Beginning August 18th 2014, I took two years away from social media. Not because I grew tired of it, but because that was my conscription date for South Korean army, where we were granted zero access to personal phones. When I was promoted to corporal, they finally installed one computer per every two platoons. But the internet was so slow and the computers so old that I preferred to send hand written letters to friends and family rather than wait in the ridiculous line for my turn, only to have the computer crash midway through sending a message. Two years may appear to be relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it was certainly a long enough period to make me hopelessly lost when I attempted to make a return to social media in 2016.
First, the way my friends approached and used social media platforms had fundamentally changed. For instance, Snapchat was far more personal than it was before I enlisted, when conversations between two people, who would send pictures back and forth, was common. Now, everybody was posting on their Snap “stories,” opening up to a much larger audience for 24 hours. Pictures were out, and videos were in. Texting was now a feature within the app. And the biggest change of them all—Snapchat rolled out Discover and Live. When I first saw these features I asked myself: why in the world would anyone want to follow the news through Snapchat?
Facebook had also undergone a major directional change in the way people approached and used it. Until 2014, at least half of my newsfeed would be filled with pictures of people I knew. Every Monday, albums of everything that happened during the weekend would be posted. Anytime someone went off to an interesting vacation spot or event, albums would soon follow. Status updates were not a rarity, and profile pictures were changed every couple months. Now, it was far less common to see a picture or album posted on Facebook (while this may be partially attributable to the success of Instagram). News articles, funny videos, and clips from TV shows or movies had taken over the newsfeed instead.
Before 2014: Now:
The interface of every social media platform changed 180 degrees—but that was neither surprising, nor difficult to adjust to. The common denominator of the major changes of both Snapchat and Facebook, which took some time to get used to, was the provision of news. The instantaneous access to information was always a vital aspect that drew people to social media—the ability to immediately know what friends were doing, and when and how they were doing it. But now more than ever, people are using social media as a platform to quickly understand and learn about social, political, and financial issues. And while it may not be the most reliable source of information, it is convenient, and presented within an exciting, social medium.
What does this mean? It means that even in the past three years, the influence of social networks, as mentioned in Christakis’ TedTalk, has gotten even bigger. Just by scrolling through my newsfeed and viewing a couple videos, I could be influenced in thought and action by any one of the hundreds of friends on Facebook. For instance, I was not aware of the existence of the Nature Conservancy and quickly frankly, never intended to be. But because of one friend who habitually posts videos of global environmental issues, I developed a new understanding of their work. Back in the summer of 2014, my newsfeed only really told me what beach people decided to go to or what they had for dinner.
Being away from social media for an extended period of time is most likely not an experience many in our generation have. Therefore, the gradual change of social media over time may not have been easily be noticed. But when it all hits at once, it’s quite shocking. If being disconnected from the virtual world taught me anything about social media and technology, it was the mercurial and ever evolving nature of them. I think professor Kane has had to change the name of this course and the materials taught so frequently precisely for this reason. Topics covered and discussed could become irrelevant in a matter of months. That is why I expect and look forward to a class that will stay up to the trend—one that will discuss and analyze major events and changes as they come, and explore the consequences of these changes.
When I first learned about the “reply to a comment” feature during one my first vacations away from base: