The Voice of Social Media, 1997-2018

The Voice of Social Media, 1997-2018

Bruce Lawrence Cook
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3479-3.ch100
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Until 2006, news and internet communication came from trusted sources which basically served as gatekeepers. In those times it was difficult for an individual to publish information. However, from 1997 to 2006, the advent of small writer websites permitted postings by lesser-known individuals. This article traces the historical shift from top-down communication to the early stages of Internet participation for individuals. While these developments would seem to have eliminated perceived problems with journalistic advocacy, the opposite may have occurred. Facebook is accused of contaminating a US presidential election and US President Donald Trump has been using Twitter to broadcast his own version of the news. As a result, the discussion has shifted to consideration of Social Media censorship and questions of freedom of expression.
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Today’s social media constitutes communication portals where anyone can sign up and freely “post” messages to self-selected groups of individuals. It includes three key elements: (1) a public or semipublic profile within a bounded system, (2) a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) the ability to view and traverse their list of connections and those made by other users in the system1. (Che & Ip, 2017)

Social media can be seen as ground-level communication as opposed to the alternative - mass communication. Within some ill-defined limits, individuals can post anything they want on Social Media, while communication on mass media is heavily edited by gatekeepers – those who create, develop and edit public communication. As early as 1975 Janowitz (1975) presented the gatekeeper role in journalism as a method for reporting information with scientific method for objective and valid results. In the same article, however, he compared the journalist’s gatekeeper role with that of being an advocate. Surprisingly, this contrast was to reappear decades years later in communication via social media.

While most individuals haven’t sought to be journalists, freedom of expression naturally accompanies the desire for individuals to publish their own ideas. Thus, when social media arrived, many individuals joined the social media movement.

Social Media as Mass Communication by Individuals

The concept of “mass communication” has traditionally represented a one-way flow from source to recipient. Early writings in communication theory also featured feedback and context, but mass communication remained a broadcast to the masses (Schramm, 1954). Before examining its properties, one might consider the state of communication late in the 20th century.

In the last decade of the century, Berger (1995, p. 7-9) distinguished between individualism and communication to large population groups. At that time, individuals could hope to communicate with persons outside their acquaintance, but it was difficult to “reach the masses”. At mid-decade the new Internet had developed from small networks to the extent that it was seen as a mass medium of communication (Morris & Ogan, 1996). However, even with the Internet, the individual’s ability to access the web to reach the public was limited by cost and technology.

Throughout these formative years, the main concept in mass communication was to broadcast news and entertainment into homes from a central place. News editors served as gatekeepers, automatically limiting news content. Their news stories were received in homes and, as long as the number of networks was limited, viewers, readers and listeners could discuss the shows with friends and family the next day.

When the Internet arrived, unpublished writers hoped to gain access there. In reality, it was difficult and expensive to start a website that would ever attract a large public audience like that of radio and television broadcasting. And, quite naturally, those websites with many visitors simply basked in their monopoly status and continued limiting access to the Internet in the same way radio and television always had.

In retrospect, the main question must have been– who was permitted to originate news content? The average person could never hope to be “on the show”. In fact, it was clear that only the media managers, producers, and directors could decide. If they said your news wasn’t important, it wasn’t important. While many people had a desire to be “on the air” to share their ideas, this was impossible for almost everyone. Access for the average person was denied.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Advocacy Journalism: Journalism as critique and change agent ( Thomas, 2018 ).

Gatekeeper: Reporting information with scientific method for objective and valid results.

Mass Communication: A one-way flow from source to recipient.

BBS: Bulletin board system.

Social media: Communication portals where anyone can sign up and freely “post” messages to self-selected groups of individuals.

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