Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Social media a key cultural tool

This is the year the social medium stopped being new and took its well-established place as an information source and cultural force - and farce.

Twitter now has an estimated 557 million registered users. Still predominantly young, users are diversifying in age, country, and socioeconomic status.
Twitter now has an estimated 557 million registered users. Still predominantly young, users are diversifying in age, country, and socioeconomic status.Read moreCHRIS RATCLIFFE / Bloomberg

This is the year the social medium stopped being new and took its well-established place as an information source and cultural force - and farce.

Not new anymore. Facebook, which turns 10, sort of, in February (when undergrad Mark Zuckerberg and pals launched at Harvard), is now a billion users strong. Its gewgaw, Instagram, the beautiful images-and-video site, passed 150 million in September.

Meantime, Twitter is now big biz. At an estimated 462 million users in January, Twitter zapped past 500 million by June and now entertains an estimated 557 million registered users. Its gewgaw, Vine, the 6-second video-posting medium, said in August it had 40 million users, so popular that Instagram soon me-too'd with 15-second videos.

Still predominantly young, Twitter users are diversifying in terms of age, country, and (although there's still a divide) socioeconomic status. And in September, there was that explosive Twitter IPO.

A University of Illinois study this year found that:

Twitter does not merely mirror mainstream media; rather, it's established a communications world, and a conversational dynamic, all its own.

The world really has shrunk: Users "retweet and reference users far away nearly as often as they do those physically proximate to them."

Influential tweeters live all over the globe, including the artist Pinot in Indonesia, Richard Dawkins in the U.K., Pope Francis (@pontifex) in the Vatican, Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2.2 million followers!) in Argentina. Even leaders, such as de Kirchner, who almost never give media interviews tweet assiduously, communicating with followers rather than reporters.

The Village Green Gossip Society. These media are now where people go to learn what's up. It's a town gossip society, sharing news of deaths, disasters, births, weddings, and other daily miracles.

The entire world, as if a single mind, focused on the Boston Marathon bombings in April. First notice came via Vine. Doug Lorman of Nashua, N.H., recorded a TV shot of the finish line and caught the bombs going off. He posted it to the world. Within an hour, 35,000 people saw it, and soon, millions more.

As the Boston lockdown and manhunt went on, residents posted images of police activity, sources broke news (@BostonPolice: "Police seeking MA Plate: 116-GC7, '99 Honda Sedan, Color - Green. Possible suspect car. Do not approach."), commented, grieved. As soon as the identity of alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was revealed, the world learned his background almost at once, with multiple photos, thanks to thousands of online researchers.

Storify, the timeline-creation social medium, helped people assemble tweets, Facebook posts, and other notices into a coherent story. It might be the most-watched manhunt ever - including, chillingly, Tsarnaev's very own Twitter feed.

Tweeters are on the scene, instantly; they can get their words and images to the world lightning-fast; they can guide community or official action. All of these things were on display with the epic, wheezy slouch toward government shutdown in Washington; the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act website; the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard; the Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul, Turkey; the Independence Park riots in Kiev, Ukraine; the July 22 birth of Prince George of Cambridge, now third in the line of succession to Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (at 8 pounds, 6 ounces, George was the most-tweeted-about baby of the year, easy); the demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, Brazil . . . and, of course - how could we forget?- Duck Dynasty.

The writhing, moaning spectacle of our autumnal government shutdown, groan by groan, tweet by tweet, brought out a creative flood of comic derision from everywhere, from experts such as Britney Spears, to myriad spoofs involving Miley Cyrus, Harry Potter (@_Snape_ : "Meanwhile in America: Voldemort has taken over, beginning to hide Horcruxes. Muggles still covering it up, calling it a government shutdown."), and TV (@JimGaffigan: "Wow, Congress isn't taking the end of "Breaking Bad" very well at all.").

Like nothing in history, social media have established a sense of intimate connection between fans and celebrities. There's a reason for that: Celebs and politicos regularly make news with announcements, snarks, denials, clarifications, cheap shots (lots), and 140-character policy statements on social media.

Celebs use it like a family album, actually. In February, Jessica Simpson posted an image of her "lil dollface," Maxwell, for her 6.9 million followers. In August, Michelle Obama (450,000-plus followers) tweeted a birthday greeting to her spouse: "Happy birthday, Barack! Your hair's a little grayer, but I love you more than ever. –mo" and posted a vintage photo of the younger Obamas relaxing on the sofa. On Aug. 19, Dick Van Dyke, then 87, was driving on the 101 Freeway in L.A. when his car burst into flame. He got out OK - and posted a pic of the burnt-out wreck ("Used Jag for sale REAL CHEAP!!"). Kris Jenner, materfamilias and PR genius of the Kardashian clan, posted a pic of daughter Kim's baby, North, whose daddy is Kanye West. Miley Cyrus wished everyone "Happy Halloween" . . . and linked to a photo of herself in glittery, pastied inappropriateness.

And, of course, high-profilers, from Sen. John McCain to Charlie Sheen to Alec Baldwin, use social media to blow up at their enemies. Hey, it's family.

The farce of the forceful. You'd think that, with the whole world watching, people would be more careful and avoid dumb mistakes. In fact, they keep making really bad ones.

Why? Because all of us, like it or not, are now onstage all the time, and not even the stars can keep that in mind every second.

Speak quietly of Anthony Weiner, who rose again, hoping the world had forgotten, only to be trounced in an election after new social-media images emerged of his oversharing expansiveness.

Even the great Steve Martin had to delete and apologize for a dumb joke many took as racist. Even (and very much) worse, the comic newspaper the Onion (which recently published its last print edition) made a very bad joke about Quvenzhané Wallis, star of Beasts of the Southern Wild. People hated it, and the Onion - imagine that - had to say sorry. ESPN posted a Web headline about Jeremy Lin, the first American NBA player of Chinese ancestry: "Chink in the Armor." One would ask, "What were they thinking?", but they obviously weren't.

Chrysler had to apologize after a soon-to-be-fired social media guy posted a rude tweet impugning the driving ability of Detroiters. Following the Boston bombing, the food site Epicurious said in a tweet, "Boston our hearts are with you," followed by "Here's a bowl of breakfast energy we could all use to start today." Icky. Fashion guy Kenneth Cole tweeted, "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is available online." Similarly, alas, on Dec. 7, Spaghetti-O's posted a chipper little O with an American flag and the tweet "Take a moment to remember #PearlHarbor with us." Objection raised its dripping, scaly head by the thousands of derisive, angry tweets, and the little circular guy was deleted.

On Oct. 9, beautiful and talented Rashida Jones tweet-satirized a fad among starlets for faux-accidental oh-whoops photos of their naughty bits - and drew nasty howls of "Anti-feminist!"

Closer to Philly, Sarah Lockard, proprietor of the blog, offered this great deal to any fine eating establishment that would bite: Feed me and my family for free on Christmas Eve, and you get "approximately $1,000 in PR" with the blog, including free Facebook posts promoting the restaurant, a couple of Instagram photos, two ads, and a spot in a fine-dining list. It rained thumbs-downs locally for Lockard, mostly from other bloggers who thought her offer was unethical, sleazy, and nauseating. Lockard was contacted to find out whether she'd gotten any takers, and she did not get back to us.

The force of the farce. The biggest social-media battle of the year is raging now, over Duck Dynasty and its dynast, Phil Robertson. The headline: It may be a farce, but it's no joke.

This quackfest reminds us: Culture is wide open as of 2013. Secular, religious, commercial, entertainment/sports, academic, and political cultures, once pretty much sealed off from one another, connect in new ways all the time. And all of them are weighing in on this, powerful politics at work, millions in profits at stake.

For millions, Duck is not just a show. It's a picture of the American life they share or want to. The fracas has sucked in Fox News, the hapless suits of cabler A&E, the Republican and Democratic parties, Christianity, the governor and lieutenant governor of Louisiana, and viewers who love the Robertsons, their values, and their duck calls.

And goodness, the activity on social media, including many online petitions, and the Twitter hashtag #istandwithphil. Twitter blocked one such petition momentarily, but apparently has now unblocked it. Several Christian activist groups are urging Twitter users to protest.

Call Duck Dynasty ridiculous - but this flap says much about this country, how people respond to media - and how media empower them.