Social Media and Value Dilemmas of Digital Culture: Future Trends for the New Generation

Connect-universum 2012
Social Media and Value Dilemmas of Digital Culture:
Future Trends for the New Generation

by Dmitry V.Galkin
Tomsk State University
The Institute for Arts and Culture
Department of Humanities and Informatics

For the purpose of the “Connect-Universum 2012” conference presentation I would like to structure my talk with several points or theses, hoping that this bullet style logic will help to make my ideas clear. This paper is based on my ongoing research in the field of culture and technology, which I prefer to conceptualize as Digital Culture studies (works of C.Gere and D.Trend must be referred here as an important contribution to the field). Thus whenever we ask about different digital technology phenomenon in the context of social, cultural or psychological agenda, digital culture is the framework for shaping discussion. That’s why the first point is the following.

1. Social Media (SM) must be considered and analyzed in the broader context of digital culture.
It is hard to disagree that new media mark a significant generation shift from the old media – television, radio, printing press, home video, LP and tape recording, printed photography – to the new media: personal computer and its versions in the form of mobile devices, the Internet, on-line social networks, digital photography, electronic documents, digital video and audio recording etc. Following McLuhan's idea of media as extension of man (МcLuhan, 2001), we can say that those who grew up in 2000s are much more electronically extended humans in terms of access to data and social involvement via popular Internet services like or (in Russia).

2. Digital culture is based on totality of digital technology and reveals itself on several levels: material (things, gadgets, technological systems), symbolic (languages, signs, form of communication), social (institutions, functions, communities), mental (cognitive structures, identities, stereotypes) and values.

This multilevel model of culture is adapted from cultural theory and social anthropology. Rejecting reductionist view of culture only as a material or mental or social (institutional) phenomenon, we insist on integrated approach presented in this paper (se Pic.1). Why integrated? The reason is totality of digital technology in our everyday life from smartphones or office desktop PC to Internet communication, from digital photo camera to iPod player, from videogame system to automatic computer system in our car.

3. Social media are strongly interconnected with other phenomenon of digital culture, such as videogames, personal computer and its mobile modifications, software, artificial intelligence, the Internet and virtual community.

This point is just further development of the previous. So called social media are impossible without the Internet as such, special and instrumental software applications, re-mediation of old media (photography, video, audio recording, printed word etc.), digital gadgets of any kind, videogames and upcoming artificial intelligence software to support data management in the endlessly growing cyberspace. In this configuration social media take us to the unique set of technologies of communication never existed before.

4. An influence and impact of SM is and will be defined by value dilemmas of digital culture and ways to resolve these dilemmas is a key for the future of Social Media. We bring this argument because digital culture has inherent value dualism which is controversial relation between neoliberal consensus and nature of computer technology itself – the control system or system of control.

The neo-liberal consensus is dominant ideological set of values that defines specific value of information technology – freedom of information. In this context digital culture is shaped by appreciation of free access to information, user centered market of IT services and products, absence of governmental control over the Internet (strongly supported by global IT community) and copyright so-called creative commons regulation of the digital content. The major parties of this consensus are IT-businesses, virtual community, entertainment industries, governments and international non-profits.

On the over side of the coin there is a “hidden catch” – the nature of computer technology itself that is control. We say nature, because the origin of digital technology is the science of control – cybernetics, system of military control – DARPA style advanced techno-militarism, capitalism — corporate control of production and markets (Pic.4, see also Gere, 2002). These are all roots of computer technology in XX-th century before any liberal consensus about it became possible.

Being controversial itself, digital culture provokes value tensions or what we call dilemmas. On the Pic.5 you can see a list of them.

Let us start with the controversy Individualism vs. Cooperation in virtual community. We know that key values of the Western civilization are centered on individualism – the existence of free autonomous individual who is the proper owner of the human rights. We also know that this idea is doubtful somehow because collective nature of society is an obvious fact and it is more correct to talk about balance between individual and collective elements of society (Etzioni, 2001).

What we see in the use of social media is celebration of collective life and cooperation. New generation learns how to live with hundreds of friends on-line expressing yourself and sharing what is important in your everyday life. Yes, CM is for individual use and profiling. But even simple gesture of liking makes you expressing you self and experiencing togetherness not individual power. In 10 or 20 years social media will become a heavy challenge for individualistic values of the West. What we should expect is the virtual community becoming a new source of norms and social integration equalizing takeovers of individualism and atomization.

The most important controversy is the border of privacy and private life. The global village of social media is fundamentally anti-private. This idea is attributed most often to the founder of the Facebook – Marc Zuckerberg. SM are not for hiding but presenting and exposing yourself: where you are and where you’ve been, who you are with (friend, colleague, in relationship), what you like etc. Anyone in the world can find you and get to know you somehow. The more you transparently collective the more you are social human being in social media world.

From this point we are moving to the next dilemma – Transparency vs. Total control. The more you are exposed to the world in the form of digital data the more controllable you become for government and corporations. Electronic visibility of individuals and organizations is often called transparency. For example, the system of electronic government is supposed to make political authorities more transparent and reachable for people. Fellow citizens can easily find out anything they want about any official or legislation. However, government and corporations can easily watch and control you with databases, video surveillance etc. Somehow transparency becomes watching the watcher circuit. The latest example in the realm of SM is WiKiLeaks. Did they push too far to make US government more transparent or they are right showing how politics operates indeed? Another example is well known anti-corruption project in Russia based on transparent data about governmental contracts it makes public all suspicious and illegal cases of potentially corrupted deals. Anyway, social media construct new transparent world and conflict between media based transparency of government, social institutions, private life and technologies of total surveillance and control will become unpredictable.

Another very strong value dilemma is Private property vs. Freedom of creation. In terms of copyright violation, virtual community and social media are key elements of so-called piracy or pirate use of digital content. As we mentioned above, SM is about sharing content. Transparent collective existence is about sharing – everything! Movies, music, events, news, moods, likes… However, sharing immediately approaches legal issues of copyright. But sharing is also a creative environment that involves people to use existing content to generate new one, since it is easy and you can reach desirable audience. It seems like there is nothing can be done with this “nature” of virtual community. In January 2012 we all saw how new US and EU legislation on the Internet control (obviously tuned in favor of big entertainment companies) was met by protesting citizens and even IT companies. The pirate nature of virtual community will lead to reconsideration of copyright system in favor of freedom of creation.

The next dilemma touches the heart of the digital culture values – freedom of information. It is Data trash vs. Knowledge management. Value of information and its quality in social
media is always in question due to information overflow. The amount of data produced for the Internet everyday is so huge that it loses its value due to impossibility to process all this data trash. There is a perceptual and physical limit for humans to follow this enormous data flow (Kroker). In social media too most of the data is just flowing with very little transformation into the usable knowledge. In our e-mail boxes and on the SM pages we get more and more junk messages, invitations, promotions etc. This is how freedom becomes chaos and even nightmare. So here it come control in the form of what we would like to call knowledge management. It is going to be an exciting new project for the new generation – learning how to manage data and transform it into the knowledge everyday. During the next 5-10 years social media will be struggling for the value of the information transformed into knowledge.

And in the most predictable this project will become a digital culture project, because knowledge management should integrate with SM new software applications, educational videogames, artificial intelligence functions and robotics, computer arts and design as well as new generation of digital gadgets.

As a part of digital culture the new media are strongly connected with its other elements and deeply rooted in its controversial value system. We attempted to show, that social media generation of 2000s will have to reconsider individualism in favor of transparent collective life, will have to deal with heavy conflicts around transparency and total control, will be developing further free sharing anti-copyright values as a key principle of virtual community, will be struggling to design convenient knowledge management instruments not to let freedom of information to dissolve in data trash.

But the question remains still: shall we see in 10-15 years a new generation of knowledge workers with new re-configured digital culture or we will face diverse trends with flows of lazy copy-pasters, semi-schizophrenics lost in data space, normal users, advanced knowledge-workers and some over possible social types of SM users?

Etzioni A. Next: The Road to The Good Society. New York: Basic Books, 2001
Castells, M. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell. 1996/2000
Gere C. Digital Culture. Reaktion Books (London 2002)
McLuchan M. Understanding Media. The Extension of man. Routledge, London-New York, 2001
Kroker A., Weinstein A. Data Trash: The Theory of Virtual class. New York: St. Martin`s Press, 1994
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