Social Media’s hidden legacy

This is a cross-post from my blog at the Birmingham Post

Two things trouble me about social media. The first is that everyone I read or connect to via Twitter or Facebook or whatever, seems to be having a much more exciting life than me. It’s a world of gallery openings, launches, great nights out or simply wonderful sunny, lazy days untroubled by personal dramas or upheavals.

Not that I’m jealous of course. Well actually of course it’s because I’m jealous. I even get invited to some of the same events that my friends and colleagues go to I just never seem to get round to going to them – either through a lack of willing babysitters or, more likely, a general acceptance that I’m a long way from being renaissance man. A beer and night in front of the telly are usually all the cultural activity I can muster after a day at work.

The key thing that troubles me though is what historians will make of the social media footprints we’re leaving behind us. Specifically, I wonder what social historians will make of Birmingham and its people when they come to look back on our early 21st century twittering. I suspect they’ll immediately smell a rat – what, they’ll ask, are these people hiding? Was life really a joyous social whirlwind? What kind of lives did Birmingham people live and why didn’t they use the new media tools available to tell us about it?

If you lay out this city’s social media network in front of you it would be a bit like those formal, rigid family portraits that adorn our walls as they did our grandparents’ walls. That is, they conceal more than they reveal. The great academic Stuart Hall, himself linked to Birmingham through his time at Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1960s and 70s, pointed out how immigrant communities of the 1950s were represented by stiff family portraits, dressed in their Sunday best. What they concealed were lives plagued by prejudice, persecution and social injustice.

Of course Hall was talking about a medium that was already mature. Its rhetorical devices, particularly in portraiture, were already well established. If you popped into your local high street photographer back then the only input you had into the image-making process was what background you would be sat in front of. Social media on the other hand allows for endless choices of expression. Okay so with Twitter you’ve got a maximum of 140 characters but there’s nothing to stop you twittering all day if you want to.

Although social media platforms are in their earliest phases the historian’s gaze will inevitably turn to them as a source of evidence to tell stories about us, probably sooner than it did with photography. It took until the 1970s for academics to see value in personal photography as an area of study and immediately they realised the interesting stuff was behind the image rather that in it.

Plenty of people tell me Birmingham seems to have been quick on the uptake with Social Media. Both in terms of using and testing new services and in terms of having a small group of entrepreneurs who are trying to develop new social media applications from which there is business to be made.

But if we are at the forefront then we need to listen to ourselves now and again. At best we demonstrate the vibrancy of living in an exciting city with lots to offer but at worst it descends into a curious uncritical mush and represents our city as one with its head in the sand – too excitable to see the wheat from the chaf or tell the good times from the bad.

It’s time to think about what’s not being said. Not so much ‘Digital – More Power or Powerless’ but ‘Useful or Useless’.

3 thoughts on “Social Media’s hidden legacy

  1. Interesting thoughts – I see a PHD in the horizon Dave…
    I’m not sure about your final comment ‘Useful or Useless’ because I think your comments reflecting on the Stuart Hall’s research are much more appropriate. What is behind the city’s social media networks? And what does it reveal about, perhaps not so much the personal motivations of the individuals involved (although that might come into it), but Birmingham’s contribution to the early developments of social media networks?

  2. The original blog post was at the Birmingham Post and I’d gone on the basis that journalism requires a tag line – hence ‘useful or useless’. A couple of other blogs picked up on that line but you’re right, it’s not really what this post is about.

    There are several issues here I think that are worth further research. Along with the notion that Birmingham might have something to contribute to the development of social networks, quite a bit potentially I think, there’s also something that interests us both I think: how power works through networks and how social media networking tools affect existing power relationships. My pitch would be they replicate hierarchical structures rather than flatten them. Of course I;d need to go research that. I feel a PhD coming on….


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