The Influences and Forms of New Media

            About a decade ago the world-wide web was new.  Web browsers had just begun to enable users to easily access and discover the internet and the coming of Windows 98 and newer Apple operating systems (OS) signified a turning point in the future of computing internet became an automatic and crucial part of computer OS.  Visions of a world filled with revolutionized commerce, forms of work, leisure, and wealth filled the air… but the era economic boom ultimately flopped and few of these predictions were not immediately realized (Lievrouw 2004). The once controversial coming of Web 2.0 saw the actualization of this future in a wiser, more sober form with the seamless bonding of services, applications, and internet – the new generations of computer users now associate computers and the internet as one; that is, if you have a computer, it’s almost assumed you have access and make use of the internet.  Though the internet has brought with it some novel new kinds of communication, specifically email, instant messaging, and blogs (which are really just a constrain type of forum), most of these forms of media have infiltrated the daily lives of CMC users who use them without even contemplating it.

Normalizing of New Media

            Most of new media studies now exemplify an approach of analysis that calls on the mainstreaming of new media, a “variety of media technologies, forms, and content often lumped together under a single (and misleadingly homogenizing) rubric of ‘the internet,’ [that] have become a commonplace part of work, education, leisure, culture and politics” (Lievrouw 2004).  The coalition encapsulates changes in art, literature, and all manner of tools for selecting, capturing, shaping, and manipulating information.  Socio-technical power processes in many ways replicate pre-existing economic, political, and social disparities… and truth be told many of the online publication services are under at least partially under the fold of the old media conventional publishing giants (Lievrouw 2004).  Experts in the field such as Barry Wellman reflect on the progressive sophistication of the field – new media studies have experienced an interior shift going from deterministic large-scale studies to cultural studies in the field of Science and Technology Studies.  Susan Herring puts the circumstance rather aptly in saying, “The question has now become, not does technology shape human communications, yes or no, but rather: under what circumstances, in what ways, and to what extent?” (Lievrouw 2004, quoting Herring).  Internet communication technologies (ICT) are an indispensible and embedded component in our everyday lives and SNS epitomize this, as they would not exist if it were not true.

Usefulness and Appropriateness of CMC

            Accompanying this normalization of ICT’s into everyday life is the ongoing debate of the usefulness and appropriateness of CMC.  Caroline Haythornthwaite and Anna Nielsen summarize this dialectic in the recently published article Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication for Work, Community, and Learning (2007).  The two authors explain critics of CMC purport that these technologies feature leaner communication, are predominantly text-based, suffer from reduced cues, an impoverished communication environment and that they are ill-suited to emotional, expressive, and complex communications as well as require more time to build relationships.  Meanwhile, proponents of CMC find positive idiosyncrasies such denoted by rich communication, emoticons and acronyms, language cues, group defined genres and rules of conduct, and higher levels of interpersonal self-disclosure, emotional support, shared history, and online communities.  Other negatives to CMC include anti-social flaming and irresponsible individual actions as well as decreased social involvement and abandonment of local relationships.  I find problematizing the first set of these two drawbacks is considerably more present and pertinent to the Facebook environment, as I will explain later.  Haythornthwaite and Nielson mirror much of the STS theory above in illustrating integrative outcomes of CMC in the form of connection between disparate others spanning time and space as well as maintenance of connection, even when distributed.
            Barry Wellman and Keith Hampton elegantly bridge the STS concept of heterogeneous technological (human-machine) systems and CMC in their piece Living Networked On and Offline.  The two rather penitently state that computer networks are social networks; “when computer networks connect people and organizations they are the infrastructure of social networks.” (Wellman and Hampton 1999).  The characteristics of socio-technical networks include temporarily asynchronous CMC, rapid response and high velocity exchanges, nuanced and complex interactions, new forms of social norms, procedures, and ethos, variable levels of direct feedback (Wikipedia vs. Microsoft), transitivity of messages and information (forwarding), easy accessibility of messaging and Email that can be deployed to multiple recipients both passively and actively (Email vs. away messages), the proliferation of weak ties, global connectivity (think the Kevin Bacon game), specialized communities, and purely virtual communities (Wellman and Hampton 1999).  And these are just to name a few – Wellman and Hampton’s analysis was before the age of mobility in computing and internet usage; cell phones and laptops have created even more trends.  The two surmise a host of differences (benefits) between traditional groups and computer supported social networks that I’ve already covered the majority of.

Implications of Hyper-personal Communication and Anonymity

            Other studies have unearthed implications for psychological well-being and the internet and show that “individuals’ preference for online, rather that face-to-face, social interaction plays an important role in the development of negative consequences associated with problematic internet use” (Caplan 2003).  If Facebook is becoming a stronger and increasingly pervasive extension of personality into the online world that it stands to amplify this effect – indeed many users prefer Facebook interaction over in person interaction much like they prefer instant messaging to conversation.  Even relatively secure and confident introvert individuals can find loop holes in social norms on Facebook – “it’s like all of those things you want to know but without having to deal with asking.”  Virtually everyone with moderate levels of technical competence feel safer, more efficacious, confident and comfortable with the benefits of hyper personal communication (Caplan 2003).  Benefits include increased editing, temporal boons (selective and strategic control over timing), facilitate for the formation of idealized impressions and more intimate circumstances.  In other words, most people feel like they can think more about what they wish to say, have less obligation or pressure to say it perfectly (the “AIM” effect), and can call upon the internet and all its connections to enhance what they do say.  The long term and dependency effects of this could be a potential danger, however. 
Though Facebook allows users to be identified by their profiles there is a sort of anonymity to the system as well as any user can message any other user on another network, or post in large network or global groups.  Anonymity in CMC tends to minimize status differences, reduce fear of retribution, and create an environment where people are generally less fearful (Rains 2007). These aspects apply almost perfectly to interactions between groups and individuals on Facebook and also help to explain the high levels of trust in the system.  Attribution becomes central to source credibility, however, which is where the analogy to Facebook can also easily be dismantled – someone shouting posts on a message board can be easily dismissed once you look at their profile and see they’re a member of the “College has taught me absolutely nothing” group.  Even so, with evidence showing “anonymity provided by electronic meeting systems may undermine source credibility and influence” (Rains 2007), I argue perceived reduction in status inequity, threat of retribution, and fear is enough to condition the context of the Facebook environment.

Growing up Next to the Internet

            As mentioned earlier, current generations of students are growing up with the internet as a integral, central and normalized part of their lifestyle.  Many college students have had access to personal computers in their homes long before coming to college, and some even owned their own PC before departing for school.  In coming of age concurrently with the internet and in confluence with the economic boom of the nineties the student group that now dominates the majority of MySpace and Facebook commands both a native and latent understanding of these technologies.  As with the case of television, the telephone and other vastly influencing technologies “research has been preoccupied with the search for evidence of negative effects; and much of it has been based on implicitly behaviorist assumptions” (Mcmillian and Morrison 2006, quoting Buckingham 2002).  Growing up hand in hand with the internet has impacted the youth’s perceptions and factors of socialization in regards to self, family, real communities, and virtual communities.  New forms of media enact as a conduit to understanding, an altered form of language, and a robust platform for development. 
            Findings indicate a tendency among students to identity dualities with each of the aforementioned factors and patterns of interpretation.  Sally Mcmillan and Margaret Morrison explore the impacts and implications of this in their piece Coming of Age with the Internet: A qualitative exploration of how the internet has become an integral part of young people’s lives (2006).  Without getting too far ahead of myself with this iteration of theory, many students found the internet paralleled their active and passive development of self as they determined their identities growing up.  Most participants felt the internet was an active place of participation where they could “solidify their offline identities” (Mcmillan and Morrison 2006) and utilized an instrumental more than hedonic approach in their exploration.  Students acquired skills more so on their own then from the aid of educators, parents, or other outside forces because they found motivation as a result of relevance of the internet to their everyday lives.  Mcmillan and Morrison’s study, in agreement with numerous others, found that most of the time youth were not concerned with radically altering their personality online and felt their identities on and offline were not substantially different.  The family as it related to the internet was partitioned into two halves – the young and the old.  Sibblings and other younger family members were perceived as insiders embedded in the social webbing of the net and as catalysts for the learning and usage of technology, whereas parents and the elderly were classified as hesitant and disabled users who were seen as lacking confidence and sometimes even ‘being afraid’ of the internet (Mcmillian and Morrison 2006).  In contrast, the youngest generations were viewed in positive terms as they were fated to grow up even more so immersed in new media.  Much like Haythornthwaite and Wellman’s earlier findings (1998) evidence suggests an acceptance of new media in both the worlds of work and play.  Lastly, though the internet was fundamental in sustaining and enhancing real communities, the medium spurred profound impacts in student conceptions of community – enabling them to connect to global and virtual social groups in ways previously unknown.  Some respondents in Mcmillan and Morrison’s study even expressed definitions of community or society determined by technology; their grandparents and parents generations were defined by telephones and the television, and their generation was hallmarked by the internet.  This kind of outlook sounds almost reminiscent of technological determinism, suggesting that the sheer gravity of perceived influences of the internet is a significant factor of socialization.  Most respondent portrayals of the internet found themselves housed in the utopian/dystopian dichotomy, either hating or loving the impacts and wonders of virtual and global communities.  Inherent to every level of analysis was a certain level of dependency on the internet – respondents typified a life built and fueled largely upon access and usage of the web.  Details aside, the on-going theme was the emphasis and notability of the internet and its integration into daily-life.  Facebook’s success is contingent on this generational conception of virtual community and self-identity development.  Regularity is just one piece of the puzzle – dependence on and benefits from the web are yet another indicator of student inclinations towards Facebook.  An effective measure of this is social capital.

Social Capital and the Web

            Social capital as it’s referenced in this paper follows the Wellman-Haase-Witte-Hampton model.  This stipulates that social capital encompasses three forms: network capital, participatory capital, and community commitment (Wellman et al. 2001).  Network capital refers to relationships with friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers who provide significant companionship, emotional aid, services, information and a sense of belonging (Wellman et al. 2001).  Participatory capital is a measure of involvement in politics and voluntary organizations that facilitate opportunities to bond, recognize shared desires and interests, and found collaborative movements.  Community commitment centers on a strong and responsible sense of belonging: being a motivated and conscious member who is able to mobilize – effectively uniting both organizational/political urges (participatory capital) and interpersonal interaction (network capital) (Wellman et al. 2001, referencing McAdam 1982).  The three combined adequately illustrate an inclusive and comprehensive basis of realization of social capital.
            Early studies of ICT influences on social capital indicate that the internet supplements and extends communication as well as social capital but may not dramatically change it (Wellman et al. 2001).  Fortunately, a more specific and exceedingly helpful study on the relationship between social capital and Facebook is now available.  One of the only reputable sources in existence directly on itself, Nicole Ellison, Charles Steinfield, and Cliff Lampe investigate a positive effect of membership on in their paper Spatially Bounded Online Social Networks and Social Capital: The Role of Facebook (2006).  They seek to study and measure social capital, or resources, actual and virtual, that accrue to participants in the Facebook SNS.  While social capital is invariably linked to social outcomes, the article focuses particularly on the positive effects afforded by Facebook and examines both bonding and bridging social capital.  Results from multiple regression analysis of the 800 person random sampling from the Michigan State University undergraduate population indicate that Facebook had a significant impact on students’ ability to maintain bridging social capital at college (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006).  Interestingly enough white students were more likely to have this than non-white students.  General internet use, as compared, did not make a significant difference in determining social capital.  The social capital of students who reported low satisfaction with MSU life and low self-esteem were most positively impacted by Facebook intensity (use).  Having more friends who use Facebook, using Facebook to connect with offline contacts, and using Facebook for fun accurately predicted rates and trends of bridging social capital, but not bonding social capital (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2006).
            As the article notes in its general discussion, the relationship between Facebook and social capital does not determine causation – students bring with them a plethora of connections and resources to the SNS environment and consequently take away new ones.  The point is that the two worlds are interconnected and coproducing of one another – invariably linked and dependent reproducing both weak ties, potential and realized, as well as strengthening social bonds.

Going Beyond New Media

            Early in the developmental stages of CMC and SNS scholars identified tangible barriers to access for numerous populations.  Effectively known as the digital divide, academe has begun to problematize issues of access and usage within different populations.  Obviously early adopters of technology require both education and funding, as well as the infrastructure only available in developed countries, but other social constraints and norms afflicting social groups and analytic categories such as age, race, gender, and ability are a part of the system too.  Caroline Haythornthwaite discusses the recent “unbundling” of both who is using the internet and what they’re using it for in the latter half of her article Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication for Work, Community, and Learning (2007).  While more Americans of every type are now accessing the internet dissimilar populations are using it less and for differing purposes.  New studies have turned their focus to the impacts of language, racial, ethnic, and cultural background variables, the effect of rural and urban locale, the roles of various age groups, and a user’s years and types of experience using computers and the internet (Haythornthwaite and Nielson 2007).  Especially as the internet becomes generalized and begins to emanate banal qualities (Wellamn 1999) we as researchers need to expand our analysis of the nearly endless pool of factors and influences inherent to the digital divide.  Persistent research is crucial because many variables that influence access and usage remain undisclosed and emergent as the Internet advances.