32 million on YouTube, about 30 million on Facebook Messenger, about 14 million on Instagram and over 5 million on Twitter. Also, according to Statista, a year ago, an Nigerians spent 4 hours 7 minutes on social media, just a second higher than a Filipino. This is a sharp contrast with people in the United States and India who spent about 2 and half hours, and even sharper than those in Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, and China who spent 51 minutes, 1 hour 29 seconds, 1 hour 48 seconds, and 1 hour 57 seconds respectively.

Within the framework of organisational use, firms continued to make huge gains through social media. As Sprout Social has reported, 55 percent of consumers learn about brands on social media. Of the 55 percent, 78 percent of them are GenZ, 61 percent Millennials, and 56 percent GenZ, while baby boomers are 35 percent of that. To apply these statistics to Nigeria will require replicating the study in our context. Regrettably, there have been epic falls arising from issues featured in the social media. Chief Executives and other staff of organisations and institutions have left their jobs voluntarily or fired based on their conscious or inadvertent characterisation on the social media. In other words, we cannot run away from social media hazards by “pursuing a policy of non-participation”.

As I had recommended in an earlier presentation at a retreat of an upcoming digital company in Lagos in 2021, I will reiterate that social media can be addictive with the attendant damage of employees spending too much time and compromising organisational objectives. Accordingly, I prescribed that all organisations deploying social media should produce an egalitarian and qualitative social media policy to guide staff, and while employees exercise their rights to free speech, they should always state so and ensure courtesy, civility and kindness permeate their interactions on social media.

As confirmed by Statista, Sprout Social in a 2022 report, also established that social media collectively, constitute over 50 percent source of information. Indeed, over 85 percent of respondents in the study by Sprout Social believe social media will continue to be a major source of information for business intelligence. As Zazzle Media has documented, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube continued to be leading social media tools deployed by organisations for brand awareness, web traffic, reputation management, increase sales, and to improve customer service.

For both organisational and personal effectiveness, understand the nuances of each social media platform even though there has been increase in cross platform information-sharing. For organisations, take a team approach to managing the platforms, and ensure that you explore many approaches but make sure each approach makes customers and followers feel welcome by engaging politely. Be intentional and conscious about content creation. Organisations should look inward for contents but should engage content creators and influencers where necessary, sometimes, this is imperative and irreducible. Please do not just use social media for posting. Engage followers. Engagement or sociality is the soul of social mediation.

Importantly, do not just post, use social media for listening too. In other words, by the same token, do not just listen. Engage your friends. It is inappropriate to have an online friend or follower and you never engaged his or her post for years and he or she has engaged some of yours. Social media is an extension of real life situation, so you must make people appreciated too, even if you are obsessed with reinforcing class as many of us do in the social media space. Let people who appreciate you by being your online acquaintances feel appreciated too, even if only on their birthdays, other anniversaries, and successes, or when they memorialise their loved ones. Otherwise, ‘unfriend’ them instead of making others feel only you deserved to be celebrated, or as we state in Nigerian parlance, ‘Do not turn yourself into a monitoring spirit’.

In totalising, the social media networks will continue to be relevant for enhanced information-sharing and accessibility, community-building and other relational purposes, as well as for products marketing, improved customer relations, cost reduction, organisational performance, and other socioeconomic and political communication as well as for personal effectiveness.

However, there is a need to understand exactly how to harness and harvest these benefits from that ever-changing space some often see as mere chaos, and importantly, as we see in real life situation, we must be wary of the deceits, falsehoods, criminalities, hypocrisies, misconceptions, misinformation, disinformation, and the malinformation that have equally become the mark of the online media space. Therefore, while we are prone to mistakes because we are humans, every post reinforces or demeans our reputational assets. Therefore, PLEASE DON’T POST ANYTHING EXCEPT IT HAS BEEN VERIFIED.

As I finished my presentation, I listened to and responded to lots of questions, and I walked into the warm embrace of my friend, sister, and professional colleague, Omelogo Omelogo Ogelue Nnadi, the multimedia journalist and professional children caregiver, who was waiting for me to take the next presentation to the conference, on events planning and management.

-Ibietan,PhD is the Head of Media Relations of Nigerian Communications Commission

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