The ubiquity of social media in our lives

My research topic is fairly broad at the moment, but one thing is for certain – social media, and its impact upon the off-line networking processes of the Scottish labour force, will lay at its core. Accordingly, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the last few months pondering our connectedness to online environments. I’ve also been reading a fair number of social media-related stats, such as the recent one that 24% of American teens go online “almost constantly”.

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That’s quite incredible when you think about it. Not so much because it is actually happening – people, and especially young people, are visibly connected to the web whilst in public spaces, seemingly continuously. The next time you are on the bus, take a look around at all of the people gazing pointedly into their mobile handsets. Or consider your own behaviours – is there anywhere besides the shower where you don’t take your I-phone/I-pad/Tablet? (For the avoidance of doubt, that is a rhetorical question).

To me, what is incredible about our current situation is how quickly this culture of connectedness has permeated our lives. I am 28 years old, and because of my age I feel like I have quite an interesting take on these proceedings – I am part of a generation of kids who was on the precipice of this phenomenon whilst traversing into adulthood.

When I went to high school at the age of 11 I didn’t have a mobile phone, because nobody did. I had no concept of what the Internet or the Web was either. By the time I left school at 17, I would say the majority of my school-leaving cohorts had a mobile phone, but not one with which you could go online. At this time, the internet something you accessed via a desktop to play penalty-shoot-out games, read emails and download illicit mp3s. Chat rooms were fairly common (remember them??), but I would say we were still largely at the Web 1.0 stage. Oh, and dial-up modems were still all the rage (they actually induced rage by being chronically slow).

That was just over a decade ago, and since then we have been on an inexorable march into the era of the “networked individual”. As argued by the esteemed sociologist Barry Wellman, people may bewail the loss of community and fear our collective advance into isolation and loneliness – but really, their fears are misplaced. People aren’t addicted to their gadgets, they are actually addicted to each other. The difference is that now their interpersonal relationships transcend physical and institutional boundaries, such as traditional neighbourhoods and communities. Relationships can be created, built and/or maintained online. User generated content can be immediately created, uploaded, and shared with friends/the world, from anywhere, and at any time.

From my point of view as a student of information science, what is equally as interesting about our networked selves in addition to our actual online network of contacts, is the constant access we now have to information. And in my PhD project, I want to find out how these two overlap i.e. how do we use our online contacts, via social media platforms, to gain access to information? What role does social media play in supporting the efforts of job seekers, and their networking habits?

For those involved in, or gaining entry to the labour market, networking is something that used to happen in the real-world, and in real-time. I’d like to know how this has changed – particularly for those teenagers leaving high school, and with no recollection of dial-up connections!

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