Social Media Unplugged – Context Versus Fragmentation

First of all we need to pull the plug on the discourse that confines social media to being mere technology. As Paul Adams, the head of Google´s user experience lab, suggested social media is more about understanding sociology than technology. Social media as a phenomenon has a lot more to do to with how our lives have developed over the last 20 years, than with just online media, let alone Facebook or Twitter. Moreover it is also instrumental to remove the “Generation Y factor” – that is to attribute the wide scale use of social media to those born after 1980.


In order to understand how social media impacts our lives and how this can be measured we need to have quick look at how our lives and social context have changed over the last 20 years. First of all, our lives have become significantly more complex and fragmented since the early 1990s. This has been – to say the least – due to powerful shifts in technology. Personal computing and the world wide web have played a significant role in increasing behaviours that revolve around the individual and by doing so have led to more fragmentation. You can call it globalisation, postpostmodern or virtual modernity, eventually they all add up to one thing: an increase in complexity.


Fragmentation is present in all aspects of our lives; be it our work, our identities or friendships. Even though we are tied into more and more physical and virtual networks, as Zygmunt Bauman – the Polish born sociologist from the University of Leeds – suggests it is not our lives that become networked but we become the network itself:


The most consequential feature of networks is, however, the unusual flexibility of their reach and the extraordinary facility with which their composition may be modified: individual items are added or removed with no greater effort than it takes to type in or delete a telephone number in a cellular phone’s directory. Eminently breakable bonds connect the network units, as fluid as the identity of the network’s “hub,” its sole creator, owner, and manager. Through networks, “belonging” becomes a (soft and shifting) sediment of identification.” (Bauman 2008)


As individuals who constantly organise and reorganise our relationships we live in a mode of fluidity. The ultimate product of this is not more stability (which we might crave for), but context. In a world in which virtual and physical networks are increasingly tied to each other it is context that helps individuals to navigate through their lives. Current web technologies allow us to create, review, rate, and organise content along our personal criteria. That is the core of social media – namely to curate content that is organised around oneself. More importantly though is that social media not just allows us to hyperindividualise, but also creates the necessary social fabric (context) that we need in order to navigate through our fragmented realities.


Nevertheless, as Chris Anderson suggests in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (Anderson 2006) it has been web technologies that also helped us make sense of the increased levels of complexity (and information). What he referred to were actually the first steps to make the web more social, which was the availability of tools that allow users to organise data according to their own needs and interests.



Virtual and physical networks are increasingly connected.


This might sound rather abstract and you might ask yourself how this all relates to the practicalities of development work or international cooperation. Well, think of it like this: social media is a tremendous pool of capacity development tools. They help develop the abilities of individuals and/or organisations “to solve problems, make informed choices, define priorities and plan for the future” (OECD 2006). Social media has become one of the most powerful tools today that help create context in which capacity can be developed (Scoble: 2013) . Therefore, I suggest that, the impact of social media can be best measured by quantifying its context creation.


Context is crucial for every one of us in order to make informed decisions and navigate the high sess of life. Even more important is to have good contextual information in a world where physical and virtual realities converge in an ever increasing pace. Traditional navigational authorities – think of governments, newspapers, family – increasingly lose their influence. Simultaneously the confluence of digital and physical realities gives space to new and nonauthoritative systems of influence and context creation influence is increasingly based on forms of capital that are retrieved through social channels (social capital) instead of an authority invested by the state, church or economy. Social capital thus becomes the highest good in converged – or call it augmented – realities. Measuring the impact of your social media activities is – according to the current state of our research – an attempt to measure your social capital that accumulates online.


In the following section I briefly describe the conceptual and empirical process that served as the basis for monitoring the impact of social media within the work of the German development agency GIZ. After this I propose a couple of measurement tools, which can help measure the impact of social media activities.


>> Ch. 2 'The Approach – Social Media as Social Capital'