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As soon as smartphones became a reality, the social fabric of the entire planet was destined to change. As always with change, some things were good, some were amazing, and some were bad. But, the ability to communicate with people around the world, regardless of where you happen to be is something that overall benefits mankind.
The invention of digital communication, especially with smartphones, enhanced the social changes that the invention of the telegraph brought; such as separating communication and geography, changing social boundaries, and increasing the rate of communication amongst people.
When talking about how digital communication changes social fabric, two words should come to mind: social media. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube change social boundaries that exist in the “real world.” Twitter allows people to send out messages about their everyday lives to their small section of followers similar to a low-cost reality television show starring actual celebrities.
Celebrities no longer need to be discovered by a talent agent to become stars. YouTube stars like Nigahiga, and Pewdiepie have gained millions of fans by filming themselves playing video games, or uploading funny videos filled with puns. Nigahiga made 2.9 million dollars in 2014 with his YouTube videos without ever talking to a talent scout, or going to an audition.
The boundaries that previously divided celebrities, and normal people were blurred the moment normal people could freely upload their content to the internet for the entire world to see. Anybody can film themselves, or a friend, doing something silly, upload it to YouTube or Vine, and have millions of people watch it. The world became a stage, and the content creators became the audience.
Social boundaries were also blurred when celebrities realized that connecting with their fans helped promote their own image. Every celebrity has a twitter where they post fairly mundane things to simply put their name out on the internet outside of news articles, and movie announcements. Twitter and YouTube also provide a unique opportunity for normal people to communicate freely with celebrities in either a relaxed, or professional environment.
Two men were bored one day, and decided to film a show in a basement where they talk about movies. They uploaded their videos to YouTube, and people ended up liking their show. Now, Screen Junkies regularly conducts interviews with celebrities for movie premieres and television shows like an actual news station; such as Entertainment News or Access Hollywood.
On the more casual side, JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, went to twitter to answer fan questions about the series. The questions ranged from if Draco was a werewolf, to if Uncle Vernon watches Top Gear. Before social media, people still had questions and theories, but they were bounded by social grouping, and they rarely, if ever, got to talk with their heroes. You would have to win a contest, be extremely lucky, or basically stalk a celebrity to be able to talk with them, but now fans can tweet and email people from across the country, or even across the planet.
James Carey talks about how the telegraph separated sending people, a geographic form of communication, from sending messages, a digital form of communication; but, I disagree. In order to send a message with the telegraph you still had to travel to a specific office, and give your stunted message to a person who would relay it to a different specific office, where whoever you were sending a message to would have to physically travel to in order to finally receive your message.
The telegraph distanced communication and geography, while the smartphone has separated geography and communication. Smartphones allow us to send full-length emails to people from the bathroom, chemistry lectures, on our way to a restaurant, or anywhere with service. Smartphones also give us more options for communication than the telegraph, or the cellphone, did.
Smartphones can send texts, emails, pictures, and videos with ease. If you and your group of friends want to go out to eat, but one friend is sick in bed; it doesn't matter. You can pull up a video call on your phone, and act like your friend is right there with the group.
Smartphones also enhance the telegraph’s change on society, because smartphones allow for a more constant stream of communication. The ability to check several aspects of our lives on a device the size of our palm in any location, changes how we behave. There is rarely a time when your phone isn’t buzzing or ringing, because somebody posted a picture on Instagram, or a YouTube channel posted a new video.
Even when two people are eating with each other they tend to also be texting several of their other friends at the same time. We can locate our cars, have a portable personal trainer, and check the weather and news, because “there’s an app for that.” People debate whether or not this easily accessible stream of information is good or bad, but the simple fact is that society changed to adapt the constant stream of data into our everyday lives. A study by the Pew Research Center revealed that “Nearly half of US smartphone users say they can't live without their phones.”
On the more negative outlook of smartphones, digital communication has caused some rifts in social life. The internet allows people to send messages around the world, but the internet is not the best at providing context around a statement the same way being face to face, or even talking over the phone can.
The sentence, “I ran over a cat yesterday. I’m so sad,” could be serious, joyful, or sarcastic, and you would have no way of knowing if all you saw were words on a screen. My earlier example of the couple eating together, yet still texting with their friends is amazing from a technological standpoint, but it is also sad from a humanistic standpoint, because they cannot enjoy the person physically in front of them. Digital communication and smartphones allow us to communicate with people all around the world, all the time, but being able to talk with several people at once without meeting them face-to-face discourages real life interaction with other people.
People also use digital communication to communicate anonymously. The average person has neither the skills, nor the desire to trace a person’s profile, and find out who they are, and where they live if that person does something mean on the internet. Nobody has the time it would take to find every person who regularly posts something mean online, simply because of the sheer number of people that are doing so.
Now, all of those people are not evil bullies who can only fill the void of their heart by calling somebody stupid in a YouTube comment. The ability to communicate anonymously allows people to speak their minds more than they would if they were face to face. Not only does the anonymity protect the person saying the hurtful comment, but it also hides the identity of the person receiving the hurtful comment.
Generally, people try to avoid saying mean things to people in bad situations such as being handicapped or sick, but there is no way of knowing what issues Satyrman69 is going through in his or her personal life, so there is no need to restrict your communication. Carey does not mention it, but the telegraph did have some sense of anonymity attached to it. You could receive a letter from the office where your cousin Charlotte lives, but you have no real way of knowing if Charlotte actually wrote the message. Digital communication enhanced this anonymity by increasing the speed messages could be sent and manufactured.
Negative people will exist no matter what social environment you put yourself in. However, digital communication makes it easier to delete those negative people from your life. If you don’t want to read a negative YouTube comment: delete it. If a person is constantly calling and texting you: delete their number. If a friend on Facebook constantly uploads pictures of their ugly dog: block their feed from your notifications.
Digital communication doesn’t only make it easier for us to interact with our friends and celebrities we want to follow; digital communication allows us to pick and choose which friends we want to be around, and what information we want to receive on a daily basis.
Overall, the age of digital communication positively affects our social fabric. Social media blurs the lines that separated celebrities from normal people. People don’t need to be discovered on America’s Got Talent or American Idol to become famous, and make millions of dollars, because of how easy it is to upload content on Twitter and YouTube.
Digital communication offers fast, simple, and varied forms of communication. People can talk to each other with pictures of food, quick videos of something funny, via an email, or a simple text message. Most important of all, digital communication expanded upon the social changes the telegraph brought into existence by making communication less detached from geography, making it easier to send messages, and providing a near constant stream of social interactions.