Social media is turning 25. Should we be celebrating?

Divided attitudes must not distract from the vast changes digital communication has had on our world, largely for the better

Half of the world's population are thought to have social media accounts. Reuters

Social media turned 25 this year. One contender for the title "world's first social media platform" was Sweden's LunarStorm. Originally called Stajlplejs (style place), this teen-orientated site was launched in 1996. Another contender, founded around the same time, was This US-based platform included now-familiar features, such as creating personal profiles and maintaining lists of friends. Another could be ICQ, an early example of an instant messaging service.

In the quarter of a century that has passed since the launch of these trailblazing platforms, social media has changed the world, revolutionising the way we communicate and relate to one another. Kepios, a management advisory service, reports that as of July 2021, just over half the people on Earth (4.48 billion people) now have active social media accounts.

Success doesn't always breed contempt, but it does attract closer scrutiny. In recent years, we have started to become a little more critical of social media. The "techlash", as it has been termed, gives voice to serious concerns about social media privacy, manipulation, addiction and more. These concerns are well-founded and we do need to keep a critical eye on these popular, globally powerful platforms.

However, on the silver jubilee of social media, I would like to celebrate a few things that are right with social media and look at the diverse ways these platforms have improved our lives, promoted our health and helped bring about positive social change. You don't get to 4.5 billion subscribers without offering at least a little social good.

Social media platforms allow us to vent our feelings, get things off our chest and connect with sympathetic ears during difficult times. More formally, social media platforms have also been used to deliver youth-focused mental health interventions. Using social media this way can overcome barriers to treatment, offering support to those who might be reluctant to seek help through more traditional channels.

A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research in 2018 explored the outcomes of using social media in this innovative way. Overall, the results were promising. Social media-based interventions helped reduce depressive symptoms and led to increased mental health knowledge.

GameStop logo is seen in front of displayed Reddit logo in this illustration taken February 2, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

Similarly, in the field of public health, social media can be a force for social good. The ability of social media to connect people is powerful, and that can be particularly helpful when people are trying to change behavioural habits. For example, social media can play a positive role in weight management programmes. The sense of belonging and social support these platforms facilitate helps people stay on course, whether it is trying to lose weight, stop smoking, or other unwanted behaviours.

A review of the research on behaviour change published in the journal BMC Public Health in 2018, concluded that social media for health promotion is a promising future avenue. In general, the early research suggests that social media can increase participants' engagement and provide a cost-effective source of social support.

Outside healthcare, social media has also affected the arts. For example, at the turn of the century, poetry was waning in popularity as a published genre. However, the last few years have witnessed a considerable resurgence and a rise in the sales of poetry books. Some of these works now ride the top of bestseller lists for months.

According to the US National Endowment for the Arts, the number of American 18 to 24-year-olds reading poetry doubled between 2012 and 2017. This poetic renaissance is clearly linked to social media and the emergence of the so-called "Instapoets". Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram give instant access to a broad audience, which has helped reawaken an appreciation for written poetry. It has also made poets such as Rupi Kaur world-famous.

If social media brought out the poet in some, it brought out the journalist in even more. Social media has played an enormous role in democratising the media, giving everyday people potential access to an audience of billions. For example, a simple social media post calling out an unfair business practice or public-service inefficiency can quickly go viral with real-world consequences. In this way, social media continues to move many institutions toward greater transparency and accountability.

Beyond individual organisations, social media appears to be nudging some governments towards greater levels of transparency and accountability, too. In 2019, Statistica, a business data platform, reported a global survey exploring perceptions of government accountability. Their data, collected from over 23,000 participants, suggests that a significant majority of Internet users believe that social media platforms have improved government accountability in most nations. For example, In Kenya, the highest-scoring country, 73 per cent of respondents suggested that social media had meaningfully and positively impacted government accountability.

In his book, Technopoly, Neil Postman writes "new technology does not add or subtract, it changes everything. In the year 1500, 50 years after the printing press was invented, we did not have the old Europe plus the printing press – we had a different Europe." When social media reaches 50, what will our world look like?

Social media can bring about positive change. It is up to us, the toolmakers and tool users, to shape its future.

Published: September 05, 2021, 9:00 AM
Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National