One of the most commonly referenced and fundamental characteristics of our species is the fact that we are social beings. This began tens of thousands of years ago, when human beings came together into wandering groups of hunters and gatherers, forming tribes that supported and protected one another. We created spoken and written language to connect with others, share ideas, and better express our experience in the world. Communities emerged, followed by villages, cities, cultural identities, and nations. Similarities united us, while differences in ideologies and beliefs between groups acted as social boundaries. The fundamental cause of this gradual development over the eons was our intrinsically social nature, an underlying aspect of our humanity that has only grown stronger through time.
In the modern world, this intense desire to connect and maintain our social nature has only increased. From letter writing, support groups, and the invention of the telephone to political parties, crowdsourcing, and the Internet, we are perpetually seeking new and better ways of finding likeminded people with whom we can connect. In the future, when historians look back at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, the Internet will likely be the single most dominant force that has shifted cultural behavior across the globe. As the Internet has grown and expanded to every corner of the world, it has similarly evolved to offer new services and programs that have dramatically changed its functionality and value to users. When the Internet first began, “surfing” the web for news stories, funny pictures, information, or even early e-commerce opportunities was about the extent of what could be done, and even that was considered revolutionary.
Over the next three decades, the explosion of the Internet, both in terms of popularity and functionality, has completely changed the way that the world operates. Business can be conducted on opposite sides of the world at the touch of a button, video conferencing between different continents is an everyday practice, e-commerce is now a trillion-dollar industry, and people across the world are communicating, sharing, falling in love, and developing connections via countless social media platforms. Whereas the Internet used to be a novel distraction and a useful tool, it has now become a way of life, and a part of our modern culture that seems impossible to live without. The advent of smartphones that constantly connect people to the Internet seem to be in every hand from Shanghai to Stockholm and this perpetual state of being connected has become essential to our lives. Without mapping programs, most people wouldn’t be able to get from Point A to Point B, even in their own city, while up-to-the minute restaurant reviews and discount promotions dictate where we eat. Our ideological beliefs are shaped and tweaked by the news stories that trend on the top of the search engines or on the front page of online newspapers, and even our forms of literature have gone digital, signaling the beginning of the end for books and magazines.
There has been a monumental shift in our social behavior as of late, and the most recent and perhaps most pervasive has been through social media. The Internet has been steadily increasing in popularity since it first clicked online, but social media has been a phenomenon like no other, overshadowing ecommerce or telecommunications in terms of global impact. In fact, social media has enveloped some of the other elements of the Internet and merged with them, like an invasive and ingenious virus, thereby becoming inseparable from the online experience. A recent survey revealed that Americans alone spent 121 billion minutes on social media platforms in a single month in July of 2012. That is a staggering figure, but when you break it down to more manageable measurements, it is even more shocking. That equals 6.5 hours of time spent on social media platforms per month is every person in America had access to a computer or used the Internet (which they don’t). The most stunning way to look at it is that 121 billion minutes equals 230,060 years, and that is only in a single month, in a single country. The frightening reality of how much time is actually being spent staring at other people’s vacation photos, reading about the banalities of other acquaintances’ lives, or laughing at clever tweets from your favorite celebrities is a subject best left for another book entirely. However, those numbers can’t be denied – social media has become a popular addiction that is increasing every single year. The question is: why?
When trying to explain the popularity of the Internet itself, the easiest explanation would waver somewhere between convenience and novelty, but when it comes to social media, the reason for such global popularity is something entirely different. Remaining connected and sharing parts of your life with other is certainly the proposed value that social media platforms declare, but the actual cause behind spending hundreds of thousands of cumulative years on these social media sites is something quite different – validation. There is no greater example of this than the use and monopolizing popularity of one particular social media site: YouTube.
The word “validation” has a wide range of interpretations depending on the context, but when it comes to what YouTube has been primarily used for in the first decade of its existence has been the personal publication of people, spreading videos of themselves doing hilarious activities, performing, video blogging, and dozens of other common video themes with the intention of “broadcasting themselves” to the world. Before YouTube, the process of becoming famous was a rather cut-and-dry idea. Discover a talent, work for years or decades to perfect it, and then hope to get discovered. There was always the occasional overnight star that leapt to the front of the proverbial pack, but generally, the chances of an average person sitting in their bedroom becoming a celebrity was infinitesimally small. YouTube changed all that. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have become viral sensations and online celebrities, some of whom have even crossed over into “real world” careers as writers, entertainers, performers, pundits, or pop culture icons. For example, when Psy, a Korean singer, released “Gangnam Style”, the current leader of YouTube’s viewing rankings at over 2 billion views, he was a rather unknown performer in Asia that primarily geared his craft towards older Korean audiences. He is now a globally recognized singer that has an extremely successful career and legendary status on the social media video sharing site. There are millions of other people who have tried desperately to achieve the same type of fame, one-upping their competitors with wilder stunts and more amusing videos in the hopes of reaching some type of digital fame.
It is a personal publishing platform the like of which has never existed, and with every additional view that ticks over on a person’s uploaded video, some modicum of validation flows their way. In our increasingly competitive modern world, with standards of beauty and talent constantly on the rise, digital validation and online fame is a form of cultural capital, and just as millions of people crave wealth and power, just as many people want to gather as much of this intangible capital as possible. Receiving a compliment on your outfit from a stranger on the street is a form of validation, and so is receiving a “thumbs up” on your YouTube video (or a like on Facebook, or a re-tweet on Twitter). It means that you’re doing something right, entertaining others, and “succeeding” in some inexplicable way that has managed to become addicting and wildly attractive to the millions of people who have uploaded over 120,000,000 videos to the site since its inception in 2005.
The functionality of YouTube hasn’t stopped at simply being a self-promoting tool for people with a camcorder and free time; it has also become one of the world’s largest educational forums, with thousands of hours of videos teaching everything from how to build a paper airplane to university-level lectures on astrophysics and sociology. The world’s largest university, Khan University, lives exclusively on YouTube and has provided educational access on any imaginable subject to millions of people around the globe. The popularity of YouTube is derived primarily from the fact that regular people can significantly impact the lives of others in a measurable and comparative way. The view counter and the rating system of videos are two of the most simplistic measurements imaginable, and yet they once again provide validation for those who might otherwise feel average, unremarkable, or unnoticed by the world at large.
It can be argued that YouTube, other social media platforms, and the Internet as a whole are means of expanding a person’s purpose and impact in the world. It can be quite easy to feel insignificant as globalization continues to unite the more than 7.2 billion people on the planet, and social media platforms of all kinds have enabled normal people to expand their networks to feel like more recognized, known, and useful actors on the global stage.
Twitter has recently become the most popular social media platform on the Internet, surpassing Facebook, which had held that top spot for a number of years. While the concept of social media is largely the same, regardless of the platform in question, there are some dramatically different details or intentions behind them. For example, Facebook is meant to share content and communicate with people you know or would like to know better, while the basic intention of Twitter is to acquire as many followers as possible, even if they are complete strangers. People often talk about purging their Facebook so they streamline the people they get information about, while Twitter users are desperate to increase their presence in the network. They follow celebrities, pundits, athletes, and comedians, as well as their friends and other unknown individuals that may have entertained them with a single tweet a few years ago. Exponential growth on Twitter is like having a video go viral on YouTube; you don’t care who is watching it or paying attention, as long as someone is.
Twitter can be used to spread news very quickly, increase awareness about hot issues, or promote yourself, much like YouTube. However, more and more, social media platforms are being taken over by corporations, just like the fate of other media platforms in the past. They track users’ actions, advertise their products, and try to manipulate the activity of users by customized marketing. When we talk about popularity, it is not only from the perspective of individual users; larger interests in the business world have also discovered the value and profitability of social media, and have begun to shape those platforms for their own ends. The evolution of social media, just like the Internet as a whole, is influenced by both user creativity and commercial interests; even that conflicting relationship increases awareness and use of these websites.
Free speech has experienced a Renaissance (or perhaps a revolution) on the Internet, and social media platforms enable that in a globally impactful way that has never been done before. That is the final, and perhaps most positive, aspect of the Internet’s popularity. Every single person has a voice, whether to speak out about themselves (validation) or about issues that they are interested in (engaging with likeminded people). In a world where it often seems that the individual is powerless, the Internet provides an avenue to reappropriate some control over their sphere of influence, even if that small amount of control is somewhat illusionary. Gaining popularity on the Internet is about empowering users to make a difference in their own lives or the lives of people to whom they are connected. Whether that means sharing a video of themselves doing a backflip into a pool, disseminating a picture of their wedding day, or engaging in an intense debate about international relations with strangers on the other side of the planet, social media and the interconnectivity that so many of us now take for granted is perhaps the most powerful tool that individuals have to carve out their own niche in the world.