Social Media

by Barbara Spies, Ph.D., professor, Communication 
 
I started my day by opening Snapchat, where I found messages from friends and family. Then I opened Facebook to see the comments people wrote on pictures I posted from the Stritch Commencement. I checked Twitter to see if anything dramatic happened in the world overnight. I sent a quick message to one of my kids. I decided against a bedhead Snapchat selfie for that message, despite the entertainment value. What does all of this say about who I am?
 
I teach communication, so it is logical that I support the idea that we make sense of who we are, of our identity, through our communication with other people. We come to a sense of self from our interpretations of how others perceive us. We learn of those perceptions through interactions. Communication, as a field of study, examines the many and varied ways that we exchange messages. To be effective interactants, we need to understand cultural influences, barriers to communication, verbal and nonverbal messages, self-disclosure in relationships, listening, conversation skills, empathy, power, and conflict. With all those demands, it’s amazing we can even communicate at all!
 
Let’s add into the mix social media. Social media offer us means of communicating one-on-one, as well as to a global audience. Some of these means replicate what it is like to talk face-to-face, and others are far removed from that kind of interaction. In my courses, we read about those differences and how to make our online conversations effective. Every semester there is some new aspect of the subject to examine.
 
When I started teaching about social media, we looked at Facebook and texting as the major channels for communicating online. But, now, incoming students roll their eyes at Facebook and explain that it’s only for keeping in touch with family. Once your mom is on a social medium, it is no longer cool. So, they rely on Snapchat for interactions, Instagram for revealing who they are, and Twitter for learning about what is happening with celebrities, sport, and news.
 
A recent study in pediatrics noted that the number of hospital visits for suicidal thoughts or attempts at suicide doubled from 2008 to 2015. Some argue that the change is social media. The extended time and reach for bullying is a result of the never-off culture of social media. Louise O’Neill’s novel, “Asking for It,” deals with the pervasiveness of this culture, demonstrating the results of both a physical and a virtual attack on the identity of the main character. We know the impact social media has on society. We see it in research, in fiction, and in popular culture.
 
Social media plays a role in defining how people see themselves and allowing people to define themselves for others. A selfie can be sent out after much primping and preening. Unlike the awful school portraits we were stuck with in the past, we can delete the ones we hate and only send the perfect version of ourselves. We can frame the display of our lives, depicting our perceptions of our identity. At the same time, the responses of others to what we have revealed about our existence similarly shapes our identity. It is a hard subject to stay current on, but the impact is clear and needs our attention.