Book review: Using social media for social goods
By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University
Social Media in the 21st Century: Perspectives, Influences and Effects on Well-Being
Walter J. Kahn, Editor
Nova Science Publisher
“There can be no doubt that social media has fundamentally transformed how people relate to each other and navigate the social environment of the contemporary era.”
-- Walter J. Kahn, Editor, in the Preface (2021, p. vii)
Social media platforms come in various types. Some are general and used in multi-purpose ways, and others tend to be dedicated or focused on particular uses only. They each have their own histories, and they have different CEOs. They have their own branding. The technological affordances / enablements and constraints of each platform differ, and the user bases (various populations) also vary. [Because engaging in the respective platforms requires energy and focus, there are natural limits to how many platforms people can engage on, unless they are augmented with scripted agents or other supports.]
If social media has changed how people interact, these various platforms also have changed how researchers conduct research, explore humanity, and understand how people engage. Walter J. Kahn’s Social Media in the 21st Century: Perspectives, Influences and Effects on Well-Being (2021) is comprised of four works mostly focused around Instagram and social visuals.
Various studies suggest that social media platforms have varying effects on people, both positive and negative. How is social media used to promote particular political goals? What about how social comparison (and FOMO) are used to create appetite for particular personal expenditures, and how do these affect people’s senses of self-worth? How do the social visuals of celebrities and common users affect brand reputation and intention to purchase? How do the social networks of Instagram look in a “social semiotic” graph?
When social media are harnessed for political goals…
Elle Rochford’s “Influencers and Activists: Political Performances in an Increasingly Online World” (Ch. 1) explores just how efficacious political activism may be online (and how social media may be instrumented to these ends). It’s one thing to click an up vote remotely, but it’s actually quite another to go to a polling booth and to vote or to engage in a social march or to provide funding for a particular social cause or to lend one’s name and likeness to an endeavor. If people take social media somewhat seriously, are they willing to allow messaging there and their relationships online to change their personal calculus for action? It is one thing to click mindlessly or reflexively vs. studying an issue in depth and making a commitment for a particular outcome. Multiple prior studies have shown that social media have increased social movement activities.
It’s one thing to imagine a particular idealized world, but it’s quite another to make something occur in the real world, such as through “policy reforms” (Rochford, 2021, p. 1). The studied platform, Instagram (owned by Facebook), is “a site where users and organizations craft messaging and display their demands” (Rochford, 2021, p. 1), even as the platform is known for selfies and memes, and “frivolity, decadence, and beauty” (p. 1). It is important to understand “the political possibilities and dangers of the influence of social media on our political realities” (p. 2), in contexts where social influencers may become activists, and activists may become influencers.
The author uses a 1,200 post dataset based on half a dozen organizations focused on women’s rights and “reproductive justice” (p. 2) and reproductive health (aka abortion rights, at core). She describes some of the challenges in using the platform for this research, including accessing data.
The social imagery and textual data are a form of “carefully arranged pageantry” for political ends (p. 2), so the curation can mean the conveyance of clearer and controlled messaging; the information may be compared to digital scrapbooking, she suggests. How people present for the broad public is part of their sense of continual performance of their identities and roles, based on “performance theory” (Goffman, 1959, as cited in Rochford, 2021, p. 8). In this space, she finds a variety of political interests and agendas, various #hashtag movements, and the expression of political identity:
Individuals and organizations have taken to the platform with some embracing its decadence in neoliberal forms of progressive activism, others rejecting the beautiful and utilizing the platform’s reach to spread information, and still others using the platform to recruit young women with a ‘soft’ on-ramp into conspiracy groups like QAnon. (pp. 2 – 3)
The target communities have differing levels of openness to the messaging and recruitment. The various eliciting entities include those domestic and foreign. Rochford observes some of the user base on Instagram: “The average Instagram user is unlikely to become an influencer but is likely to follow them” (p. 3). She also suggests that the branding of Instagram is focused on females. Social media is not “woke” per se; it is not “a post-racial or anti-racist space by any means” (p. 11). She notes that racists and white supremacists actively engage online. Many go online to troll and harass minorities. She writes:
While many think of the internet as an equalizer, we take our bodies into the digital world in many ways. Users bring their identities online meaning barriers to full participation in society like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. exist online as well. Participating in the digital world carries uneven risks for marginalized groups. (Rochford, 2021, p. 11)
This researcher describes the state of the platform and its affordances and constraints, which affect how people may communicate and interact. She reviews human subjects research protections for online data and takes measures to protect the identities of the groups she studies by only offering general profiles and not naming them. She poses a question that she does not directly answer in the work: “Is social media, Instagram in particular, co-opting radical movements or are radical movements co-opting Instagram?” (Rochford, 2021, p. 17)
Her coding involves a basic approach about whether the messaging upholds norms (suggests maintaining the status quo ante) or does not uphold norms (suggests something more revolutionary). What is expected for the Instagram platform would be subcategories like “consumerism, creativity, empowerment, fashion/style, (and) humor,” and what is unexpected would be subcategories like “anger/outrage, information, politics, (and) sadness/grief” (Rochford, 2021, p. 23). The manual coding focuses on both binary and categorical variables.
One main observation: the feminized branding of Instagram with “the implication that the app is for women may explain why its political power and radicalizing capabilities have been largely ignored by mainstream media and political scientists” as compared to “young white men with sites like Facebook, 4chan, reddit, 8chan, Gab and Parler” (Rochford, 2021, p. 34), which she terms channels for male political radicalization.
She finds Instagram “a friendly on-ramp into political movements for those new to activism. Posts about protests and legislation appear alongside glamorous fashions and luxurious vacations. Political activism is becoming something that is expected and seen as (a) social positive” (Rochford, 2021, p. 34).
Social comparison and social competition on Facebook…and well-being
Rubinia Celeste Bonfanti, Gianluca Lo Coco, and Stefano Ruggieri’s “Social Comparison on Facebook and its Effect on an Individual’s Well-Being” (Ch. 2) focuses on the fear of missing out (FOMO), among other states of being while on social media. For many marketers, the idea is to harness FOMO to heighten desire and raise sales, based on social-psychological understandings of consumers. The researchers explain: “Social comparison is the process through which people compare their opinions, abilities, behaviours and emotions with those of others for self-evaluation and to obtain an external guide for themselves” (2021, p. 44). With multiple constantly running data streams from different social media feeds, the present-day consumer has plenty of opportunities for social comparisons, and comparing the self with others can become habit (p. 45) and lead to a sense of poor self-worth for some. As social animals, people need social affiliation and affirmations of their value for self-esteem. Common points of comparison involve comparisons with others’ abilities (competence) and opinions (Festinger, 1954, as cited in Bonfanti, Coco, & Ruggieri, 2021, p. 47); opinions include “ideas, attitudes, values, and beliefs” (p. 48). An upward comparison (admiration of others’ presented selves) may spark heightened performance (p. 49), and “downward comparison” may help the observer maintain a sense of self-esteem (p. 50). This research explores what “knowledge about oneself is accessed during the comparison” to better understand how self-regard occurs (p. 51). Facebook makes it easy to create an impression of perfection, leading many to engage in upward comparisons on the social networking site.
Upward comparisons can lead to envy (Bonfanti, Coco, & Ruggieri, 2021, p. 58) and to harms in subjective well-being based on those comparisons. How the envy is handled has an effect on the person’s well-being. If benign, envy can inspire actions towards self-improvement. If malicious, the individual can try to “harm the comparison target” (pp. 61 - 62).
Visual effects on millennials’ purchase intentions (from celebrity endorsements, from user-generated contents)
Social media are commercial entities built to essentially exploit people’s attention and to turn them into consumers. A common question is how to use mediated contents to raise purchase intentions, particularly among millennials. The thinking is that a loyal consumer in youth will mean many more years of purchases than those from older generations. Elena Chatzopoulou’s “The Influence of Instagram upon Millennials’ Purchase Intention: Celebrity Endorsement and Image Posts” (Ch. 3) studies two main sources of information that may affect the motivation to purchase: 1) celebrity endorsements, and 2) user-generated contents. The first is more formal and a direct extension of the branded goods; the latter is less formal and may or may not be funded by the target company.
The research on celebrity endorsement effects was conducted using a survey instrument, and those for user-generated contents was conducted using semi-structured interviews.
This study found that visual attractiveness does have an effect on millennial purchase intention:
…colour has a positive effect on millennials’ purchase intention, yet visual attractiveness does not play any role in the relationship. Similarly, visual attractiveness of celebrities does not have a strong impact on millennials’ feelings and opinions towards a brand endorsement via Instagram nor on the millennials’ purchase intention. (Chatzopoulou, 2021, p. 90)
The management takeaways: marketers and social media managers should “create Instagram visuals of their offered products” and encourage millennials to share their experiences with the product via Instagram posts because their opinions may affect those of their peers (Chatzopoulou, 2021, p. 90). The finding that the colorfulness of user-shared images “is significantly and positively correlated to visual attractiveness” and increases purchase intentions (p. 110), may suggest the need to identify social influencers with an artistic eye to recruit to sell.
Social semiotics on Instagram
Seyed Mohammadreza Mirsarraf’s “Social Semiotic Aspect of Instagram Social Networks” (Ch. 4) explores Instagram to understand what social semiotics role it plays for its users. Semiotics “is the study of relation(s) between signs, concepts, and referents in which social media frameworks are based…” (2021, p. 124). Instagram is “a social photography smartphone application which allows users (the ability to) produce visual and textual statements” (p. 124). The study of these communications artifacts may inform on how people collectively make shared meanings, socialize, arrive at social norms, and co-create a shared culture.
To achieve this, the researcher explores Instagram’s philosophy, its technologies, the application user interface, its design aspects, the social dynamics, and other features.
The social semiotic requirements can best fit in Instagram as a social networks media for sharing pictures and extending social relations among artists, citizens and business agents. We conclude that by laying out a clear social semiotic model, Instagram can also be utilized as a successful platform for pictorial and multimodal sign production and distribution. (Mirsarraf, 2021, p. 123)
On the platform, people may create and share textual, visual, video, and multimedia content (various modalities); others may comment on their work. This dynamic of interaction around knowledge objects may enable collaboration around new knowledge. Instagram enables ways for particular parts of the communications to be focused on, and it enables framing of the contents. Social semiotics is seen to apply directly to this platform and its enablements around inter-communications and meaning making. Social networks are semiotic resources (Mirsarraf, 2021, p. 133). The researcher summarizes:
We discussed the special multimodal orchestration of Instagram in which a sign maker can combine text with picture and video, while the audience’s comments contribute to the sign, such that both members have a role in sign making and interpretation” and enable the emergence of “collective semantic intelligence. (Mirsarraf, 2021, p. 139)
This work suggests ways that people may better harness the complex enablements of social media, with appreciation for what is possible.
Walter J. Kahn’s Social Media in the 21st Century: Perspectives, Influences and Effects on Well-Being (2021) is a sparse volume of four research works.
Still, this book enables readers to think outside of their direct experiences with social media and engage more critically. These works help readers understand the various levers for human manipulation within and across the platforms. They should be able to better see when manipulations are afoot and perhaps how to make clearer-headed decisions about what to share, what not to share, and perhaps who they are engaging with online. Perhaps contemporary users may avoid manipulation by marketers, ‘bots, and people with malicious intent.
Another angle is that they will also see the social media platforms as data hubs, worthy of research and study, with valuable insights to extract.
In this space, it is helpful to think of what may be to come in terms of technological advancements and perhaps what humanity might accept or reject. How will the nature of human socializing change with different technologies? What are ways to design social technologies to augment the best of human character and instincts and to dissuade people from their worst? How will the various social media platforms “play” with the onboarding of different populations over time from the developing world? What sorts of constructive collaborations have not yet been realized, and why not?
While this work focused on Facebook and Instagram, there is a world of social media out there that can benefit people. This will require proper technological design but also aware and savvy users.
About the Author
Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer / researcher at Kansas State University. She is working on multiple book projects. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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