Social media: Changing the shared experience

Were the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games the first “social media Olympics”?

UBC sociologist Christopher Schneider, who studies social media and their impact on our lives, says coverage of the Games moved far beyond entertainment to become infotainment. He says social media technology such as Facebook and Twitter are changing the way that we experience spectacular social events such as the Olympics, and even how we interact with the world.

“News agencies have changed the model and structure of their format to better reflect recent developments in social media,” says Schneider, an assistant professor of sociology at UBC’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, B.C.

“With social media, you are in the know in a very real sense, in real time. You can watch television and be in the know with those who are immediately around you, but with social media you can be in the know and interact with others who are in the know anywhere.”

Broadcasters reported that about two-thirds of the Canadian population watched the men’s hockey gold medal game, the most watched broadcast in Canadian history.

“People were watching live on television, the Internet, on cell phones and participating in real time in other social media venues like Facebook, Twitter and on blogs,” says Schneider. “I suspect, in part, that’s a big reason why the numbers of followers were larger than they have been — because this really has been the first social media Olympics.

“Information gathering and dissemination, like never before, is now instantaneous through a multitude of outlets from a variety of people, from individual citizens to Olympic athletes,” he says.

The International Olympic Committee, for example, had a Facebook page with more than one million followers and Twitter published a list of ‘verified’ Tweeting athletes.

Social media have dramatically influenced how messages are modified, packaged, shaped and disseminated to various audiences, and Schneider points out that these messages communicate values and cultural norms.

“They have moved communication and information beyond the scope of traditional media such as print, radio and television,” Schneider says. “As a result, audience expectations have shifted coverage of the Olympics and other social events from an entertainment-oriented format to an infotainment-driven format.”

The emergence of social media is driving dramatic changes in social interaction and communication.

“Many of us already interact daily with others in a mediated context — for instance, we play hockey, bowl, golf and even exercise with others, to name a few activities,” says Schneider.

For people using social media, the once-primary role of face-to-face communication becomes relegated to a secondary feature of social interaction. “For the first time in history, the possibility exists for all human interaction to occur in a mediated realm,” he says.

Controlling the message

The expansion of social media into our everyday lives has altered the political and cultural landscape, says Schneider, explaining that this has led to changes in social control — the ability to define a situation so that people behave in a particular or desired manner.

Social media are directly responsible for the emergence of the omnipresent citizen journalist, for example. Spectators, athletes, and others now disseminate messages associated with social events like the Winter Games, often in real time.

“Seemingly everyone has become a journalist, a reporter or narrator of events, while control and sponsorship of information has become increasingly important,” says Schneider. “Consider recent changes in police surveillance tactics. For example, Indigenous activist Dustin Rivers was questioned by police over some critical content posted on his weblog in relation to the 2010 Olympics.”

The control and spread of information has also been a recent issue for organizations like the police. Examples include the citizen video-recorded death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport, and a somewhat lesser-known incident in which a video posted on the social media site YouTube exposed an undercover police operation at the 2007 Montebello summit in Quebec.

In these instances, surveillance — a basic feature of social control — becomes a normalized, routine feature of everyday life. The spread and acceptance of social media have helped to promote and normalize surveillance while also eliminating traditional barriers between public and private life, and Schneider contends that all life is becoming mediated, “the long-term consequences of which are unknown.”

Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, creator of the expression “the medium is the message,” argued essentially that the delivery medium of information is, in fact, more important than the delivery of the information itself.

“In this sense, technology is the message,” Schneider says. “And it has increasingly changed the way in which people consume the Olympics and other social events.”