Has Social Media Simply Created The Illusion Of Choice?

  • Author: Lauren
  • Lauren Fisher,

For hundreds and thousands of years, we have been able to communicate with each other through various means. Whether through written communications that took months to cross the world, through verbal communication when the first phone lines were installed to current methods where you can communicate anything you want, as quickly as you want.

There has always been some form of media that has joined us together as disparate societies. However, expensive or remote these methods may have been at the time, we have had the tools to communicate together in some form.

But the democratising effect of social media means that is truer now than ever before. Through access to increasingly cheap technologies, we can connect with individuals without fear of restriction from geographical boundaries. This has crossed over into industry, where it is now cheaper than ever to build and market a company online with publishing platforms such as the iPhone App Store, enabling people with no office or money to their name to build scalable products.

To this end, social media has created choice. Choice about who we connect with, who we buy from, and even what news source we choose to believe - from the publishing monoliths to the independent bloggers. We have the tools that seemingly enable choice, but is this really the case?

Globalisation For Good?

Social media has clearly been a defining force in the growth of globalisation, due to its ability to easily connect us: It has created an endless myriad of communication networks that we can readily build ourselves. If we take Anthony Giddens' definition of globalisation, it is difficult to argue that, with the advent of social technologies, this isn't the case:

"Globalization can thus be defined as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa."

Yet if we follow Naomi Klein's thoughts on globalisation, we begin to get a different picture. In her seminal work 'No Logo,' she argued that globalisation merely created the illusion of choice, whereas in actual fact, the consumer was left with a reduced choice as the monopoly brands took hold and quashed the independents - boosted by access to communication tools that allowed for mass marketing - to spread 'the' brand message. Again, while social media may have seemed to reverse this trend, that's not necessarily the case.

Owned By The Medium

While the internet has facilitated global communication, we still need publishing platforms in order to get our message across, whether this is through a tweet, a status update, a blog post or a Skype chat. And this is where the idea of the illusion of choice begins to take hold. We have become reliant on these technologies to the extent that while we once had a sense of ownership over our medium of choice, the medium now owns us. Therefore, this ownership is falling into an increasingly small number of rather large hands.

The tools are in place to allow for publishing by individuals and a new platform in which to reach your audience, yet the numbers tell a different story. If we take the mobile app economy, figures show that in 2012, 89% of app downloads will be free apps:

This doesn't exactly support the idea of more jobs and more money flowing as a result of the globalising effect of social technologies. What it instead shows is that those that are benefiting are large organisations who can afford to take a hit and view the app platforms as a marketing method as opposed to generating income. Also, take a closer look at these 10 billion downloads and the concentration of traffic is alarming. For example, in the travel sector, Google Maps accounted for 78% of time spent in the travel category in one month in 2012.

Or how about the fact that the top five app downloads are Facebook, YouTube, Android Market, Google Search and Gmail. Given that Google owns YouTube, Android and Gmail, this means that the top five app downloads are from two companies - Facebook and Google - which extends into other media. Take a look at the top five Facebook Pages currently:

Take into account the fact that 12% of Facebook's revenue in 2011 came from Zynga (who own Texas Hold 'Em) and again concentration is within just two very large companies. And just in case you needed any more convincing, the top two websites by traffic show the same pattern:

Closed Ownership

A worrying trend combined with this is the rate at which these top companies are scooping up emerging talent. Again, a positive effect of the globalisation of social media is the ability for entrepreneurs to create businesses that never would have had an opportunity before. However, far too often, the route to business is to simply be acquired by a Google, Facebook, Microsoft or similar.

As of August 2012, Facebook has made over 30 acquisitions, Google made 110, Apple made 38 and Microsoft made 165. That's more than 340 companies in the technology space acquired by just four companies, not even counting the businesses they have invested in. Yet, very few of these end up as their own identities as they become swallowed up by the giant brands - essentially becoming an acquihire.

Given how much of our time data we are handing over on a daily basis to these companies, this illusion of choice then becomes quite worrying for it is just that. Having the means to create a platform for your own voice is one thing, but if nobody's actually watching you, buying your products, or if ownership of that voice is concentrated under a few giant entities, then the illusion is completely shattered.

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