What kind of relationship do we have with social media? How much of our day do we spend on these platforms and what do we expect from their use?
When we talk about social media many of us are led to think of the new generation entranced in front of Instagram and its filters. This image is not entirely wrong, but it represents only a part of the social media phenomenon. Whether used for recreational or professional purposes, to maintain contacts or to attract followers, the introduction of these platforms has inevitably impacted our social system by affecting our practices of social interaction, acquiring information, managing emotions and exposing our ideas to a potential audience.
Given the significance and consequences – positive and negative – of the phenomenon, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey to understand how users navigate the complexity of online interaction and how it affects their lives. Through 5 focus groups involving 23 U.S. adults who are particularly active and engaged with social media, the survey sought to understand and analyze how these people construct their social media environment, what and how much they reveal about themselves, and how platforms provided by companies affect these users’ experiences.
Different platforms for different purposes
The first focus group showed that users resort to multiple platforms based on their purposes and the audiences they wish to connect with. There are those who use Tik Tok to do specific research or find relief from daily pressures, Twitter to stay updated on political issues, and other platforms to find solutions to problems and seek moments of entertainment. Several users spoke of Facebook as a place to interact with others and stay in touch with loved ones.
In search of sociality
Many users stated that they sought a dimension of community and support on social media platforms. The data collected showed how some experienced valuable interactions that continued offline, others said they felt less alone during the pandemic, and still others resorted to social to connect with the local community.
How much of ourselves do we bring to social media?
Users involved in the survey stated that the extent to which they express themselves ranges from full authenticity to being highly reserved to aspiring to present the best of themselves. Some explained how the attitude used on social media impacted their behavior and self-expression in offline life. Others pointed out a clear distinction between the real self and the social media self.
By what criteria does a user decide what and how much to publish? And how does s/he determine the best platform on which to do it? The fourth research focus group revealed how users decide what and how much to share based on specific platforms and their audiences. Some users, in fact, consider certain social media more suitable than others for certain types of content, while others said they only post on those deemed more “private.” For example, a man in his 20s described feeling more cautious about Facebook, where “everyone is watching,” while Instagram allowed him to take advantage of the fact that he could share things with less permanence.
How to protect yourself from possible attacks?
Posting on social media exposes you to risks. This is why many people are reluctant to share certain content, especially political and social content, on these platforms. In fact, the latest focus group showed that many users carefully consider the risks and consequences they could face as a result of posting on social. Many users worry about their reputation, while others fear being monitored, or harmed by the content they post.
How to improve these platforms? An appeal to CEOs
At the end of the focus groups, participants were asked how they would like those who run social media companies to solve some of the problems they encountered. Some users referred to freedom of expression on certain issues, others to the well-being of users, and still others to the protection of younger users.
There is no doubt that the CEOs of hi-tech companies have a responsibility to optimize social media platforms in order to ensure their safe and effective use. However, it is up to us users to inform ourselves and know the potential and risks we face, so that we can make informed use of social media to our advantage.