Social media is making us angry, lonely and self-obsessed. There are countless studies on some of the negative influences our online lives have on our personality and perspective. However, is that change permeating into social structures and changing the way we interact?
Absolutely, if you ask Dr Yutin Wang, associate professor of sociology at American University of Sharjah.
“I think it is a good thing actually with social media now taking over and becoming a way of life. So, it is important to really look at it as something that has already happened and it would have a positive and negative aspect, like anything else. Instead of denying it and being fearful, it is important to look at it as an indispensable and inevitable component of life,” she told Gulf News.
However, the unsaid rules of the online society can often differ from the social norms offline. Whether it comes to following certain rules or etiquette in one-on-one interactions or maintaining decorum in a public setup, establishing a culture depends on how quickly the cultural norms were set, whether there is a clear leader or dissenter and how outside visitors view the culture according to Jennie Chen, a social psychologist based in Austin, US.
On the internet, those norms did not take centuries to be established and can often be a lot cruder than those followed in most civilised societies. Why? Because a human mind determines what is appropriate, inappropriate, private or public based on many factors.
“It is what sociologists call defining a situation. In face-to-face communication, when people look at facial expressions or body language, it helps them define the situation that would prevent them from behaving in a certain way,” Dr Wang said.
So, raising your voice in front of someone would immediately result in a change in the person’s facial expression. That gives a signal to one’s brain that the behaviour might not be acceptable. On Facebook or Whatsapp, such a response can often be delayed, if not completely absent. This often results in social behaviour that can be considered impolite in most social gatherings.
“When you take everything online, when you exclude that face-to-face interaction, people will have to figure out a way to behave in that situation. A new norm emerges. It has become fine and appropriate to do certain things in that situation,” Dr Wang added.
Another crucial factor in play is how the social concepts of private space or appropriate behaviour can vary from culture to culture.
“Something that is called private in East Asia might not be private in a Western culture. Similarly, a lot of things a Westerner might consider as part of individual privacy isn’t really privacy for Asian cultures. Concepts like religion and marriage are a shared experience and can affect a lot of people in many ways, but these are considered absolutely private in Western cultures,” Dr Wang said.
Here is where online cultures have less differences — the common norm that is emerging has more uniformity. So, regardless of whether the person is logging in from Shanghai or New York they would share a common culture.
So, while ignoring people around you to take a video on Snapchat might be considered deviant behaviour, it is only deviant when seen in the context of offline cultures.
“The person is actually not a deviant but a conformist. He or she is simply conforming to a different culture - the online one,” Dr Wang said.
So does that mean that online cultures will ultimately take over existing social and cultural norms? The jury is still out on that front.
“A social shift is definitely happening but it is very difficult to say how its going to change our culture fundamentally. We are just being opened up to a whole new world. Current social values are very stable, it’s very hard to change them but change is on the way. Even the way people follow practices of religion and marriage are slowly changing, our younger are living in a very different world,” she added.
While this world might be different, it is definitely not as ‘human’ as the offline world according to Sandra Akuruk, a 25-year-old security official from Uganda.
“I feel like we are losing the goodness in us,” she told Gulf News.
“While it helps some people overcome their shyness and interact with more people, others do not have the sense to ignore the aggressiveness and anger they are exposed to online. We get to see so much aggression and sometimes display of nudity, it brings out the evilness in us and some people definitely get affected by it. It is especially affecting culture,” she said.
Boyoung Park, a 21-year-old sales assistant and English literature student, has seen first-hand the impact heavy use of social media has had on isolating people in South Korea.
“Some people are aggressive and easily say offensive things to argue; they want people to watch them,” the resident of Seongnam, South Korea, told Gulf News.
However, she did feel that the rudeness was often limited to the online realm.
“They don’t speak out in public, only online. I’m not sure if this is used by other countries too, but they are called ‘keyboard warrior’ in Korea,” she said.
But how long will this aggression remain confined to online cultures? Only time may tell.
— The writer is a freelance journalist with Gulf News