Social media lets us participate instantly – but at what cost?

Marco Adria and Yuping Mao research the unfolding relationship between social media and civic involvement in Handbook of Research on Citizen Engagement and Public Participation in the Era of New Media. They explore how social media is shaping, and being shaped by, a new democratic environment enabled by technology. A collection of critical perspectives, the book delves into the pros, cons, and nuances of the role that new media plays in civic life.

Section 1 addresses motivations, context, and demographics at play, along with insights on the technology and methods in use. It also engages with the possibility and implications of social media homogenizing public opinion. Section 2 looks at emerging patterns in social media usage and how they relate to mass media and civic life, both online and offline. Section 3 examines global cases where social media has played a significant role in citizen participation alongside other channels. Section 4 reaches further into social media in national public spheres, presenting cases from around the world for comparison and analysis.   

The authors illustrate their research in a metaphor borrowed from Marshall McLuhan: the mirror effect described in the story of Narcissus. Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in the water, numb to all else, and responsive only to this extension of himself. They refer to McLuhan’s view on the numbing effect of media and communication as an exchange with consequences. In parallel, they write, social media can hold up a mirror that extends human capacities, but can create a closed loop that causes the loss of broader, deeper understanding.

The research suggests that while social media offers opportunities for better risk management and democratic innovation, it can also create echo chambers or closed feedback loops.

Marco Adria is an engagement specialist and Professor Emeritus of Communication in the University of Alberta, Canada. Yuping Mao is Assistant Professor in Communication Studies at California State University, Long Beach.

Photo: Yolanda Sun/Unsplash/cc

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