Online and offline communication is now, more than ever, harder to distinguish as the two have become integrated into one another. As we shape our online identity, we incorporate the most attractive aspects of our offline lives which evidently has an effect on our relationships, our identity and our experience of the present. But how does social media impact our social relations?
The potential of digital technology has different implications for communities and relationships. Digital media enables us to reach one another, regardless of location and time. In virtual communities, unlike physical communities, the individual has the option of to participate or not; they are not bound to the physical constraints which we find in the real world. As a result, virtual communities can support like-minded media users from all over the world and enable them to form online relationships based on common interests and goals.
Before digital media was introduced into our daily lives, our relationships were formed and maintained only by the physical world and the option to ‘unfriend’ someone simply did not exist. Virtual spaces, however, make it easier to block somebody out of your social profiles with just a click of a button. As sociologist and media expert Vincent Miller explains, the social bonds are less intense within an online community and therefore the notion of inclusion within a group is less established. As such, to unfriend someone on Facebook can be seen as a result of increased individualisation, giving the ‘unfriender’ a lesser sense of responsibility and greater freedom in choice. Miller also argues that there is no certainty that we will meet this person again and as a result we feel less inclined to satisfy the other person’s wishes. For instance, when we operate in virtual spaces there are far less consequences of confrontation, making the whole ‘unfriending’ process far easier to initiate. An individual’s identity is restricted to merely a profile page so once you no longer want access to them, their page can disappear forever.
To ‘unfriend’ someone on Facebook ensures that the user has full control over their privacy and experience and this is easily manageable in user settings. However, we must remember that to avoid or ignore a request or a post does not remove the actual problem. One way we can guarantee our virtual realities remain a safe site for communication and social relations is to report abusive and offensive content. This will increase everybody’s enjoyment on the social media platform and allow Facebook to monitor users and their actions online.
Social media also has the power and ability to impact our positive or negative feelings for others. Language unquestionably influences our perceptions of reality, meaning that when an individual using positive or negative language against individuals or communities on social media, favourable or unsympathetic feelings are built against the user. When people use hate speech on their platforms, a negative reality is constructed and an ‘Us against Them’ rhetoric is formed. This can be extremely damaging to online communities as it enforces exclusion and separateness and in some cases has even lead to violent repercussions. Sadly, despite the many benefits of social media and the digital age, it does in fact increase the audience readership and the speed at which it reaches users, making the spread of hatred towards certain groups within society dangerously high.
Without doubt, social media and the internet have an important role in contemporary society. They offer us new and innovative information, development and global connectivity, and have a positive effect on group communication across distances. On the other hand, social media now affects our political, social and economic environment in ways in which it hasn’t before and this can lead to deliberate exclusion of groups, on and offline. It is understood that the successes of social platforms and our relations depends heavily on the way users opt to utilise them, and in many cases have improved our perceptions of communities because we now have access to them. It can be argued that our societies have become more open, tolerant and multifaceted as a result of social media, yet it all depends on individual users and their intentions.