Before the internet, our social world probably consisted of family and friends. These friends might have been people we worked with, went to church with, worked out with, did crafts with, and generally those we met in life and managed to maintain a relationship with. If something happened, something big, these are the people we turned too. These are the people we shared our opinions with. These are the people with whom we argued and agreed. Since social media became a conduit for interaction on the internet, all of that has changed. We now have a forum for expressing reactions to news and events that is larger than we may have ever imagined in the early years of internet communication.
The change did not start with the internet right away. With the internet, came AOL Instant Messenger. It was a way to communicate with friends and family without a phone or a letter, from the comfort of home or the comfort of a desk at work. This was how people began connecting via the internet. Chat rooms started, and people began meeting new people online. In fact, this was the only real internet communication that existed on September 11, 2001. On that day we all found a way to communicate with someone, but we did it with phones, emails, instant messenger, and through physical contact. There was no such thing as Twitter or Facebook. The online social community had not been streamlined.
By comparison, we, as a society, were entrenched in the world of social media on the day of the Sandy Hook shootings. These were two tragic events with two different responses. On September 11, we relied on the news for information. On the day of the Sandy Hook shootings, we relied on social media. Before social media was available, our information was, “filtered by a small number of media producers,” explains Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today. Now, she goes on to say, when tragedy occurs, we have, “begun to expect [social media] as a normal way to follow, understand, and share events.”
The question follows: is this a bad thing or a good thing? That depends on how you look at it. Whet Moser, from Chicago Magazine, quotes Katherine Weymouth, publisher of The Washington Post, as saying of the difference between public response to tragedies with and without social media, “Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and all the technologies that have [sic] yet to be invented make all these events more real, and more horrific.” This is to say that the difference has had a negative impact on the way we view events and news. However, Moser goes on to explain his very different point of view. His answer comes from the evolution of communication from Instant Messenger to Twitter and Facebook.
There is no way to argue the fact that social media has opened wide our networks of communication. With it, news and opinions travel quickly, if not efficiently. Some of the news we receive is incorrect in our rush to be the first, but those mistakes are usually corrected just as quickly as they are made. There is little down time and little time to wonder what is happening. Instant messenger is, Moser explains, “bidirectional. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, it’s not a network of people; it’s limited in its distribution, so information travels more slowly over it.” Thus, the information shared on 9/11 via instant messenger was not readily available to every single person.
Then there are the emotional responses. The ones we had on September 11, 2001 were shared over the phone or in person with the people nearest to us. Our emotional responses to the events at Sandy Hook were quite different. According to Dr. Rutledge, the responses after the tragedy via social media varied from “showing support, lobbying for gun control,” to, “promoting mental health initiatives or calling for school lockdowns.” She explains that we have a need to express our responses and have our responses responded to, and we are more than comfortable doing so via the internet. She goes on to say that this forum for allowing us to respond unedited, “feels more direct and personal,” and this is important to us because, “Public discussion is helpful. It allows people to feel heard, to have their experiences and emotions, such as anger, fear and anxiety, normalized.” Thus, on a psychological level, social media has brought us together and given us a way to communicate with each other that we have always needed. Although not all responses to the tragedy were in good taste, the majority of the responses allowed for a sense of community and comfort.
Whether you like it or not, the way we receive and respond to the news has changed. Information is available more quickly than it ever was before, and we now have a forum through which we can connect with each other and share our collective experiences. Thus, the evolution of Social Media has been a worldwide communication revolution.
About the author: Arlene Brill loves all things Internet Marketing. She is currently working with SociaLink Media, a leading social media campaigns consulting company based in Minneapolis and Chicago. When she is not working, she is often found reading motivational books and hiking with her dog.