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When and What Is Social Media?
How can we begin to understand social media without contemplating how it began and evolved?
The way we conceive of the past of social media influences what we will do with it today.
To see this, we must understand a few basic concepts: social, media, technology, and literacy.
Most think of the origin of social media with Zuckerberg, or before with MySpace, or even email. This thinking fundamentally misinterprets the nature of human-social media.
We take the definition of media as a given - technologically driven with computers and devices. In researching, few people trace the roots back further to the first forms of media: clay, cave walls, papyri. Our ignorance begins with our definition of "social" and "media."
What is the connection between social media and literacy?
Social media depends on "social," a group of creatures passing ideas between one another. "Media" refers to a transfer of the communication via some specific technology - a written form usually. Media entails the use of tools, but there are many kinds of technology.
Who is to say that the paintings in the Lascaux Caves in France from the Paleolithic Age are not a form of social media? Perhaps they are the best mode to date because the paintings have communicated for the longest period of time.
Media connects to literacy because literacy is the ability of a human to translate written communication (media) into understandable ideas and language.
The definition of literacy has evolved over the years as pointed to in Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2006:
"from viewing literacy as a simple process of acquiring basic cognitive skills, to using these skills in ways that contribute to socio-economic development, to developing the capacity for social awareness and critical reflection as a basis for personal and social change."
How Does Social Media Evolve?
So, literacy is far more complex than the ability to read, understand, and write on a cognitive level. Literacy means more, closely connected to the definition of social media: using the cognitive skills of communication to affect social and economic change.
To be literate, one must be able to participate in and affect a community through some written form. With this literacy comes immense power to influence the past, present, and future through the written word. This is quite different than the ancient way of defining literacy a cognitive ability. Culture is at the core of literacy.
Cultures evolve and change naturally through rules of natural selection explained by Charles Darwin (although he was afraid to apply them to society).Technology drives the evolution of society just as society drives advances in technology - from wedges and cave paintings to sophisticated computer technology.
How Can We Understand the Complexity of Social Media Today, with Its Intricate Power Structures?
Here I take a slight turn to tell a story. Frederick Douglass (c. February 1818 to February 20, 1895) began life as a slave, snatched from his mother. Slave owners often separated families to prevent strong, passionate bonds between slaves.
Douglass lived the hard life of the plantation in a time when it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, and the penalty for an attempted escape was either lynching or sliced achilles tendons to prevent future running.
Through a combination of a sometimes-kind mistress and his own ambition, Douglass taught himself how to read and write. When the slave owner cracked down on his wife for teaching a slave to read, he revealed a key secret of the white man's power to Douglass. Slave Master Auld rebuked his wife saying:
"Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now," said he, "if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy." These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty--to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man."
Douglass realized the power of the white over the black in literacy, and he determined to finish learning to read on his own. He knew that power lay in the hands of those with the ability to read and write and later pointed out that "Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free."
What Does Douglass Have to Do with Social Media?
Douglass represents a heightened example of the power of social media within a culture. His ability to participate in the social media of the time, both reading and writing, eventually won him freedom, and he played an essential role in emancipating the blacks.
Literacy equals power, and therefore social media means power to the masses of the world - providing greater opportunity for social communication, interaction, conflict, and opportunity. Douglass represents the highest use of social media to evolve cultural change, provide freedom, and educate the masses.
Frederick Douglass is a hero and champion of social media, and forgetting this past causes us to lose focus on the importance of mass social media today. Douglass accomplished much with very little, and we must ask ourselves what we are achieving with near magical resources.
What Should You Take Away from This History?
What am I missing or what would you add to this? Your ideas are very important to me. Let's discuss social media.
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